Demolition Man

(Marco Brambilla, USA, 1993)


All Categories of Chaos

Despite what you may have heard, the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Demolition Man is a smart, funny, knowing film.

It reminds me of a lot of intricate, spectacular films (in the manner of John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China [1986] or John Woo‘s Hard Boiled  [1992]) that mix durable action formulae with jokes about contemporary manners and lifestyles, and then go one step further by introducing a more combustible component, fragments from ongoing popular discourse over hot social issues.

Is it a typically reactionary film in which Sly wields immense amounts of physical violence to save the world from the evils of political correctness, as so many reports and reviews have either gleefully or sorrowfully indicated?

The answer has to be the same as for many a popular film: yes and no. Certainly, nothing is to be gained for our understanding of culture by starting from a point that overlooks or denies the film’s own canniness, its own sense of what it’s taking on and playing with. Here, after all, is a violent movie in which Spartan (Stallone), the cop from our time, chastises his colleagues of the future for thinking they are shooting up bad guys in the Wild West – and then thoughtfully adds, like a good media student, that even the Wild West represented in movies is not a truthful picture of the historical Wild West. Then there are all the in-genre jokes about Jackie Chan as a future hero of American culture, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as a future President … (“Wasn’t he an actor in your time?” Spartan is innocently asked).

Demolition Man, directed by Marco Brambilla, belongs to a recent but sturdy sub-genre of SF-fantasy cinema – one that is single-mindedly devoted to a "nostalgia for the present". It has long been said of SF literature that its visions of futuristic worlds – whether utopian or dystopian – function as veiled, symbolic, often highly critical commentaries on our present society. Show a future world based on mind control, ruthless capitalist greed and pervasive interpersonal alienation, and you are implicitly drawing attention to the seed, or the full-blown actuality, of these phenomena as they already exist.

Recent movies, particularly those using a time-travel plot device like the Back to the Future series, give this hallowed artistic function a weird and potentially quite reactionary twist. Now these screen portraits of a hideously decaying and corrupt future are essentially put into play to convince us that our only slightly less decaying and corrupt present really isn’t so bad after all. This is the It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) principle of popular culture bequeathed to us by Frank Capra and Classical Hollywood: the best, most passionate and persuasive apologia for the status quo is to flash up an "alternate reality" so completely deformed and soulless that no one could possibly argue that returning to the world as we know it is anything but a blessed relief. Demolition Man is very big on nostalgia for the present, right down to casting Stallone’s feisty leading lady, Nina the cop (Sandra Bullock), as a nostalgia freak with a thing for the twentieth century (especially, as it turns out, a super-kitschified pop version of the 1970s).

Demolition Man is a film about masculinity – casually so, but it’s there. In an article on muscle men and women of the screen, Angela Ndalianis refers to the way in which the build-up of bulk in stars like Schwarzenegger irresistibly generates an excessive, comic-book parody of the impossible phallic ideal. The way in which this film secures a place for Stallone within the SF branch of the hyper-masculine trend in contemporary cinema is clear: like in Schwarzenegger’s great birth scene in The Terminator (1984), Stallone emerges into the future world of the film naked as the day he was born.

Yet if the camera centres on Stallone’s body in Demolition Man, this exhibitionism comes at a cost. There has often been, in action cinema, a palpable unease accompanying such flagrant display of the male form, even now in the ’90s that male nudity helps sell a vast range of commodities. Stallone naked in Demolition Man harks back to the saucy soft-porn drive-in movies of the 1970s, where men prowled proudly through harems and orgies of all sorts – but always with their genitalia discreetly hidden or shaded.

In Stallone’s films, moreover, male exhibitionism always comes buttressed by a few evergreen compensation mechanisms. In his straight action vehicles like the Rambo movies, thick and humourless, Stallone exposes his flesh on the strict condition that – like Clint Eastwood in the Wild West, Chuck Norris in Vietnam, or Mel Gibson as Mad Max – he is severely ravaged, tortured, burnt and flayed. In short he becomes, at high points of the story, a willing masochist, paying in pain for the sin of narcissism.

