“There was a lot of interesting experimentation going on,” says director Marco Brambilla on the making of his 1993 action-satire Demolition Man, which turns 30 this week.
“The film was quite commercial at the time but it still had some eccentric elements that I threw in that I may not have been able to do today,” he suggests.
“In fact, if I was making it today, you probably couldn’t say the things we said in the context of a big-budget science fiction movie.”
As far as predictions go, Demolition Man’s not far off of the mark. On the surface, Brambilla’s explosive sci-fi actioner, fronted by Sly Stallone and Wesley Snipes, looks just like every other '90s summer tentpole, complete with two of the decade’s biggest stars front and centre.
However, underneath its destruction and cheesy quips lies a social satire that remains eerily reminiscent of the sanitised social scene that some believe we find ourselves living in today.
In it, Stallone plays the heroically named John Spartan, a hardened cop who’ll do whatever it takes to keep the mean streets of 1996 LA clean. He’s so good at his job he’s earned the nickname ‘The Demolition Man’ thanks to the crazy amount of destruction he leaves while delivering justice. Unfortunately, this reckless reputation catches up with him during a battle with Snipes’ Simon Phoenix, an unhinged criminal with a penchant for unpredictable violence.
When hostages are killed during the pair’s latest scuffle, both are served hefty cryoprison sentences and left for the future to deal with. However, when Phoenix escapes during a parole hearing in the year 2032, the now-crime-free mega city utopia of San Angeles is unable to deal with his wild tendencies and forced to unfreeze the only man who can — Spartan.
“I’m a huge fan of science fiction and came [into the project] having read virtually every Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Jacques Sadoul book,” says Brambilla, recalling the futuristic vibe he was going for with his first studio movie. “I wanted to take a lot of those concepts and make them whimsical and more of a satire than just pure science fiction. I think that’s what still connects with audiences today.”
When Spartan and Phoenix remerge in 2032, the duo find themselves in a serene near-future that has eradicated all crime. However, this sleek and monocrhome city has also gotten rid of anything that it deems unseemly or morally wrong too, with swearing, booze and even sex now illegal. It’s this vision of an easily offended future that has given Demolition Man an unlikely resonance in today’s socially sensitive world.
“The political correctness was one of the things that I fought very hard to keep in the script because it wasn’t really part of the core story,” remembers Brambilla. Having cut his teeth making commercials alongside then-emerging filmmaker David Fincher, the Se7ven director ended up recommending Brambilla to mega-producer Joel Silver who quickly attached him to Demolition Man. Despite being his feature debut, Brambilla was given a healthy $70m budget and got to work revamping an already existing script with his writer partner Daniel Waters.
“They wanted more of an action film set in the future but the future didn’t need to be eccentric,” he continues, explaining how he put his own spin on the story. “Daniel, who’s an amazing writer, and Joel, really fought for that with me. It was one of the things that made it more difficult - shooting the script so it still had that social commentary.”
In the new world that Spartan and Phoenix enter, there are a few notable changes. In addition to society being forced to walk on eggshells, Taco Bell is now considered the pinacle of fine dining, lovemaking takes place remotely through interactive virtual reality headsets and instead of toilet paper, people are forced to use three mysterious seashells.
“The three seashells were a playful, theatrical interpretation of the way [replacing toilet paper] might be done,” says Brambilla cryptically when quizzed on how these unforgiving objects might actually be used to clean up after yourself. After a bit of prodding, it soon becomes clear that Demolition Man’s most enduring mystery was one designed to be left open to interpretation: “That was something Dan and I came up with and something we intentionally didn’t want answered,” says Brambilla, confirming that your guess is as good as his.
While its sea shells left fans scratching their head, there were plenty of other elements of Brambilla’s future haven that have strangely come true, like its depiction of non-contact video conferencing. “That certainly did connect, especially during COVID,” says Brambilla, adding that his depiction of sex isn’t too far behind reality either: “When you look at VR today, there are lots of porn stars who do exactly that. It was a very bizarre prediction.”
As for fast food becoming the fine dining of the future: “That was because McDonalds didn’t want to be featured in an R-Rated movie,” he tells us, explaining how Taco Bell took centre stage for US audiences while the more recognised Pizza Hut became the restaurant of choice for the European cut.
Making his Hollywood debut with two of the '90s biggest action stars — both of whom were at the peak of their power — Brambilla was pleasantly surprised that the chaos remained on screen and not off. “Stallone was wonderful,” he says, adding that the Rocky actor was happy to be working with someone who actually “wanted him to act” instead of just shoot guns and kill baddies.
Even though the studio’s requests for “more of Stallone fighting, more action and more chase scenes” added a pressure that ultimately brought the project over schedule, the director insists “there was a great mood on set,” adding, “in terms of the actors, it was a dream.”
As the movie’s big-bad, Snipes cut a memorable image as Phoenix with a wild wardrobe that’d give any over-the-top Batman villain a run for their money. “That was me working with Bob Ringwood, the costume designer who did Dune,” says Brambilla.
“I loved Dune and we had all these crazy ideas [for Phoenix’s wardrobe]. Most of them didn’t make it into the film but his blonde hair did.” In fact, this hair choice was so indelible, it even made its mark on the world stage: “Dennis Rodman saw it and decided to visit North Korea with the same blonde hair,” he laughs.
Landing on 8 October, 1993, Demolition Man shot to number one at the box office, ultimately bagging a worldwide haul of around $159m on a $77m budget. While a sequel may have felt like a bit of a no-brainer, it has so far failed to emerge from cryosleep.
“The sequel is something that has come up at various points in time but nothing has materialised. At one point there was a chance but it didn’t happen,” says Brambilla. “[Stallone] wanted me to make Judge Dredd and that was going to our next movie… but I thought ‘I don’t want to become the Stallone director.’”
Despite this, Sly has since insisted that Demolition Man 2 is indeed in the works, telling fans it’s “going to happen” during a Instagram live Q&A session. Still, Brambilla isn’t convinced that 2023’s Hollywood could recapture the same satiric edge and anarchic freedom that made his original so memorable.
“All the films that would be Demolition Man today are cinematic universe films with zero personality,” he suggests. “There are so few directors who can still manage to make amazing, interesting films. Most of them just don’t have a point of view behind them. It’s a very different environment today.”
Demolition Man is streaming on Tubi in the US, and available to rent or buy digitally elsewhere.
Read more: Nostalgia
Watch a trailer for Demolition Man