Now that we live in the future, we no longer seem to make as many films about the future — at least not the way we once did, when we tried our hardest to imagine a future as different from the present as we were from ancient history. Today, with all of human knowledge in our pockets, we prefer to think in terms of alternate timelines, paths not taken, the multiverse of infinite possibilities. We’re looking sideways, not forward. But for most of the existence of cinema, a glorious near-centennial from “Metropolis” (1927) to, let’s say, “WALL-E” (2008), people used celluloid to dream of what lay ahead.
Growing up with those movies, I liked to keep a mental scorecard concerning which of their futures seemed most likely. I would have hoped that by now we’d be experiencing the vibrant urban chaos of “The Fifth Element” (1997). But no. What about HAL and the blind faith in technological advancement that connotes progress in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)? Kind of. The computers controlled by constant hand-waving in Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” (2002)? Not quite. All of these are classics, but the one that I think got it most right is a 1993 action-comedy whose hallmark is a tremendous recurring poop joke.
In “Demolition Man,” a cop named John Spartan (played by Sylvester Stallone) is frozen in 1996, for spurious reasons, and thawed out in the year 2032, when Southern California has been merged into an enormous metroplex called San Angeles. He’s tasked with hunting down a homicidal maniac, played by a blond, mugging Wesley Snipes. The joke is that in this future, everyone is kind and gentle to one another. Lenina Huxley, Spartan’s ’90s-loving partner, explains that alcohol, caffeine, contact sports, meat, bad language and gasoline, among other things, are banned. “It has been deemed that anything not good for you is bad,” goes the tao of “Demolition Man.” “Hence, illegal.”
The movie’s pleasure doesn’t lie in its plentiful violence (well, some of it does). It’s in the humor that arises from these future San Angeleans’ disgust over Spartan’s primitive ways, like his desire to use guns and to smoke and to have sex “the old-fashioned way,” rather than through a virtual-reality headset. They mock him over the fact that he asks for toilet paper. (Everyone now uses something called the Three Seashells, which is never explained.) Spartan is baffled by new technology like the omnipresent Alexa-like morality boxes that issue instant fines for offensive language, and kiosks that offer words of affirmation on the streets (“You are an incredibly sensitive man who inspires joy-joy feelings in all those around you”). Stallone’s cop has been subliminally rehabilitated while frozen and wakes up knowing how to knit. “I’m a seamstress?” he laments.
What separates “Demolition Man” from other sci-fi films of much higher aspiration is that it imagined a future generation who might view our civilization, at the peak of its powers, as utterly barbaric. We’re not quite there, but it feels as if the world that the younger generations loathe is the one I was raised in. And in the process, this has turned the film, at least for me, into an explosive, sometimes vituperative allegory for aging. As Spartan finds out, it hurts to wake up one day and find that the world has moved on without you.
Some days I feel like I’ve woken up from cryosleep, and am looking around to discover that I’m the only one who misses our previous era of casual cynicism and dubious morality and brilliant jerks. Back in the ’90s, I sat in the cinema and watched this film like thousands of other people, never imagining that I might one day feel like Spartan. I am living in the future, and I don’t belong. Everyone else has moved on. I’m still wiping myself with toilet paper instead of the Three Seashells.
It’s a shame that “Demolition Man” doesn’t have more of a place in popular culture. If it has any presence at all, it’s through unhinged libertarians online. There’s a person on X, for example, who takes inspiration from the film and rants about what he describes as the “deranged parallel universe” we’re in. These types might be more similar to the only people who reject society in the movie. Led by a cholesterol-loving Denis Leary, who longs to “smoke a cigar the size of Cincinnati in the nonsmoking section,” they live underground eating rat burgers.
I’m more ambivalent. Newly unthawed, how would I live? I turn to “Demolition Man” for guidance on how to navigate the future. Most everyone else accepts this timid new world. I can see why — it’s very appealing. Everyone is extremely nice. There’s no crime. There’s the choice of only one restaurant. (It’s Taco Bell.) No conflict is necessary because they’ve banned everything worth fighting over. If this is where we’re heading, it might be better than the past, if not as much fun, infused with a whiff of the dystopian. Everyone else seems to have made their accommodation with this future. Why can’t I?
Perhaps I find this film resonant not so much because it turned out to be prophetic, but because it reminds me that I once was certain of what the future would look like and my place in it. I think I’m like Spartan, but I’m actually more like a wistful Lenina Huxley, surrounded by 1990s contraband, unable to let go. “You’re still addicted to the 20th century,” another cop admonishes her. “High from its harshness.” I know how she feels.
Kabir Chibber is a writer and filmmaker. Born in Hong Kong, he lives in New York.