Did “Demolition Man”Predict Our Post-COVID Society?
Today’s fear-driven policies were jokes for Sylvester Stallone in 1993
The movie's plot is negligible. Sylvester Stallone is a cop, and Wesley Snipes is a criminal, both of whom are frozen in 1996 Los Angeles, and thawed out in 2032 to duke it out in a "San Angeles" neither of them recognizes. Unlike most R-rated action movies, Demolition Man is intentionally funny, and most of the humor comes from Sylvester Stallone's 20th century alpha male clumsily navigating an unfamiliar, 21st century society that looks a lot like our current reality.
The premise of the film is that a series of earthquakes and epidemics have destroyed civilization (or at least California). On the rubble of the past, a shiny new society has been built; one in which people enjoy listening to insipid 30-second jingles instead of real songs, polite language is mandatory at all times, tablet computers and self-driving electric cars are everywhere, all restaurants except Taco Bell have gone out of business, physical touch has been outlawed, meetings are held by video conference, and there is no toilet paper.
In short, what we laughed at in the 90s is what we are living with today.
What makes Demolition Man particularly salient is that most of the ideas it presents are consistent with our modern values, except that they are taken to extremes. For example, the Me Too movement rightly demanded that employees and colleagues be treated with equal respect and consideration, regardless of gender. That same concept, taken to extremes, gives you the workplace inhabited by Sandra Bullock, Rob Schneider and Benjamin Bratt in the movie: devoid of anything but the most stilted, inoffensive, superficial conversation.
Tik Tok videos are fun, but if its repetitive audio memes were the only kind of music that people listened to, the sonic landscape would be horrifying. Social distancing may make sense during a contagious outbreak, but if - as Dr. Fauci recommends - we were permanently to replace normal human contact with something like the air-cushioned high-fives and computer-mediated intimacy of Demolition Man, it's hard to imagine that the benefit would be worth the cost.
Like any good dystopian vision, "Demolition Man" does show a resistance movement. In this case, they are "scraps" who live in the subterranean remnants of Los Angeles, enjoying free speech, free thought, and burgers made with rat meat.
The leader of the resistance movement is played by Denis Leary (in his first major role), who tells us, "I've seen the future. Know what it is? It's a 47-year old virgin sitting around in his beige pajamas, drinking a banana broccoli shake, singing 'I'm An Oscar Meyer Weiner.'" To many millennials, this may sound like an uncomfortably accurate prediction.
Although Leary’s character rants about wanting to be able to eat t-bone steaks and run down the street naked and covered in Jell-O, his grievance is the oppressive, unquestioning conformity demanded of citizens in mainstream society. Stallone’s character sympathizes with the poverty of the scraps, and chafes against the strict limitations to which regular people have become accustomed. As the voice of reason in the film, he introduces Sandra Bullock to the forbidden pleasures of reckless driving and kissing (AKA “fluid transfer”), both of which she finds unexpectedly thrilling. His conclusion is that the ideal society would be somewhere between the two extremes, advising that surface dwellers “get a little dirty,” and scraps “get a lot clean.”
“Demolition Man” is set 12 years from now, in the aftermath of disasters and plagues. Fear drove the residents of Los Angeles to relinquish their freedoms in the name of security. Seeing how quickly the entire world did the same thing when faced with COVID-19, it’s not difficult to imagine today’s traumatized 10-year-olds growing up to be either complacent conformists like Sandra Bullock’s character, or anarchic rebels like Denis Leary’s.
It may be distasteful to think of our COVID response as an abdication of human rights, especially in comparison with an admittedly absurd piece of fiction. After all, through the temporary measures of social distancing and business closures, we are being responsible citizens, aren’t we? Those who refuse to honor the unprecedented limitations on our lives and livelihoods are selfish and immoral, aren’t they?
And yet … What if those limitations aren’t temporary? What if, in the aftermath of COVID, we decide that handshakes are a bad idea? What if we agree that familiar and comforting forms of human contact are undesirable? Aside from the objection that this makes no sense unless we also ban doorknobs, handrails, light switches, gas pump handles, and everything else that people touch (and even then, the hygiene hypothesis suggests that it might do more harm than good to our health), it’s a sign of something more insidious.
When we operate in a state of fear, resources are diverted from the parts of our brain responsible for reason and empathy to the parts dedicated to survival. This means that, when we are afraid, we tend to act irrationally. The more afraid we are, the more irrationally we behave, if we believe that our actions will increase our chances of survival.
This is why regular, everyday people went along with all the atrocities of history. The Crusades, the genocide of the Native Americans, the Holocaust, the Communist purges, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and all the terrible conflicts, small and large, on which we look back and wonder, “How could they do that?”
As we struggle through quarantine, and begin to plan for a post-COVID world, it’s important for us not to make decisions based on fear-induced irrationality. Everything is a trade, and there is always a balance between freedom and security, intimacy and hygiene, personal benefit and the common good. Just as in the world of “Demolition Man,” we need to be careful not to sterilize ourselves so thoroughly that the life we are preserving has lost too much of what makes life worth living.