‘Demolition Man’: Motion and Stillness, a Matter of Life and Death

Welcome to Yippee-Ki-YAY, a regular column that celebrates action cinema in all its glory. This edition looks at 1993’s Demolition Man.

You remember the opening shot of Marco Brambilla’s Demolition Man: the Hollywood sign, seen from the back, is burning. Sirens echo through the L.A. night. It’s the near future and yet it looks like the apocalypse: police cars rush through the streets, red lasers pierce the darkness in the sky. We are barely aboard the helicopter Sylvester Stallone’s John Spartan is using to reach his destination and the camera is already unstable. Could it be the end of the world? Fear not, for Spartan jumps into the fray, and suddenly the camera comes alive. It swings and whooshes past opponents falling to their knees, frames Stallone as the action star he is in iconic shots. In all of them, he is in motion: jumping, running, shooting, and so on. It’s like he can’t stop.

When finally he reaches serial killer Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes, on fire), exposition is kept to a minimum. In fact, the short dialogue scene develops the characters more than it lingers on the plot. Not coincidentally, the first few words they exchange are all about movement, stillness, and disobedience. See for yourself:

Anyway, screw the hostages. Screw the talking. We’re here to fight. And boy do they fight beautifully. Well, Brambilla makes it so, anyway. It lasts barely a few seconds and yet the director finds enough time to fit in a low angle dolly shot and a side shot of Phoenix hitting his best enemy in mid-air. Stuff you’d expect to see in an extended fight scene later on in the film. You’d think he’d keep the showy camera moves for the climax. Well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

A minute ago, we thought we were witnessing a world coming to an end, but look at how alive these two characters look when they fight. When the flames surround them, when death smiles at them, and they look it in the eyes and soldier on with glee. Every frame is a celebration of the action body, of their movement and muscles, of their athleticism and energy.

That’s when the story begins, of course, and we learn that Spartan let 30 people die in that gigantic explosion because he was too obsessed with catching Phoenix. Screw the hostages, he was here for him. No one else. That doesn’t go over well, as one can imagine, and Spartan is sentenced to spend some time in cryostasis along with his archenemy. But we’re not here to go over the plot. You know it, I know it, we all know it. We’re here to see how Demolition Man explores motion and chaos as a lifeforce for the action hero and the action genre.

Brambilla is a man of few words and efficient images. As the prologue comes to an end, John Spartan is walking down the corridor of his future prison. Silently but confidently, the director makes the evolution of his protagonist crystal clear with just a few shots.

The shots of Spartan walking down the corridor accomplish two things: they translate his imminent imprisonment while also leaving him in control of his diegesis. The shots are low, front-facing, and bound to follow his movements. As the character (but most importantly the audience) doesn’t realise what awaits him (them) just yet, the mise-en-scène remains firmly on Spartan’s side.

The lab Spartan is led to is a lot more anxiety-inducing than the apocalyptic skyline. As the suffocating white steam announces the patient’s coming cryostasis, the doctor orally exposes the reasons and the terms of Spartan’s punishment. An important scene, one would think, in understanding the film’s premise. Nah, all the protagonist has to answer is ‘Skip it’, reaffirming that he is not interested in words and that paying too much attention to the words will not help the viewer enjoy the spectacle to the fullest.

But then comes the proper introduction of Brambilla’s take on the action hero. Just before they close the cryopod and put him to sleep, the real implications of his punishment dawn on John for the first time. It’s a complete mirror shot of the one from a few seconds ago: the hero, naked, is filmed from a high angle, diminishing his screen presence and diegetic control. His sentence, motionlessness, makes him a slave to the diegesis for the very first time. That’s the true picture of the end of a world. The flames of the Hollywood sign announced the fall, not of a vague cultural and historical paradigm, but of the action hero (or at least the ‘Hollywood’ action hero) himself. The visual death of the avatar of our heroes unfolding right before our very eyes. The cryopod even forces him on his knees. For many, and for the film, it’s a solemn moment.

The opening credits that ensue spin around Spartan’s frozen body as if it were the statue of some ancient hero from antiquity. His muscles, his whole body are enshrined as the ultimate landscape to contemplate. Yet it visually expresses the action stakes of the film: motion and chaos as life, stasis, and peace as death. These few seconds are incredible. We thought we were going to watch just another Stallone actioner. But here we are, barely a few minutes in, and the film has already painted a tragic picture of the motionless hero. OK then, I guess we’re disserting about the action genre instead.

The next few scenes introduce Sandra Bullock’s character Lenina Huxley and the world she lives in. The film’s structure calls for a second expository dump, but thankfully Brambilla keeps it to a minimum and even continues feeding us moments of reflexivity throughout the story. Take the graffiti scene for instance, which is an interesting counterpoint to the burning Hollywood sign. The latter showed, despite what we might have initially thought, that 1996 was full of life, fire, change, danger, and energy. But now, in 2032, change is immediately nullified and prevented, and nothing can evolve past the new status quo.

