Demolition Man Big Budget Psychotronics
In 1993, Joel Silver brought out what was (for him) a pretty typical action film, Demolition Man starring Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes. Some people may question my classifying it as a psychotronic film because of its budget. But it’s budget, adjusted for inflation wasn’t that much more than the original Star Wars — a film that Micheal Weldon had no problem including in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film.
It’s true, the film looks a lot better than the original version of Star Wars (if you can find it, thank you so much multi-billionaire, George Lucas). According to the director, Marco Brambilla, the reason they were able to make the film so cheaply was that General Motors loaned the production a number of concept vehicles for use in the film. He also states that cars (at least in the time before everything was CGI) were the most expensive part of making a science fiction film.
Much else in the film is typical of exploitation filmmaking, like the use of the building that was already set for demolition. And then, there just isn’t that much in the film that looks all that spectacular. Since they’ve set up a very specific kind of world, almost everything looks like a modern library. So art direction wasn’t a big cost. I suspect that the biggest cost in the film was its cast, especially Stallone and Snipes.
Why the Film Works
What makes the film work is the interactions between the characters and much of the clever writing.
The use of the “morality” devices that monitors for coarse language never gets tired, although it is best when Sandra Bullock (playing Lenina Huxley) says under her breath, “Sanctimonious asshole.” And the device picks it up, saying, “Lenina Huxley, you are fined 1/2 credit for a sotto voce violation of the verbal morality statute.” At other points in the film, you don’t even notice it as in the Taco Bell scene.
Personal scenes include the moment where Bullock and Stallone are going to have sex. In the process, Stallone learns that sex is not quite what it used to be. She says, “Not even mouth transfer is condoned.” So he goes to kiss her and she says, “What are you doing?” Stallone replies, “Breaking the law.” It’s a sweet moment, but Bullock is still a woman of her time. She points to the door and says, “You are a savage creature John Spartan. And I wish you to leave my domicile now!”
Demolition Man starts with a bang — bigger than it will ever be again. Los Angeles is now a lawless area. Even the police don’t go there. (Think Escape From New York — or Escape From LA, but I try not to, even though it does have a campy charm.) Our hero, John Spartan (Stallone) has come there in a helicopter because he thinks the recently kidnapped municipal bus was done by his ultimate enemy, Simon Phoenix (Snipes). Spartan manages to kill all of Simon’s henchmen, but rescues Simon, hoping to find the hostages. After the building is demolished (because Simon set the building to explode), the dead hostages are found and Spartan is, defying even movie logic, convicted of the manslaughter of the 30 people on the bus.
Spartan and Simon to the Future!
Spartan and Simon are both put into cryogenic prison where they will be reformed as they sit as a block of ice for the next 60 years. Yes, yes. This is basically a death sentence for them as far as their loved ones are concerned. But who cares? It’s a Joel Silver action film. If anything really made sense, it would spoil the whole thing. Plus, if this weren’t the case, how would Spartan have the chance to perform the wild mombo with Lexina Huxley (Bullock).
It is now 36 years later, and the world has changed. And really, you would have to say that it is for the better. Los Angeles is no longer on fire. But it has gone too far the other direction. The people of southern California have traded freedom for safety, and as Benjamin Franklin knew, when you do that, you get neither. And we are introduced to Lenina Huxley who understands this. She is a police officer and she is so bored! Nothing ever happens! She’s interested in the world of the violent 1990s the way I am interested in the B-films of the 1950s. But then something happens!
Simon Escapes From Jail
Simon is brought out of his ice-cube state for a parole hearing. Why? You mean Simon gets a parole hearing before Spartan? Okay, that’s the last I’ll bring up realism. But when Simon is in his parole hearing, he surprisingly knows the code to break out of his restraints, “Teddy Bear.” So he kills everyone and then cuts the warden’s eye out so that he can go wherever he wants, because it is all based on retina scans. As a result, he is able to kill a man and steal a car.
At this point, the police decide to defreeze the man who captured Simon in the first place: John Spartan. He finds out that his wife was killed in a large earthquake (convient) and that they don’t know what happened to his daughter. Soon there is an argument about what Simon will do. The Chief of Police (Bob Gunton — who else?) has decided with the help of a computer that Simon will try to set up a drug-dealing operation. Spartan scoffs at this, “You think he wants to start a business?! Pheonix is going for a gun. Plain and simple.” This leads to the revelation that the only place you can even view a gun is in a museum. And thus, we know where bad boy Simon is.
Simon and Spartan at the Museum
So Spartan goes to the museum and fights with Simon. He chases Simon out of the museum where he runs into Raymond Cocteau (Sir Nigel Hawthorne), who is the savior of the city. But Simon can’t seem to shoot him, as would be proper. Cocteau is the man who turned the flaming LA into the utopia it now is. When Spartan shows up, Simon runs away, but it’s clear there is something more going on here. Cocteau isn’t quite the good guy he seems to be.
Obviously pretending that Spartan saved his life, Cocteau invites Spartan and Huxley to dine with him at Taco Bell — an event that is met with great thankfulness on Huxley’s part that Spartan cannot understand. Later Huxley explains that Taco Bell was the only restaurant to survive the “franchise wars” and so now all restaurants are Taco Bell.
