The film tells the story of two men: an evil crime lord and a risk-taking police officer. Cryogenically frozen in 1996, they are restored to life in the year 2032 to find mainstream society changed and all crime seemingly eliminated.
In 1996, psychopathic career criminal Simon Phoenix kidnaps a number of hostages and takes refuge with his gang in an abandoned building. LAPD Sgt. John Spartan uses a thermal scan of the building and finds no trace of the hostages, and leads an unauthorized assault to capture Phoenix. When he is captured, Phoenix sets off a series of explosives that bring down the building. The corpses of the hostages are found in the rubble, leading to the arrest of Spartan for manslaughter. He is incarcerated along with Phoenix in the city's new "California Cryo-Penitentiary", where they are cryogenically frozen and exposed to subconscious rehabilitation techniques.
During their incarceration, the "Great Earthquake" of 2010 leads the cities of Los Angeles, San Diego, and Santa Barbara to merge into a single metropolis under the name San Angeles. The city becomes a utopia run under the pseudo-pacifist guidance and control of the evangelistic Dr. Raymond Cocteau, where human behavior is tightly controlled. In 2032, Phoenix is thawed for a parole hearing. He inexplicably knows and uses the access codes to the security systems, murders the warden and several guards, steals a car, and escapes the prison. The police, having not dealt with violent crime for many years, are unable to handle Phoenix; Cocteau verbally authorizes the police to employ all means at their disposal to contain Phoenix. Lt. Lenina Huxley suggests that Spartan - the police officer who caught Phoenix - be revived and reinstated to the force to help them stop him again. Spartan, having spent 36 years in cryo-stasis until now, is thawed, reinstated, and assigned to Lieutenant Lenina Huxley to help with acclimation to the future, which he finds depressing and oppressive. Others on the police force find his behavior brutish and uncivilized, and Huxley, though fascinated by the lifestyles of the late 20th century, is disgusted when Spartan suggests kissing and sexual intercourse, acts which are taboo in the future due to their unsanitary exchange of bodily fluids and risk of transmitting diseases.
Even after six officers fail to apprehend and subdue Phoenix, the police chief remains confident of success and predicts, with the help of a computer algorithm, that Phoenix will attempt to establish a crime syndicate, which Spartan finds ludicrous. Spartan instead correctly anticipates that Phoenix will attempt to secure firearms, which by 2032 are only in museum exhibits - Spartan and Phoenix have their first face-to-face confrontation in 2032 at the local museum when Phoenix breaks into a museum's weapon exhibition to arm himself. Phoenix escapes and encounters Dr. Cocteau but finds he is unable to shoot Cocteau. Dr. Cocteau reminds Phoenix to assassinate Edgar Friendly, the leader of the resistance group called the Scraps that fight against Cocteau's rule, and allows Phoenix to bring other criminals out of cryo-sleep to help at his request. After seeing the exchange on security cameras, Spartan and Huxley review the cryo-prison records and find that instead of an appropriate criminal rehabilitation program, Phoenix had been given the information necessary for his escape by Cocteau directly. They also discover information directing Phoenix towards Friendly, and go off to warn him.
At the Scraps' underground base, Spartan convinces Friendly of the threat and takes sympathy in their cause given what he has seen above ground. Spartan and the Scraps ward off an attack by Phoenix's gang, leading to a car chase between Spartan and Phoenix. Phoenix taunts Spartan by revealing that when they originally encountered each other in 1996, the hostages were already dead (killed by Phoenix himself), so Spartan spent 36 years in prison for no reason. Phoenix escapes, and Spartan arms himself with help from the Scraps as they emerge in force to get food.
Phoenix returns to Dr. Cocteau with his gang, and as the rehabilitation programming prevents him from killing Cocteau, orders one of his gang to do so. They go back to the CryoPrison and begin to thaw out the most dangerous convicts. Spartan enters the prison alone to fight Phoenix, heavily damaging the facility in the process, and eventually uses the cryogenic chemical to kill Phoenix. Spartan escapes the prison before it explodes and regroups with the police and the Scraps. The police fear the loss of Cocteau and the CryoPrison will send their society into a downward spiral, but Spartan suggests that they and the Scraps work together to create a society which combines the best aspects of order and personal freedom. He then kisses Huxley (which she finds enjoyable) and the two go off together.