Things start to change again, of course, with the resurrection of Phoenix, who had also been put in cryostasis. Immediately after his awakening, Phoenix occupies the screen like no other character in this world. The camera follows his forward movement in the direction of the warden, his eyes occupy centre stage and divert from the clean shininess of the set.

He is a prisoner and yet already has the higher ground. This is followed by a circular tracking shot that shadows the warden as if the camera had already adopted Phoenix’s point of view. When Brambilla goes back to the shot/reverse-shot approach, he uses a subtle strategy to differentiate the two men and clearly translate where the power play is heading: the warden is always slightly off-centre, while Phoenix is always perfectly centred.

Right before his demise, the warden is shown as someone incapable of seeing the forces taking hold of his world. Eventually, he pays for it by having his eye taken out and used as a key. So use your eyes, look attentively. Brambilla could hardly be more clear: watch closely, because images matter.

Immediately, the advanced technology of the future allows the police station to witness the death of the warden in real-time, and then Simon’s fight against the police officers, again placing emphasis on the act of seeing as a revelatory experience. For the characters, but the audience too. The computer even tells them about the concept of motion when answering questions about one of the cryo-doctors’ vehicle that Phoenix stole. The arrival of the character is treated as the reintroduction of motion to a stagnant world.

In contrast, Spartan’s wake-up scene is first filmed differently than Phoenix’s, with circular camera movements giving power to Huxley while Spartan endures the shock painfully… until Phoenix’s name is mentioned! Then everything else is forgotten. Everything bridging the gap between this first act and the climactic confrontation — the asepticized three-shelled future, the discovery of the underground society (which looks a lot like 1996 Los Angeles), the setting of the first battle in a museum, even the Taco Bell monopoly — emphasizes or enriches the motion/stillness-chaos/peace-life/death stakes of the film: the world of the Hollywood action hero Spartan comes from is a world of vulgarity, poverty, brutality, and freedom of choice.

By the time the climax arrives, one thing should be clear to the action fan: Spartan and Phoenix are both trapped in endless cycles of motions and actions. This is what they’ve been trying to do to one another since they first became enemies: kill their opponent through increasing levels of chaos, which is why their attempts have been wholly ineffective until now. Chaos gives them life, it’s the nectar the action heroes and villains of Hollywood feed on. Their final battle starts as they all do: bullets and bodies fly through the air, the camera dollying along in Dutch angles and epic low-angle shots. It’s like we’re back in the glorious 20th century. For a minute there, it even looks like Phoenix has the upper hand and comes close to victory by ensnaring John in a giant mechanical arm. It would have been the perfect plan, had he not let his megalomania get in the way of things. Allowed time to think, Spartan finds a way to free himself and successfully run away from the criminal’s laser gun rampage. Phoenix unsurprisingly loses his marbles.

He might not understand what he’s doing wrong, but we do. Eventually, John prevails by using the one thing that can kill the action body: immobility. Or, in the story, cryostasis. The difference with the mechanical arm used by Phoenix is even highlighted in the way both traps end up working: while brute physical force (with a bit of cryo-help) eventually gets Spartan out of trouble, it marks the final death of Phoenix. In addition, the scene is structured to perfection, as Spartan literally has to keep moving to avoid getting caught by the cryogel himself. Remember in the opening scene, it was like he couldn’t stop. Well, actually, it has always been because he mustn’t stop — a visual representation of the need for the action hero to constantly keep on moving, or else… It’s no coincidence this final fight takes place where they had previously been condemned to motionlessness, and no coincidence it ends up being blown up. You thought you were watching a film about the end of a world? Don’t worry, it’s just the beginning.

Essentially, Demolition Man suggests that cinema needs the chaos induced by the action hero as much as the action hero needs motion. Without the dirty-fighting, morally ambiguous, and eminently cinematic action hero, everything becomes corporate blandness and neutered crap. It was 1993, and the film anticipated many of the changes that would plague the mainstream Hollywood action blockbuster in the years to come: no more swearing, no more smoking, no more fucking. The action hero isn’t only popular because he blows stuff up, but rather because he blows stuff up while screwing up, sinning, and being human. You can’t have action without violence, chaos, moral dilemmas. How many blockbusters can go the cosmic tyrant or world-threatening criminal route before the genre dries out and rots? Sure, the John Spartan way may look macho and unsophisticated at times, but do you really want to fuck through VR for the rest of your movie-going life? Even in its little, humorous details, the film stays true to its statement: action movies can save your life. They are life, made cinematic.

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