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Demolition Man intrigues, but does not satisfy

Demolition Man
Directed by Marco Brambilla.
Written by Daniel Waters, Robert Reneau, and Peter M. Lenkov.
Starring Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes.
Loews Fresh Pond Theater.

By Joshua M. Andresen
Associate Arts Editor

If you have seen clips or advertisements for Demolition Man, you may think the film is about a 21st century duel between a cop and a criminal from the 20th century. Although this provides the mediocre plot for the movie, the actual emphasis lies elsewhere. It is the exploration of the futuristic society that dominates the film's screen time. Fortunately, the writers and director are very successful in pulling this off in what turns out to be a very interesting glimpse into the future.

Demolition Man starts out in the year 1996 in a showdown between LAPD Sgt. John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) and psychopathic criminal Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes). Phoenix is holding 30 hostages in a heavily armed building when Spartan, known as the "Demolition Man," captures Phoenix in an attack that destroys the building as well. Phoenix declares that Spartan is responsible for the deaths of the hostages, and Spartan is convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to the CryoPenitentiary, where he (along with Phoenix) is frozen and subjected to a rehabilitation program.

They resurface in the year 2032 when Phoenix escapes from his parole hearing. But the world has changed into a kinder, gentler society where violent crimes are virtually nonexistent. Needless to say, the futuristic police force is ill equipped to deal with apprehending the still masochistic Phoenix. Enter the recently thawed John Spartan, an old fashioned cop brought back to stop an old fashioned criminal.

Although this provides the plot of the film, the actual emphasis of the script is exploring the futuristic society created by writers Peter M. Lenkov and Robert Reneau. They envisage an Orwellian 1984-esque society, complete with a Big Brother figure in Mayor/Govenor Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne). Cocteau has created a society devoid of social evils including violent crimes on the one hand, but also including drinking, smoking, and foods high in cholesterol. "Exchange of bodily fluids" is also prohibited to keep disease at bay. In its stead is virtual sex, presented in a scene between Spartan and leading lady Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock).

As the plot itself incredibly weak and is not bolstered with any particular finesse, it is relieving that the film devotes much of its time examining the intricacies of the new society. After the escape of Phoenix, the film spends a very long time in the control room of the police station tracking him on their sophisticated monitoring system. Though the emphasis seems odd, the scene is very well done, showing both the new technologies of the new era as well as the new modes of human interaction, devoid of any casual touch and replete with innocuous greetings such as "be well."

The most impressive aspect of the writers' view of the new technology is that it is very feasible for the most part. Everything is grounded in current technologies and merely extrapolated into the future: there is no Jetsons-type silliness with levitating motor cars that fold into briefcases. Quite the contrary, the motor vehicles pictured were provided by General Motors and are actual prototype "concept cars" that GM intends to build in the future, complete with voice-recognition devices used to navigate and steer.

There is a good deal of social satire as well. The "oldies" radio station plays "mini-songs" of the 20th century, known to most of us as commercials. Lines from favorite jingles can be heard in the background of the scene in the fancy night club Taco Bell. A caller to the police department emergency line is instructed by an operator, "If you would prefer an automated response, press 1 now." And (perhaps appropriately for a Sylvester Stallone film) a somewhat demeaning reference is made to the "Shwartzenegger presidency."

Ultimately, however, Demolition Man is unsatisfying. The lame plot combined with the woefully banal dialogue is only partially salvaged by the clever picture of society in the 21st century. Aside from a few interesting twists, the action scenes are also trite with all the guns roaring. (Guns, of course, are illegal in the perfect society: Phoenix and Spartan had to get theirs from a museum.) One plus is that all graphic violence was painstakingly avoided: for all the scenes of people shooting, there are remarkably few of people getting shot. Taken as a whole, Demolition Man is very interesting, but not all that exciting.