I haven’t thought about the movie Demolition Man in a long time, but this changed recently when it was brought to my attention that the film is now nearly 30 years old.
Made by filmmaker Marco Brambilla in his directorial debut, Demolition Man is one of those movies that manages to be simultaneously campy and ingenious. Featuring a star-studded lineup that included Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, and Sandra Bullock—not to mention up-and-comers like Denis Leary and Benjamin Bratt, as well as stage actor Nigel Hawthorne and the guy who played the warden in Shawshank Redemption (Bob Gunton)—the movie was a hit, raking in $159 million worldwide.
The movie has a delicious if ludicrous plot. Stallone plays John Spartan, a Dirty Harry-style police officer whose life takes a sudden turn when his attempt to rescue a bunch of hostages goes awry. When all the hostages are found dead following an explosion, Spartan, along with the criminal he was trying to stop, Simon Phoenix (Snipes), is sentenced to be cryogenically frozen.
Both Spartan and Phoenix are unthawed in 2032—36 years after being frozen—in a world that looks much different.
'I'm the Enemy'
I had to rewatch Demolition Man after the release of an Out of Frame short that explored all the ways Demolition Man predicted the future. The movie was even campier than I remembered, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t also impressed by just how much of our future Demolition Man got right.
Self-driving electric cars? Check.
Humans using computers to increase their self esteem? Check.
Zoom meetings? Check.
Arnold Schwarzenegger's entry into politics? Check.
Attention spans the length of goldfish? Check.
Voice-activated search in homes? Check.
Digital currency? Check.
Portable phones that access the internet? Check.
Anti-smoking laws, language police, germaphobia, and gun control? Check. Check. Check. Check.
This list is by no means exhaustive, mind you. And as impressive as it is, the list doesn’t include what is in my opinion the most prophetic (and best) part of Demolition Man: Edgard Friendly’s soliloquy on why he’s living as a criminal underground (literally in the ground) rather than on the surface.
Friendly (portrayed by Leary), explains to Spartan why he’s viewed as the enemy by Dr. Raymond Cocteau, one of the creators of the CryoPrison and an architect of the paternalistic society.
See, according to Cocteau's plan, I'm the enemy. Cause I like to think, I like to read. I'm into freedom of speech and freedom of choice. I'm the kind of guy who wants to sit in a greasy spoon and think, "Gee, should I have the T-bone steak or the jumbo rack of barbecued ribs with the side order of gravy fries?" I want high cholesterol. I want to eat bacon, butter and buckets of cheese, okay? I want to smoke a Cuban cigar the size of Cincinnati in a non-smoking section. I wanna run through the streets naked with green Jell-O all over my body reading Playboy magazine. Why? Because I suddenly might feel the need to. Okay, pal? I've seen the future, you know what it is? It's a 47-year-old virgin sittin' around in his beige pajamas, drinking a banana-broccoli shake singing "I'm an Oscar-Meyer Wiener".
Friendly, Spartan discovers, isn’t a master criminal. He just wants to think for himself, live as he wishes, and be left alone—and that’s something he can’t do on the surface.
“You wanna live on top, you gotta live Cocteau's way. What he wants, when he wants, how he wants,” he explains. “Your other choice: come down here, maybe starve to death.”
Shades of Dystopia?
Friendly’s speech invites an important question: If dystopia arrives, what will it look like?
Oftentimes dystopia is depicted as malevolent and totalitarian, like in Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four. Sometimes it’s a desolate wasteland of violence, like in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Mad Max. But sometimes, like in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World, on which Demolition Man is very loosely based, dystopia is soft, prosperous, and caring—but just as sinister.
The Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis once wrote that of all the tyrannies on earth, none was as oppressive as that which was exercised for the benefit of its victims.
“It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies,” Lewis observed. “The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
This was the tyranny Edgard Friendly couldn’t stomach. It wasn’t Big Brother that drove Edgar Friendly underground, it was something closer to the Nanny State.
And if we’re being honest, many of Friendly’s grievances speak to our world today. When he says he’s the kind of guy “who wants to sit in a greasy spoon and think, ‘Gee, should I have the T-bone steak or the jumbo rack of barbecued ribs,’” I don’t think he was referring to the synthetic beef Bill Gates wants to shift the world to to save the planet.
When Friendly talks about free speech, it’s hard not to think about the growing hostility to free expression on social media, university campuses, and in corporate workplaces. When he says he’s into freedom of choice, the last two years of the pandemic loom large, as the Cocteaus in our world made decisions for billions of people. Wear the mask. Stay home. Get the shot. And do not complain or protest; because we’re all in this together.
Demolition Man is a reminder that there are many shades of dystopia. It’s not always about the stuff you have or don’t have. It’s much more about freedom. And if, like Edgard Friendly, you’re living in a place that wants to use coercion to control what you say, think, and eat, you might be living in a dystopia without even knowing it.