Demolition Man (1993) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

The mystery of the three seashells, finally explained!

Demolition Man is a sci-fi action satire that is rife with commentary about late 20th Century customs and beliefs. It’s the first science-fiction film for action star Sylvester Stallone, and a break-out role for actress Sandra Bullock. It also gets mixed reviews. What makes the film so weird and appealing? Why is this still a film being discussed thirty years later? There are no violations of the verbal morality statute in today’s Sci-Fi Saturdays.

First Impressions

The world now has the ability to cryogenically preserve people and correct aberrant behavior. Sgt. John Spartan is wrongfully convicted and put into cryo-sleep for 70 years. In 2032, Simon Phoenix, a sociopath that has somehow escaped cryo-sleep, wreaks havoc and Spartan is revived to help fight him. He is the Demolition Man. Stallone and Snipes. Explosions and guns. Death and mayhem.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Demolition Man

Demolition Man title card.

The Fiction of The Film

In Los Angeles, in 1996, LAPD officer John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) single-handedly enters a warehouse where notorious gangster Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) is holed up. Spartan is attempting to rescue 30 hostages taken by Phoenix. He is a one man army, easily dispatching the henchmen, but finds no hostages–only Phoenix. Through his actions, Spartan triggers an explosion that decimates the entire building, but both he and Phoenix survive–the latter accusing him of sacrificing the hostages’ lives to get at Phoenix. Both Phoenix and Spartan are placed in cryo chambers and frozen for their crimes. Spartan receives a 70-year sentence, which includes behavior alterations while the convicts “sleep.”

Thirty-six years later, in 2032, the Southern California cities of Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego have all merged to form San Angeles after the big 2010 earthquake decimated most of the coastal cities. A visionary man, Dr. Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne), has created a utopian society in San Angeles where crime, poverty, social inequity are a thing of the past. Phoenix is brought out of stasis for a parole hearing, knowing all about the computer controlled future he exists in, and escapes. He begins wantonly killing guards and police officers, known in future-speak as “murderdeathkill,” the first reported homicides in 16 years.

Young SAPD Officer Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock) is shocked by the savagery of Phoenix, but also slightly titillated–having been a fan of 20th Century society and culture. An older officer named Zach Lamb (Bill Cobb) remembers Phoenix from his youth, as well as John Spartan, and this causes Huxley to suggest to Chief George Earle (Bob Gunton) that Spartan might be their only chance of stopping this sociopath. Spartan is thawed out, and quickly finds out that the world has changed immensely since he was frozen. Sex, or any exchange of bodily fluids, is now forbidden, swearing mandates an automatic fine by computer terminals located everywhere, and Taco Bell is the sole remaining restaurant, having “won” the franchise wars.

Demolition Man

If crime is the disease, then the Demolition Man, John Spartan, is the cure!

Spartan is quick to deduce where Phoenix will go and what he will do next. Unfortunately the police officers of 2032 are no match for his brutality, being caught completely unaware. Phoenix steals some guns from the “Hall of Violence” in a local museum and attempts to shoot Dr. Cocteau, who is walking by. He is unable to do so, and Cocteau suggests that he follow the thought floating through his barbaric head, kill Edgar Friendly (Denis Leary). Friendly is the leader of the Scraps, a group of citizens that live underground, and emerge only to steal food to survive. He preaches the dangers of Cocteau’s utopia, and does his best to sow discord when necessary. Cocteau has engineered Phoenix’s escape to kill Friendly thereby “saving” his society.

Spartan and Huxley soon find proof that Cocteau instigated the whole escape, and team up with Friendly and his Scraps in order to stop Phoenix. While underground, Spartan is taunted by Phoenix who reveals that the hostages from 1996 were already dead, and it was his way of stopping the officer for good. Phoenix gets Cocteau to release more 20th Century prisoners to help sow discord. Unable to kill Cocteau himself, due to the mental programming, Phoenix orders one of his associates to do it instead. With Cocteau dead, Phoenix begins to re-establish hsi criminal enterprise, thawing out other prisoners.

Against the wishes of her superiors, Huxley aides Spartan in breaking into the cryo-prison before being incapacitated by the former LAPD Officer. Spartan continues his fight with Phoenix but is caught in a large piece of machinery used to remove the “pucks” containing the cryo-prisoners. Spartan manages to spray the room, and Phoenix, with the cryo-fluid and dislodges a pellet that instantly freezes everything. Swinging by on the machine, Spartan kicks the frozen Phoenix, dislodging his head which shatters on the floor. The police fear that with Cocteau dead their society will collapse, but Spartan suggests that they work closely with the Scraps to really create a better society. Spartan and Huxley kiss and drive off into the city.