Spartan Learns All Is Not as It Seems
After learning that salt is not good for you and thus illegal, Spartan notices that a criminal action is going down. He calls for backup and then fights the intruders. But eventually, he learns that they are just hungry people looking for food. Spartan is fundamentally a liberal character. Yes, he wants to come down hard on bad people, but he says violence isn’t good “when it’s people looking for food.” This is the first indication that Cocteau has that Spartan is going to be a problem.
After the uncomfortable sex scene, Spartan learns that Simon is working for Cocteau (although in Cocteau’s naivete, he doesn’t realize just how little power he has over him).
Spartan Confronts Coceau
The next day, Spartan confronts Couteau, who, in his arrogance, sees his only problem being Spartan, despite the fact that Simon has made it clear that he’s going to wipe up the floor with the Dear Leader. He Tells Huxley to take him back to prison. But instead, Spartan, Huxley, and Alfredo Garcia (Benjamin Bratt) go into the underground. Spartan explains why their citywide search for Simon failed, “Your city-wide manhunt didn’t work because Phoenix was in a place you can’t monitor, are afraid to go, and don’t give a shit about.”
Down in the underground, they find Edgar Friendly, who is kind of the leader of these people. But he doesn’t want much. He just wants the right to eat food that is bad for him. But like villains in films everywhere, Couteau doesn’t want to deal with a very reasonable adversary. He’d rather bring back a really dangerous guy, in this case, Simon Pheonix, who doesn’t just want to eat a hamburger when it suites him, but a guy who wants total control of the city.
Once they are down there, they find a perfectly civilized group of people who aren’t dangerous. They’re just hungry.
From there on, it is is just a fight between Spartan and Simon. It’s clear that the new “perfect” world is over and they are going to get the life we all know and accept: one with enough freedom and enough security that we can manage it. Simon loses and we get a world that isn’t perfect but is good enough.
And Spartan and Huxley kiss and she learns that fluid transfer can be very pleasant.
As we all learn: there is no perfection. There are only levels of acceptable. The world at the beginning and the world Spartan and Simon are released are not acceptable. We accept the imperfect world where we have enough freedom and enough security to allow us to have a good life.
Why You’ll Like This Film
The main reason you will like this film is that it’s clever. It’s an action comedy that really is funny. The joke about Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming president is hilarious, especially since this film came out before he became governor of California.
The performances are also excellent. Stallone is at his best in this kind of role. He parodies himself without really taking away from the drama of the film. And Snipes as his foil is wonderful in being so much unlike Stallone. In fact, most of the time, Snipes is so charming that it’s hard not to like him. He’s almost like a 5-year-old explaining how he has changed the lighting system to use illuminate and deluminate rather than lights and whatever is used to turn them off (no one ever turns lights off in the film.
And, of course, the film flatters the viewer by setting up a system where the viewer can see very clearly what the problem is. Film audiences always like to feel smart, and the only character who seems to understand this is John Spartan himself.
If more big-budget films had this much wit, it would not be such a difficult task of finding a good film to watch. Demolition Man is a hard film not to enjoy.
- Director: Marco Brambilla
- Producers: Joel Silver, Michael Levy, and Howard Kazanjian
- Writers: Daniel Waters (Heathers), Robert Reneau (Action Jackson), Peter M Lenkov
- Cinematographer: Alex Thomson (Dr Phibes Rises Again, Labyrinth)
- Editor: Stuart Baird (Tommy, The Omen)
- Composer: Elliot Goldenthal (Blank Generation, Drugstore Cowboy)
- Actors: Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock, Nigel Hawthorne, Benjamin Bratt, Bob Gunton, Glenn Shadix, and Denis Leary.
Problems With Demolition Man
There are two major plot problems in the film. The first is the biggest. The second is kind of par for the course for these kind of films.
What Ever Happened to John Spartan’s Daughter?
The biggest problem with the film Demolition Man is what happened to his family. We know that his wife died. Spartan asks, “I had a wife. What happened to my wife?” Huxley responds, “Her light was extinguished in The Big One of 2010… She died. In an earthquake. The earthquake.”
Spartan, already devastated before he asked the question, asks another, “I had a daughter… What happened to her?”
At this point, Chief George Earle interrupts with his amazing bedside manner, “John Spantan. I am Chief of Police Goerge Earl. We didn’t thaw you out for a family reunion. Consider it fortunate that the Lieutenant did a probe on your wife.” Earle didn’t like the idea of bringing out Spartan from prison. So he’s not inclined to think much of Spartan or to treat him as a human being.
Even the Police Don’t Know
The truth is that Huxley doesn’t know what happened to Spartan’s daughter. But it is a question that hangs over the film. On a first viewing, it is easy to think that Lenina Huxley is his lost daughter, even though she would probably be a bit young. And with the sexual activity between the two, it can’t be the case. But the viewer is left wondering, “What happened to John Spartan’s daughter?”