In his comedies, on the other hand – especially curious action-comedy hybrids like Tango & Cash (1989) directed by Andrei Konchalovsky – Stallone finds a lighter but no less intriguing form of release. Here, the Stallone persona is shadowed by numerous allusions to gayness, or at the very least a highly feminised mode of masculinity. Demolition Man is full of jokes along these lines. Whenever Nina gets the macho talk of the twentieth century comically wrong, she inadvertently gives it a gay twist: saying variously that Spartan “licked the ass” of a bad guy, “blew him”, or “matched his meat”.

Even better, a plot twist prescribes that, because of scientific tampering, Spartan now has the personality make-up of a seamstress. This is a fairly senseless narrative device in the total context of the film, but it’s in there to cue some great, indispensable sights and one-liners: Spartan unfussedly knitting a woollen jumper for Nina; and later emerging from a spectacular car accident with his clothes torn, but certain that he can fix the damage with a needle and thread. (“I can’t believe I said that,” he immediately adds in a comic double-take.)

Much of the commentary surrounding Demolition Man has referred to it as a PC story – one of the first in what may turn out to be a wave of popular movies taking on the public debate about political correctness. Of course, by the time any hot topic which has done the rounds of the media circus makes it onto the screen, it is likely to have mutated into something strange and unrecognisable – partly because the social issue in question has to be carefully moulded to fit pre-existing film genre conventions and biases. This is certainly what has happened with most recent films dealing with questions of date rape, sexual harassment, homelessness and the dysfunctional family – just to name those items high on the talk-show hit list of the early 1990s.

Even before we get to movies, the public debate on PC has undergone a staggering number of transformations in its quick trip around the globe. As Spy magazine once hilariously demonstrated, "politically correct" has become a favoured journalistic adjective, a vague but almost always effective form of instant abuse indiscriminately applied to anything anyone dislikes, from the latest piece of legislative reform to Dances with Wolves (1990). It has got to the point where, if someone starts denouncing "PC panic", it sometimes takes a moment to figure out whether they mean the rigid, left-wing persecution of basic human drives (as in Stalinism), or the hysterical, right-wing persecution of any gesture or action that could be construed as even faintly liberal or progressive (as in McCarthyism).

If anyone could watch Demolition Man completely innocent of the heated rhetoric on PC, they would probably have very little idea of how and where all the fuss around this issue started in the first place. The film is a million miles away from arguments about the censoring of “dead white males” in university curricula, or paranoid suspicions of the fascistic rise of French-derived anti-humanist theories into a new and tyrannical intellectual orthodoxy. From the evidence of the film itself, I would guess the people who made it might only sympathise with Noam Chomsky’s matter-of-fact assertion that PC panic (of the right-wing, McCarthyist variety) is plainly “a last ditch effort to try and overcome the fact that many people really are opposed to racist and sexist oppression, aggression and terror, and have respect for other cultures and people, a concern for the environment and the future, and other evil ideas which, naturally, horrify the respectable”.

Yet Demolition Man is nonetheless implicated in the PC debate. I would say that the film adopts some of the emotional colourings, but not the full political agenda, of the anti-PC campaign. It stays a user-friendly film in that its target is not left-wing ideology, but something vaguer, an enemy that most of us can agree to dislike: Puritanism. It may only be a tiny step in the general public consciousness (fed as it is by the most reactionary elements of the mass media) from "coldhearted puritan" to "left wing ideologue", but the movie, at least, neglects to make this step. And its certain aim, too, is to “horrify the respectable”.