Send a maniac to catch a maniac” – John Spartan

Demolition Man

Who’s a hockey puck now? Spartan is frozen on ice in what appears to be a painful and cruel rehabilitation.

History in the Making

Sci-Fi Saturdays would like to welcome Sylvester Stallone this week in his first (of two) science-fiction films, Demolition Man. As one of the quintessential action performers from the 80s and 90s, along with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Noris, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, this would mark his first foray into the world of sci-fi (with his other film being Judge Dredd). Stallone, famous of course for the Rocky and Rambo franchises, had begun branching out in the late 80s. He made the popular action films Tango & Cash and Cliffhanger (which were stand alone films) and tried his hand with comedy in the uneven Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Wesley Snipes was on the opposite track, moving from comedies like Wildcats and Major League to action films like Passenger 57 and Rising Sun. Demolition Man presents Snipes as probably the most bad-ass villain he has ever played, presented in a completely over-the-top way (but not the same Over The Top that Stallone was a part of). The film also gave audiences probably their first mainstream look at Sandra Bullock, who would go on to dominate 90s rom-coms as well as becoming a successful producer. She may have been known to a few people for her parts in Love Potion No 9 or The Thing Called Love, but for anyone that missed her here, they definitely saw her in her next breakout film, 1994s Speed with Keanu Reeves.

It was the first film for director Marco Brambilla who had worked on music videos prior to this. His glossy visuals do help contrast the time periods and sell the absurdity of the more politically correct future. It did have a group of writers that were well versed in the action genre however with Daniel Waters having written The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990), Hudson Hawk (1991), and Batman Returns (1992), and Robert Reneau having written Action Jackson (1988). The film makes use of dozens of classic sci-fi tropes about futuristic society intertwined with a typical action film from the era. Additionally, it serves all of this together in a satirical look at modern-day society and where the world of the 1990s was headed, should it continue on its present course. And while the film does come off as a moderate action flick from the time, it functions more in the capacity of mocking the conventions of modern life. The action elements are used to subvert the social commentary and point out the absurdity of certain 90s beliefs.

Demolition Man

SAPD’s finest. Rob Schneider makes an uncredited cameo as an officer that provides comical moments. A role he would reprise in Stallone’s Judge Dredd.


Demolition Man creates a version of the future that was not often seen at the time, nor in general, and that is of an apparent utopia. The film starts in 1996 (three years after the release of the film) in what seems a bit of a dystopian extrapolation of the early 90s. Simon Phoenix, who uses the same catch-phrase as the villain in Die Hard With A Vengeance would (“Simon says!”), is a larger than life crime boss in a Los Angeles that seems to have gone downhill since the LA Riots of 1992. It’s a world where Dr. Cocteau has started the first cryo-prisons to rehabilitate criminals via “synaptic suggestion.” Jump thirty-six years into the future where San Angeles appears to be an idyllic utopia. Of course, the truth that is revealed is that this place is only a utopia for some people, as many utopias are eventually revealed to be. San Angeles has become one large city run by the morals and ideals of a single man, Raymond Cocteau. As with many other utopian/dystopian sci-fi futures, like Fahrenheit 451, Logan’s Run, or even Z.P.G., this world has the stink of a totalitarian regime under its pristine, glossy exterior.

The technology of the film’s future tries hard to show the advancements from the current year, even though it’s only 39 years away. In the pre-internet release date of the film, there are computerized kiosks around town, like phone booths, that citizens can use to request data. Cocteau’s board room is made up of rotating screens showing the heads of the members, in one of the earliest depictions of a virtual Zoom-call. There are anti-graffiti nozzles that remove instantly any spray paint, vehicles are equipped with a foam dispersal unit that creates a safety barrier in the event of a crash, and ubiquitous computer consoles, which monitor for free speech violations against the verbal morality statute and issue automatic fines to the users account. It’s unclear if the whole world has adopted this society. It’s more likely that this is a closed society that is under the control of Cocteau’s system, as there’s never a mention of any place else (which is a very Los Angeles-type attitude).

The action elements also pull from late 80s and early 90s cop films. The guns never seem to run out of ammo, the main characters are never hit, and the explosions are extremely flashy and destructive–including ones caused by some of the guns. The future has become enlightened and done away with violence, turning the 20th Century fascination with war and destruction into a wing in a museum for future citizens to gawk at. Even the older police officers, especially Chief Earle, seems not to be able to remember any part of the 20th Century. Maybe older folks have disdain for it, and which is why younger citizens, like Lenina, are so enamored by it. Either way, the truth in the quote that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it seems true. By having lost touch with history less than 40 years old, the society has put itself in a worse place for all the advancements it may have made.