Sadly, the question is not answered in the film. And I find it the critical flaw in the film. There are really only two possibilities. First, she could be someone who has accepted the new fascist world. Or she could be one of the people who have followed Edgar Friendly into the underworld.
Spartan’s Daughter: Katherine
There were a lot a screenplay revisions of this film. The first one was by Daniel Waters, and he doesn’t even end up with story credit. But he does seem to be the creator of Katherine, who is John Spartan’s daughter, who is now about ten years older than he is.
She is always introduced right after Spartan is introduced to Edgar Friendly. (Note: Edgar Friendly’s name changes more than any other character in the film.) Katerine is about 50 years old, and when she hears the name “John Spartan,” she approaches him. Depending on the script, she is crying. She says, “John Spartan? The Demolition Man?” He asks if he knows her. She says, “You did. I’m your daughter.”
That’s just perfect, because where would John Spartan’s daughter end up but in the underworld?
Spartan with his daughter Katherine.
The First Meeting
It’s a touching moment. Spartan says, “My Katie! My little Katie!”
She interrupts him, “Little Kate? I’m older than you!”
But then Spartan says with great love, “You’ll always be my little girl, I don’t care how old you are. God, Katie. You’re all grown up. I missed your whole life. I missed everything!”
Katherine shows that she is wiser than he is, “Mom and I always talked about you. I always hoped I would see you one day. I knew I would.”
Spartan wants to know everything. He wants to know what he missed minute by minute. Unfrotunately, Simon is about to blow them both away. So he grabs her and jumps to safety. The runion will have to wait.
As they prepare for battle, Katherine givens John Spartaan his old LAPD shield and puts it around his neck. She tells him not to get killed so they can get to know each other.
The Second Meeting
In one version, Katherine simple asks John Spartan home for dinner. They each kiss each other on the cheek and Huxley says, “That was it? That’s the whole kissing thing? What was Cocteau so worried about?” Spartan lays a real kiss on her to show that not all kisses are the same.
According to Marco Brambilla
I haven’t been able to find the particular screenplay, but in the audio commentary for the film, director Marco Brambilla says that when Spartan crashes his car and there is a confrontation between the police and the underworld-people (“Scraps”), Katherine gives a big speech about freedom. She seems the natural one to combine the two worlds: the old world where freedom had brought on chaos and the new world where security has brought on rigid conformity.
It’s pretty clear that the police are pretty much a thing of the past. Any institution that can’t out-wit Couteau isn’t of much use to anyone.
The Future for Katherine and John
One thing that is clear in these scripted scenes is that Spartan and his daughter are going to have a healthy relationship in the time that they have left in this world. It’s a sweet ending that the production-cut does not provide.
Parts of the Film That Could Have Been Cut
And it makes no sense. Including Katherine in the film would have added at most five minutes. It might have pushed the film over two hours, but there are other things that could have been cut if they were desperate to have the film come in under two hours. Here are just a few ideas of things that could have been shortened or deleted:
- “The Last Mile” bit
- Simon’s fight with the new police
- Couteau’s conference
- De-thawing of Spartan (almost 2 minutes — totally unnecessary)
- Simon in the museum (5 minutes, could have been 4)
- Simon confronts Couteau (2.5 minutes, could be cut down)
- Sex scene lead-in lags
- 1:30 just to go into the underword
- Almost 2:30 of Denis Leary doing his thing — could be cut by a minute
- Over 6 minute car chase
- Over 8 minute final confrontation would have been better at half that length.
So you see, there was a lot of room to fit in a badly missed section of the film. I could easily have cut 5 minutes out of all of that without anyone missing it.
A Gratefully Cut Scene
Right before the over-long car chase, Simon steals a police car. But in the script, he does it by killing Zachary Lamb (Bill Cobbs). In that case, what’s the point? We like Zachary. He’s the only real link we have between the old and new world. There is no point to killing him, other than making us hate Simon Pheonix more. And we already hate him, even though we find him charming despite himself.
So I’m very glad they cut that totally unnecessary scene from the film.
Why Not Spartan Rather than Simon Phoenix?
A secondary question is why didn’t Couteau just alter Spartan’s brain rather that Pheonix’s? I know: because villains always do that: bring in a villain they assume they can control when they clearly can’t.
He had years to alter Spartan’s mind to think that the new world was perfect and the people in the underworld were messing it up. It would have been a simple matter to make him think killing Edgar Friendly was the right thing and then make him fit into modern society.
Instead, he uses Simon who is certain to cause his downfall. I don’t hold that against the film. What Couteau does is entirely typical of this kind of film. If the alpha villain acted intelligently, there wouldn’t be much of a film. And as we see throughout the film, Couteau really wants to take over the whole world.
But note that in all of his brain work on Simon, he didn’t do anything to make Simon into someone who could live peacefully in that society. The only thing he could have done was to kill Simon, but he didn’t seem to be willing to do that.
He was smart enough to fix the city, but not enough to deal with a fairly minor threat.
The only problem I have is the absence of Katherine. And it really does cause what would have been a great psychotronic film into merely a good one. It’s too bad because the happy ending for Spartan is not that he gets to do the wild mombo with Huxley, but that he gets back part of his old life.
“My little Katie!”