Warning: this film is going to take a bit of explaining. Demolition Man was made in 1993. Its opening is set in the then-future of 1996, where a rogue cop called John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) is busy not doing things by the book in order to catch mass murdering maniac Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes). Spartan is accused of killing lots of innocent people in the attack, so both he and phoenix are then incarcerated in cryogenic freezing tanks as their respective punishments. About forty years later, Phoenix is crazier than ever and manages to escape his prison. Spartan is then also defrosted to hunt down Phoenix. Even though they think he killed twenty something people last time. The future they emerge in is almost completely free of violence, which the pair set about to remedy by blowing up everything in sight. I told you it would take a lot of explaining.
It’s really hard to tell from the film itself how much of this absurd caper is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. It’s the most terribly thought-through future I’ve ever seen. Firstly, what benefit would cryogenically freezing prisoners have? They can’t reform, they don’t have to suffer being incarcerated, but they also won’t die. What purpose does this then serve? Other than to spite your ancestors on whom they will eventually wreak havoc.
In this vision of the future, about twenty years away from where we are now, the way people talk has changed, but not in any logical way. They call people by both their first and last name all the time, which creates problems when your main character has the ludicrous name of John Spartan. They also refer to morning as “a.m” and afternoon as “p.m.” all the time, and measure even long distances in millimetres (“he’s 1200mm away from you”).
They don’t say “hey, how’s it going?”, they say “be well”, and all behave like weird robots. It’s like the film makers wanted to make things different, but had no capacity to imagine what the future might actually be like. It’s only set in the 2030s, but the people treat Spartan like an alien or, well, an actual Spartan, and stuff from the 20th century is in museums rather than just being in, y’know, people’s houses, like it actually will be. Why not just set it 100 years in the future instead?
One thing that stands in its favour is Wesley Snipes, who really has fun with his larger-than-life supervillain, and kicks ass with impressive style and grace. Luckily he’s now out of prison, so should make it into The Expendables 3.
There are a few moments which are clearly supposed to be self-aware, like a reference to former President Schwarzenegger, met by Stallone’s discomfort, a Lethal Weapon poster in the background, and Futurama-style future jokes like Spartan saying “they’ll let anybody into this century.” Yet this isn’t enough to excuse the whole film.
Often “tongue-in-cheek” or “it was supposed to be like that” are just used as excuses for badly written stories with ill-thought-through scripts, and this seems to be the case here. It lurches from stupid scenario to stupid scenario with an ending cheesier than Switzerland. It’s seems like Stallone is attempting to make his own version of the also absurd Total “get your ass to Mars” Recall, and the result is jaw-droppingly ridiculous.
As a science fiction film, Demolition Man is absolutely terrible, but may still be worth a watch for the sheer absurdity of it all, and to make you appreciate the fact that films like this were left in the 90s.