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Haute Taco Bell & Underground Rat Burgers: Food as Political Metaphor in ‘Demolition Man’

Demolition Man (1993)

Demolition Man (1993)

When my husband and I moved into our new apartment in Providence one month ago, we split our time between building Ikea furniture during a minor heat wave (which was somewhat-less-than-delightful) and watching movies that ranged from beloved cult classic (Slap Shot with 1977 Paul Newman) to awesomely bad. It is from this latter set that today’s subject matter emerges: the sci-fi action flick, Demolition Man (1993).

In this film, directed by Marco Brambilla, hero John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone, ripped and a bit punch drunk as per usual) battles his violent nemesis, Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes, donning a startlingly blonde flat top). After Spartan’s attempt to arrest Phoenix goes wrong in 1996, both men are sentenced to be cryogenically frozen, which, yes, was somehow already a best practice in prisons before the end of the twentieth century. When Phoenix escapes at his parole hearing and starts a killing spree in the post-apocolyptic future of 2032, the current police force has no choice but to turn to Spartan for help.

Brutal in any time, Phoenix is an extreme menace in this imagined future. In a world without crime, an antiseptic peace is ensured in the city of San Angeles by strict laws, which govern behavior, personal expression, and sensual experiences. Swearing is forbidden. Sex has been replaced with a technological substitute and all babies are created in a laboratory. Anything remotely “bad for you” has been banned, namely a slew of of foods and ingredients, including chocolate, meat, spicy foods, salt, alcohol, and caffeine.

In 'Demolition Man,' patrons dress in futuristic formal wear when dining at Taco Bell, the only remaining restaurant chain.

In ‘Demolition Man,’ patrons dress in futuristic formal (and oddly Asian inspired) wear when dining at Taco Bell, the only remaining restaurant chain.

Beyond making up the bulk of the forbidden substances list, food plays other important roles. For example, it comes to light that Taco Bell won “The Franchise Wars” and is now the only restaurant chain. While Taco Bell was reportedly the only fast food chain interested in an R-rated film tie in, the film’s portrayal of futuristic fast food is relevant. In a bizarre twist, Taco Bell is no more the late night fast food joint perfect for the spare change you find beneath car seats, but is transformed into a fine dining establishment, frequented by the wealthy alone. Patrons dress to impress. Tables are set with colored cloths, elaborate flatware, and metallic champagne flutes.

Taco Bell tacos are no longer greasy finger food, but are deconstructed and elevated to modernist cuisine. No longer a communal gathering of ingredients, flavors, and textures, each component is plated in an individualist, tiny mound.

The deconstructed taco served at Taco Bell in 2023.

The deconstructed (and vegetarian) taco served at Taco Bell in 2032.

While the wealthy conspicuously dine upon minuscule portions of “healthy” food, members of the resistance live in the sewers beneath the city, coming above ground to scrounge for food. In fact, it is in part food that motivates Spartan to side with the cause of the Resistance, whose leader tells Spartan that his people go hungry, but at least they are free; while above ground, well-fed citizens are subject to sanction at every turn.

It is below ground that Spartan also finds food familiar to him from his pre-frozen and pre-prison life in the 1990s: burgers and beer. He walks the crowded and dirty streets of the underground city, smelling the cooked meat in the air. He grins, walking quickly until he finds the food stand grilling up the burgers. While his compatriots from the twenty-first century police force refuse to partake, Spartan bites into the burger with abandon, obviously enjoying it, even after being told that the meat is not beef, but rat.

Beneath the streets of San Angeles, John Spartan enjoys a burger, even after learning that it is made from rat meat.

Beneath the streets of San Angeles, John Spartan enjoys a burger, even after learning that it is made from rat meat.

While a subtle detail in a mostly action driven film, food plays a symbolic role in Demolition Man. Haute Taco Bell tacos represent the exclusive, classist, tightly controlled, and non-sensual state of a peaceful, but highly regulated future society. A simple, fast food burger carries the symbolic meaning of the common American values of freedom, choice, and fairness, which are fighting to remain alight in the city below the streets.

Touched by people’s hunger, and welcomed with and comforted by a familiar burger, Spartan joins forces with the Resistance to protect their leader, who Phoenix has been programmed to kill. By defeating Phoenix, Spartan ensures a world where violence and peace are not prescribed, regimented, autocratic states, but a democratized choice that citizens make collectively.

I never expected it when I sat down to watch Demolition Man, but even in a delightfully dreadful action movie, food emerges yet again as a powerful and political symbol.

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