The Puritanism bucketed by Stallone in Demolition Man is a rather fanciful and entirely entrancing mixture of peace-and-love dreams culled from sources ranging from the hippie ’60s through to the New Age ’90s, rigid fundamentalist codes governing everyday behaviour, and an imagined high culture asceticism. It’s something to see: a mélange (on which the film expends a lot of time and detail) of soft-spoken elders (led by the sinister Dr. Cocteau [Nigel Hawthorne]) in flowing Greek robes, like one of those horrible Ideal Societies regularly encountered on Star Trek; taboos on everything from sex and smoking to toys and swearing (an infringement of the "Verbal Morality Statute"); endless feel-good phrases everywhere, from mouths and machines, about the “joy-joy” of “being well”. And – horror of horrors – real rock music that has been replaced not by enforced classical music but an endless transmission of ad jingles from our time. (One future cop sings distractedly on the job: “My dog’s better than your dog …”)

You can’t but agree even with bad boy Wesley Snipes when he remarks that the future has become “a pussy-whipped, Brady Bunch version of itself”. Snipes as Phoenix remains the villain of the piece – in the climactic moments of the story, he plans to revive a string of famous serial killers to help him rule the world – but the bad manners he embodies at an extreme are what the film upholds – in moderation. The good version of Phoenix is the underground rebel leader Edgar (Denis Leary): he’s something out of a teen movie, wanting to party all night, roar down the main street on his bike and eat junk food. In the coda, Stallone sets out the magic formula: those who have been hitherto brainwashed by this PC society need to get a little dirtier, while the wild young rebels need to get a little cleaner … and the world will work itself out somewhere in the middle of these extremes.

There is a touch of the nastier aspects of current PC panic in Demolition Man – an occasional barbed gag which expresses resentment over the supposed privileges now being handed holus-bolus over to America’s oppressed peoples, like gays and Hispanics. But the film, being a proud, populist entertainment, simply cannot hold to this lack of generosity for very long. In the course of the story, one especially pussy-whipped cop ends up being dubbed Pancho Villa by an admiring Spartan; and even Dr. Cocteau’s super-effete assistant joins forces and swigs drinks with Edgar in the final frames. And, in the current climate of debate, the film is admirably progressive in one, important respect: it does not blame the puritan excesses of PC on women. (Indeed, it strains in the other direction, making Nina the repository of all those decent, individualistic human impulses that have survived in this hellish future.)

Demolition Man is also a film about violence – about the ethics of violence in a violent society. The film really only flirts with this topic; like many of us, it doesn’t have much of a clue as to what to think or say on the matter. For the most part, it remains content to fall back on the in-built conservative ideology intrinsic to the cinema’s glorious genre of cops and criminals. This ideology, the ideology of the Dirty Harry movies, the Death Wish movies, Michael Cimino’s and Abel Ferrara’s movies, is simply stated: you need some pretty bad guys on this side of the law to fight the really bad guys on the other side; you need to spill a little cursed blood to save a lot more civilian blood. Such a viewpoint is put in a nutshell when it is said to Spartan that his violent behaviour “was unacceptable even in your time” – to which he brutally replies, “but it worked”. What a nostalgia for the present!

Then there are the jokes in the film which downplay the life-and-death aspects of violence, jokes portraying aggro as just an ordinary part of a life that is both clean and dirty: the little girl, rescued by Spartan and riding on his shoulders, who turns to a callous reporter and shouts “fuck you!”; the amazing moment, in the middle of one of his socially conscious sermons, where Spartan asserts that hurting people is not fun – and then Stallone steps out of the character to add the cheeky aside, “well, sometimes, it is”.

And finally, there’s popular cinema’s ever-ambivalent attitude toward the "demolition" marked in the film’s title – what Walter Benjamin once called the “destructive character” typical of our century, the drive to tear down everything now standing, leaving no trace. Why do so many of our most beloved action heroes – whether Stallone or Mel Gibson in the Lethal Weapon films or Chow Yun-Fat in John Woo’s Hong Kong extravaganzas – regularly leave every site in which they have fought burning to a cinder, or exploding into a million pieces? Why this tendency to maximise (as the film puts it) “all categories of chaos”? Oddly enough, one answer to these questions, as implied by the films themselves, is a fully positive, almost utopian one. At the end of this film, Spartan relievedly muses, “I think I’m gonna like the future…”, and Nina fills in the rest: “… now that you’ve demolished everything.”

© Adrian Martin January 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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