Demolition Man: Not as dumb as you think it is.
This was originally written as an academic essay in 2003. Previously unpublished, it is presented here unedited except for HubPages formatting, the occasional note in square brackets and the addition of pictures.
Yes, the bad jokes were in the original essay!
As I recall we had to choose a science fiction film for analysis. I was going to choose 'Starship Troopers' (another film that's dumb on the surface but provides much for analysis) but my housemate at the time chose it so I picked this. I recently watched it again on TV (my DVD is long lost) and it's still quite a good film!
An Analysis of Demolition Man
This essay aims to analyse the contemporary science fiction film Demolition Man, using cultural theory, in relation to theories of globalisation, postmodernism and cyberculture. Using textual analysis it hopes to identify and resolve problematics within the texts.
Demolition Man was released in 1993 and stars Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock and Nigel Hawthorne. Marco Brambilla directed the film. It starts in 1996, where John Spartan (Stallone), an LAPD officer, apprehends Simon Phoenix (Snipes), a criminal who was running a large area of South Central Los Angeles. Spartan is framed by Phoenix and convicted for manslaughter of thirty hostages already killed by Phoenix, and given a cryogenic sentence.
When referenced with the Los Angeles of 1993, the initial plot seems to predict a future. The LA riots of the early nineties, the Rodney King beatings by police officers and the general racial and class based tensions made parts of LA a no-go area. In the fictional LA of 1996, Phoenix has declared South Central his ‘kingdom’, and it takes a major police operation (and the one man army of Spartan) to remove him. Perhaps the film shows what might happen if civil unrest gets out of hand.
Most of Demolition Man is set in 2032. The premise is that after an earthquake in 2010 society collapsed. At some point the ‘Cocteau Plan’ was enacted, and Los Angeles merged with San Francisco to form San Angeles. Various points of this plan are explained and analysed within this essay. Simon Phoenix escapes at a parole hearing, killing 3 people as he emerges into a future with a non-violent culture. With the police of 2032 lacking the training to deal with a violent criminal, they release John Spartan to recapture him. While frozen, both Spartan and Phoenix were subjected to ‘synaptic suggestion’; a technology designed to reform convicts by programming into them new, peaceful skills. While Spartan was taught how to knit, Phoenix received information and passwords for the new society he had entered, along with the mission to kill Edgar Friendly, the unofficial leader of a resistance movement. Cocteau, the man behind the Cocteau Plan, sanctioned the mission to remove the only resistance to his ‘utopian’ dream.
Roland Barthes saw texts in a postmodern world as “a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash”, creating “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (Barthes 1977: 146). By this, Barthes implied that nothing is truly original, and all texts are essentially a mixture of ideas, ‘quotations’ as Barthes puts it, taken from the culture that the author, and by association the consumer, inhabits. By this definition Demolition Man uses postmodernity in its humour, technology and plot.
For reason rooted in postmodernity and comedy, the story refers to the Schwarzenegger Presidential Library. Somehow, Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected President of the United States of America, after a change in the law to allow people born outside of America to be elected to the post. Schwarzenegger is a rival of Sylvester Stallone in the film world as both are famous for their roles in action movies so fans of the genre would be quick to pick up on the irony. In 2002 Schwarzenegger announced that he intended to run for Governor of California at the next election [and won, as Californians will be more than aware], so maybe this piece of postmodern comedy has turned into an example of life imitating art.
The most popular radio station in 2032 is an ‘oldies’ station. Unfortunately for John Spartan, these ‘oldies’ are cheesy radio adverts from the 1950s and 1960s that make him cringe in distaste. This is another little postmodern cultural reference intended to bring a smile to the audience.
Utopia and Dystopia
The future is depicted in Demolition Man could be described as a postmodern utopia. A utopia can be defined as “a blueprint of a better society – a happy place” (Baldwin et al, 1999: 214). Society in Demolition Man’s 2032 is the result of the ‘Cocteau Plan’, one man’s ‘blueprint’ of a Utopia, where crime is almost non existent. The state is dedicated to keeping streets clean, enforcing politeness (with fines for using even mild obscenities) and the police providing a seemingly less sinister version of Orwell’s ‘big brother’ concept, with video and audio surveillance possible throughout San Angeles. Everyone in the city is implanted with a chip, which allows them to be tracked and is also vital for daily interaction with computers in the city. Other than this, security is minimal. The population of San Angeles are happy with this state of affairs, since they have nothing to fear. Thought is discouraged, the people taking the adage ‘ignorance is bliss’ to heart.