Lori Petty was originally cast as Lenina Huxley but was replaced by Sandra Bullock after two days of filming due to what producer Joel Silver described as "creative differences". The character was named after Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World, and Lenina Crowne, a character in Brave New World. Originally Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal were offered lead roles in the film. The role of Simon Phoenix was also offered to Jackie Chan.
General Motors provided the production team with 18 concept vehicles, including the Ultralite. More than 20 fiberglass replicas of the Ultralite were produced to portray civilian and SAPD patrol vehicles in the film. After filming had completed, the remaining Ultralites were returned to Michigan as part of GM's concept vehicle fleet.
The film featured the actual demolition of one of the buildings of the famed, no longer operative Belknap Hardware and Manufacturing Company in Louisville, Kentucky.
One of the film's focal points is Taco Bell being the sole surviving restaurant chain in the world. Because Taco Bell is not widely available outside the U.S., the European version substitutes it with Pizza Hut, with lines re-dubbed and logos changed during post-production.
The film depicts Arnold Schwarzenegger as president, before he served two terms as the 38th Governor of California from 2003 until 2011.
Hungarian science fiction writer István Nemere says that most of Demolition Man is based on his novel Holtak harca (Fight of the Dead), published in 1986. In the novel, a terrorist and his enemy, a counter-terrorism soldier, are cryogenically frozen and awakened in the 22nd century to find violence has been purged from society. Nemere claimed that a committee proved that 75% of the film is identical to the book. He chose not to initiate a lawsuit, as it would have been too expensive for him to hire a lawyer and fight against major Hollywood forces in the United States. He also claimed that Hollywood has plagiarized works of many Eastern European writers after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and that he knows the person he claims to be responsible for illegally selling his idea to the filmmakers.
The title theme is a heavier remix of the song originally recorded by Grace Jones and written by Sting during his time as frontman for The Police. The song was first released in March 1981, as an advance single from Jones's fifth album, Nightclubbing. Sting released an EP featuring this song and other live tracks, entitled Demolition Man.
Elliot Goldenthal composed the score for the film. It was his second big Hollywood project after the Alien³ score.
In 2017, Sylvester Stallone's loan-out company filed a lawsuit against Warner Brothers over the disbursement of profits from the film.
The film debuted at No. 1 at the box office. Demolition Man grossed $58,055,768 by the end of its box office run in North America and $159,055,768 worldwide.
Warner Bros. released it on VHS in March 1994, on DVD in October 1997 and 2014, and on Blu-ray in August 2011.
Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 64% rating based on 36 reviews. The site's consensus reads: "A better-than-average sci-fi shoot-em-up with a satirical undercurrent, Demolition Man is bolstered by strong performances by Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, and Sandra Bullock." The film scored a 34/100 on Metacritic based on 9 reviews. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film fails to give actions fans what they desire, instead substituting out-of-place satirical commentary. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it "a significant artifact of our time or, at least, of this week". Richard Schickel of Time wrote, "Some sharp social satire is almost undermined by excessive explosions and careless casting."
A four-part limited-series comic adaptation was published by DC Comics starting in November 1993. A novelization, written by Robert Tine, was also published in October 1993.
Acclaim Entertainment and Virgin Interactive released Demolition Man on various home video game systems. The 16-bit versions were shooting games distributed by Acclaim. The 3DO version is a multi-genre game that incorporates Full Motion Video scenes, with both Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes reprising their roles as their characters in scenes that were filmed exclusively for the game.
In April 1994, Williams released a widebody pinball machine, Demolition Man based on the movie. It is designed by Dennis Nordman. The game features sound clips from the movie, as well as original speech by Stallone and Snipes. This game was part of WMS' SuperPin series (Twilight Zone, Indiana Jones, etc.).