Demolition Man

An almost prescient view of the early 21st Century with remote video calls with board members.

Societal Commentary

Demolition Man should be seen as a satirical look at the metropolitan West Coast of the early 90s. It appears to be a reaction against the political correctness of the time, taking elements to certain hilarious heights. The most notable, and one most often identified with the film is the use of Taco Bell as fine dining. Having been the victor in the “franchise wars,” all restaurants are now Taco Bell. A ludicrous idea, but one that is also ironic in its believability. For having a restaurant that is the fastest fast food around, loaded with fat and sodium, it’s also amusing the list of things that have been outlawed and illegal in this world. Alcohol, caffeine, contact sports, meat, salt, chocolate, gasoline, and anything spicy (how does Taco Bell stay in business), as well as abortion and pregnancy are all listed as illegal in 2036. Sex is not outlawed, but the exchange of bodily fluids is considered social unacceptable, so that’s done through virtual reality headsets now.

This change in society also goes into the overhaul of the criminal justice system. As early as 1996, criminals were frozen with neural implants that would teach them a new skill, basically implanting them with memories against their will. Cocteau’s idea of a better future is the elite telling the “bad” people how to live their lives, by making their decisions for them. Spartan is taught knitting (an ironic twist for the Demolition Man to know how to create a sweater overnight), while Phoenix gets downloaded with tech schematics, weapons and martial arts training, to be used as a tool for Cocteau in the eradication of Edgar Friendly and his Scraps. These outcasts of society seem to be the undereducated, the immigrants, and the poor, very much like the modern world. By the 2036 of Demolition Man, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened, eliminating the middle class, much like in Freejack. Cocteau’s disdain for this social element, and his desire to bend the goal of his society to create a weapon to destroy them shows just how horrible a person he is. In some ways, America is living in a version of this world right now.

Demolition Man

No one seems to remember the violence of the 21st Century, but there’s a wing of a museum devoted to it. Guess that proves no one really visits museums.

The Science in The Fiction

The biggest sci-fi component of the film is the cryo-freezing process. This is where individuals are stripped naked and frozen inside a four foot diameter, two foot thick puck of ice for their rehabilitation process. The process involves applying a cryo-gel to which a pellet of some kind is added which causes the entirety of the puck to freeze solid. Cryonics, which is the freezing of human remains, makes for a great sci-fi trope, usually as a way to preserve a person for space travel (seen in everything from Planet of the Apes to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century to Alien). Here, it’s used as a tool to reform the criminal justice system. Having frozen prisoners, think of the savings in space, food, and shelter that could be achieved. And with Cocteau’s neural implants, the rehabilitation process would ensure compliance. Unfortunately, this is not the way freezing humans for later reanimation would work. The biggest problem is the crystals that would occur on the individual, damaging their tissues, and preventing them from being revived. They are definitely not in any state in which they might dream, as John Spartan indicates. He tells Cocteau that he spent 36 years dreaming hellish nightmares, even when that should have not been possible. So, not only is the process flawed in a technical way, but also in an ethical one as well.

Demolition Man

Ah yes. The three seashells. Please remember to wash hands after use.

The Final Frontier

The name of the film comes from a song of the same name written by Sting, of The Police and included on their Ghost in the Machine album. However many people might not realize that the song was originally provided to Grace Jones earlier in 1981 and released as a single from her album Nightclubbing. Sting provides a new version of the track for the closing credits, which has lines such as “I’m a walking disaster I’m a demolition man,” which here becomes the nickname for John Spartan. The film also makes use of descriptive names for the characters, almost as a shorthand for their personalities. John Spartan is not quite spartan, but he is out of step with the current luxury of the modern world, and a throwback to a simpler time. Simon Phoenix, very much rises again from the ashes of the explosion that consumes his hideout. Lenina Huxley, however, is named after Aldous Huxley, who wrote of the original dystopian future in Brave New World, and Lenina Crowne, who is Huxley’s protagonist in the same story.

Demolition Man seems almost too simplistic now that we are living in the 21st Century. To audiences of 1993 the absurdity and satire was a bit more immediate, given the state of the world. For those that like basic action films, this delivers plenty of moments to cheer about. Stallone’s fish out of water act is humorous and fun. He gets a chance to be upset about all the things that he no longer has access to, plus the film continues the on-film rivalry between himself (Stallone) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (as seen in films like Twins and The Last Action Hero). On one hand it’s hard to take the social issues seriously in the film, since there’s so much insanity surrounding them, but given the last decade or so, these issues seem a lot more familiar than they should. While Demolition Man may not be the best example of a true science-fiction film, it is a great example of early 90s sci-fi. Oh, and those three seashells…you honestly don’t know how those work?

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