One person’s utopia is another’s dystopia, however. Beneath San Angeles live a group of outcasts from mainstream society, living in poverty. Their unofficial leader is Edgar Friendly. Here they are free from the laws enforced above, as well as the chip implants. In the Cocteau society, alcohol, smoking, other drugs, contact sports, eating meat and physical sex are illegal, along with various other activities that are supposedly ‘bad for us’. Anyone who wishes to engage is such an illegal activity and ‘be free’ must take to living underground. This idea of giving up mainstream society for freedom could be described as creating a “Pirate Utopia”, as described by anarchist theorist Hakim Bey. These are “whole mini-societies living consciously outside the law and determined to keep it up, even if only for a short but merry life.” (Bey, 1991: 97)
In light of this, an analysis using post-structuralism might suggest that there are two co-existing utopias that make up this society, but perhaps it would be more accurate to describe both as dystopias, or the society as a whole as one larger dystopia. As Davis (1992:18) explains “the ultimate world-historical significance – and oddity – of Los Angeles is that it has come to play the double role of utopia and dystopia for advanced capitalism.” The future presented here seems to show a magnified version of this contradiction of views. Perspective is key to perception in this respect:
“The city…can be seen as positive or negative. Moreover, both happen at the same time as different people interpret in different ways the social structures and cultural changes indicated by the shifting urban scene. Indeed, at certain times certain cities become the places people go to look at what the future might be like. Unsurprisingly, although they are looking in the same place, they find quite different things.” (Baldwin et al, 1999: 154)
Globalisation can be described as “the process of gradually intermeshing world economies, politics and cultures into a global system” (Baldwin et al, 1999: 159). Demolition Man interacts with some of the issues raised by globalisation, particularly the idea of ‘McDonaldization’. Ritzer says: “The fast-food restaurant has become the model of rationality. Although it has adopted elements of rationality pioneered by its predecessors, it also represents a quantum leap in the process of rationalization. What we have today is sufficiently more extreme than previous forms of rationalization to legitimize the use of a distinct label – McDonaldization – to describe the most contemporary aspects of the rationalization process.” (Ritzer, 2000: 39)
This process of rationalisation entails the use of franchises and uniformity of products although Klein (2000) might also mention anti-competitive business practices and dubious working conditions. The film presents the idea of the ‘Franchise Wars’, during which the major restaurant franchises were somehow reduced to just one, so that all the restaurants in 2032 are Taco Bell restaurants. This could be seen as a convergence in one sector of multinational corporate operations, and the end of choice within that sector, a potential outcome of globalisation.
“Globalisation was supposed to be about global openness and integration, and yet our societies are steadily becoming more closed, more guarded, requiring ever more security and military might just to maintain the inequitable status quo.” (Klein, 2002: 81)
Clearly the view of 2032 presented in Demolition Man is one of limited choices. There is one way of life, and those who reject and resist this become social outcasts. The film deals with issues of local resistance and local identity. A binary opposition along structuralist lines is quickly established, with the citizens of San Angeles representing peace, hope, joy, prosperity and conformity, and those that live in the remains of the city below representing conflict, hopelessness, despair, poverty and non-conformity. Those above ground identify with each other through a shared belief in the Cocteau Plan and a sense of contentment, while the outcasts do not identify with this, instead identifying with each other through a desire to live outside of the laws above. They resist the laws and institutions of the system above by defying them and doing as they wish. Baldwin et al state “wherever there is power there will be resistance to that power, often based in local or disqualified discourses” (2000: 284), so it can be seen that Edgar Friendly’s people are the disqualified and local discourse to Cocteau’s power.
The theories of Bakhtin (1940) regarding use of authoritative discourse could be applied here. The language of San Angeles is formal, muted and official. People are referred to not by a first name, second name or nickname, but their full name at all times. This is a society where use of the word ‘damn’ or ‘bastard’ results in a fine. Friendly’s underground speak as they wish, using shortened forms and as many obscenities as they like, as a direct affront to the system above.
Everyone in San Angeles has a chip implant. This has many uses, chiefly interaction with electronic security systems as a form of identity. It is necessary for all monetary transactions, since there is no physical money, only electronic transfer. This would suggest that this narrative features a virtual economy. It also brings in the idea of cyborgs, since any direct technological implant can be seen as the creation of a cyborg. As Baldwin et al state:
“The cyborg combination of the mechanical with the human is already with us, evident in the extensive use of simple prosthetic devices such as spectacles but also apparent in the wide acceptance of cosmetic surgery, biotechnological devices such as pacemakers, the use of vaccination to programme the immune system to destroy viruses and advances in genetic engineering” (Baldwin et al, 1999: 311)
The chips can also transmit the pulse and life signs of the person in which it is implanted, also providing a tracking system. This is used to interesting effect in the film. Simon Phoenix does not have a chip implant, having been frozen in the 20th century, and as such the police find it difficult to track the fugitive. The chief of police decides to wait for the next MDK (Murder Death Kill, a 21st century term for the rare crime of murder), which would surely locate Phoenix since he is the only person to have committed such an offence since 2010. San Angeles has been installed with complete camera coverage, so police can see and hear the scene of any crime, and presumably produce this as evidence for conviction. The city is littered with computer terminals, from which most information can be accessed, with the right passwords.
Technology is a key tool in control of the population in the Cocteau Plan. Lechte describes technology as “the most efficient way of achieving scientific proof” (1994: 247). Without this the most basic laws are unenforceable, since the illegality of drugs, alcohol, smoking, caffeine, meat eating and physical sex are based on scientific ‘proof’ that they are ‘bad’ for a person to indulge in.
Cryogenic prisons are presented as a ‘humane’ method of incarceration. A cryogenic sentence entails two things: the freezing of prisoners, with life signs monitored; and behavioural alteration by ‘synaptic suggestion’, which involves transferring thoughts into the brain somehow. At one point in the film Spartan is in conversation with Cocteau about cryo-prisons. Cocteau uses the ‘humane’ defence, while Spartan, as a former prisoner, informs those gathered that his sentence was like “a thirty-six year nightmare” (dir. Brambilla, 1993). Applied to this previous idea of scientific proof, and the 20th century problem of prison costs and overcrowding, perhaps Lyotard could be used to explain this ‘humane’ idea: “an equation between wealth, efficiency and the truth is thus established” (1984: 45). Using this idea, and Foucault’s ‘economy of punishment’ theory, a relationship between measure and humanity (1977: 74-75), it can be seen that the cryo-prisons are just another stopgap on the road to another system of punishment, rather than a perfect futuristic vision.
Even some law enforcement is automated and computerised. Machines that give out fines for use of obscenities are located in most buildings, including homes. When a fine is given out, a disembodied voice reads out the offence and fine. Automation of decisions already exists in conflict, such as decisions to launch counter attacks in the Gulf War. The film takes this idea to a peaceful time and applies it to law enforcement. Crimes such as vandalism are dealt with automatically, although in this film those crimes are committed via machine anyway. A graffiti-spraying device emerged from Edgar Friendly’s underground and sprays a slogan, drawing the attention of passers by. Then the wall on which the graffiti is sprayed cleans itself. A somewhat pointless exercise, it may seem, but even this transgression is enough to unsettle the pampered residents of the city.
The film presents an advanced form of virtual sex. Since physical sex is illegal, a method involving headsets that digitally transfer brainwaves is instead employed. This means there is no transfer of bodily fluids, and thus no risk of a sexually transmitted infection. This differs from current theories on virtual sex. Branwyn describes a form of virtual reality called ‘teledildonics’ (a term originally coined by Howard Rheingold) as such:
“With teledildonics, the real-world penis is “invaginated” by the computer through means of a data-sensing “condom” or the vagina is penetrated by a dildo-like input/output device that reads and responds to the vagina. Sensors and responders (“tactile effectors”) would work in tandem to simulate intercourse. The user’s partner (or partner’s), also dressed in VR sex gear and connected via phone, would appear in the head-mounted display as they wanted to be seen.” (Branwyn 1994: 233-234)
This virtual recreation of physical sex is discarded in favour of a more subtle approach. It is also problematic from a feminist viewpoint as this description fails to even mention, let alone account for, the clitoris.
The virtual sex in Demolition Man has more in common with the non-contact tantric sex, rooted in Buddhist philosophy. Perhaps this is why Sting is responsible for the song that plays over the end credits? Perhaps not. Either way, the sheer size of the underground movement in the film, and Spartan’s rejection of this method, would suggest that digital sex is inferior to the physical variety.
A conclusion of sorts
Demolition Man ends with uncertainty. Cocteau is dead, his society now on the verge of chaos. Phoenix is also dead, so Spartan’s job is over. Spartan suggests that the two factions try to meet at a central point in order to have some kind of society, although this is never fully resolved. But by this point the film has outlined a potential future, spotted its frailties and exploited them. Opponents of utopianism argue that corruption is always present, so a utopia is never possible. The same argument is frequently applied to globalisation. Those who resist globalisation insist that it is a process that can be stopped. Supporters take a rather different view:
“Globalisation demands conformity to the practices of the global leaders, especially to those of the United States. If you do not conform – or innovate – you lose. If you try to quit the game, you lose even more profoundly” (Peters, 2001: 152)
So perhaps Demolition Man goes against this, noting that people always find a way around things and that there is no accounting for chaos.
“The last possible deed is that which defines perception itself, an invisible golden cord that connects us: illegal dancing in the courthouse corridors. If I were to kiss you here they’d call it an act of terrorism – so let’s take our pistols to bed and wake up the city at midnight like drunken bandits celebrating with a fusillade, the message of the taste of chaos.” (Bey, 1991: 4)
Can you use the three seashells?
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- Baldwin, E. et al, (1999) Introducing Cultural Studies, Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall Europe.
- Barthes, R. (1977) Image-Music-Text, New York: Hill and Wang.
- Bey, H. (1991) T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, Brooklyn: Autonomedia.
- Branwyn, G. (1994) ‘Erotica For Cybernauts’ in Dery, M. (ed.) (1994) Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Davis, M. (1990) City Of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, London: Verso.
- Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon, Brighton: Harvester.
- Klein, N. (2000) No Logo, London: Flamingo
- Klein, N. (2002) Fences and Windows, London: Flamingo
- Lechte, J. (1994) Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: From Structuralism to Postmodernity, London: Routledge.
- Lyotard, J. (1979) The Postmodern Condition, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.
- Peters, R. (2001) Fighting For The Future: Will America Triumph?, Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books.
- Ritzer, G. (2000) The McDonaldization of Society, London: Sage.
- Demolition Man (1993) dir. Marco Brambilla, Warner Bros.