Mar 20, 2016
Strange Days (1995)
Kathyrn Bigelow’s Strange Days, released in 1995, offers a cyberpunk glimpse of what life will be like in the far-flung year of… 1999? Obviously, this film’s depiction of a dystopic Los Angeles just four years away was a little off the mark; the script (co-written by Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron) was unfortunately already out of date by the time the movie hit theaters, but it’s still a mostly engaging technological crime thriller, at least up until a mess of an ending that tries and fails to tie up all the loose ends.
The movie focuses on Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), a one-time cop who’s become a street hustler. Lenny doesn’t deal in drugs or guns or prostitutes, however. Instead, he sells bootleg copies of virtual reality simulations. Essentially, they’re recordings of someone else’s brain activity that can be played back with a high-tech device called a “squid” that allows viewers to feel as if they’re experiencing the action first-hand. (And of course, the recordings are stored on Sony Mini-Discs, because it’s the future!)
We see the squid in action as Lenny uses it to play back a convenience store robbery that goes bad, and then one of his potential customers uses it, naturally, as highly immersive lesbian porn.
We then get a typical night in Lenny’s life as he meets up with two of his associates: limo driver/bodyguard Mace (Angela Bassett), who doesn’t approve of Lenny’s line of work, and private investigator Max (Tom Sizemore, who has a physique and hairdo not unlike 1970s Meat Loaf in this movie).
As he and Max sit in a bar, a woman named Iris (Brigitte Bako) drops a recording through Lenny’s car window, then goes inside to beg him for help. Unfortunately, his attention is distracted by his car suddenly being repossessed, and Iris disappears into the night.
Hours later, Lenny receives a virtual reality recording of Iris being raped and murdered. In the recording, her killer puts a squid on her during the act, forcing her to experience what her attacker feels as he assaults her. This disturbing footage really brings out the inner police officer in Lenny, and he immediately jumps into action to get to the bottom of things.
Iris was best friends with Lenny’s ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis), the Courtney Love-like lead singer of a rock band, because nothing says 1999 quite like grunge. Lenny is obviously carrying a torch for her—he’s still got a shoebox full of virtual reality recordings of their intimate moments together. Lenny tries to get her away from her creepy new boyfriend, record exec Philo (Michael Wincott), thinking he might be behind Iris’ murder, but to no avail.
Lenny then gets sent another recording of the killer entering his apartment while he’s sleeping, which understandably freaks him out. Eventually, he gets his car back and takes a look at the recording Iris tried to give him, which shows a major rapper/activist being executed by a couple of corrupt cops (Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner).
Lenny and Mace find themselves in a lot of danger as the two cops try to kill them over what they saw. At one point, they set Mace’s limo on fire with Lenny and Mace inside, forcing her to drive off a pier and into the water to get away.
They survive and manage to sneak into a private New Year/Millennium’s Eve party being thrown by Philo for some of the city’s wealthy elite. Lenny wants Mace to give the recording to the police commissioner, but Philo’s bodyguards throw her out onto the streets, which are not only filled with revelers, but also people protesting against racial inequality.
Suddenly, the two corrupt cops burst through the crowd openly firing at Mace, and no one seems to notice. With the fireworks and music going on, I suppose it may have been hard for some of the bystanders to hear the shots, but I think it’d be pretty much impossible to miss the bodies falling left and right.
Eventually, the cops catch up to Mace and commence beating the crap out of her, while the crowd simply stands around and watches, which is bizarre. Eventually, one kid jumps in, and then a near-riot ensues. And it takes a lot of gall on the part of the filmmakers to reenact both the Rodney King beating and the Rodney King riots here. It’s embarrassingly heavy-handed in 2014; I can’t imagine how it played three years after the actual riots.
Meanwhile, Lenny sneaks into Philo’s penthouse suite and finds a recording of Faith that seems to show her also being raped and murdered.
He looks over and sees a body covered in a sheet, and goes to pull the sheet away… and the body is actually Philo. The real killer is (spoilers!—even though the rest of the movie makes no sense whatsoever) Lenny’s friend Max, who’s been having an affair with Faith. The recording of him “killing” Faith was really just her pretending to be murdered. And they apparently made Philo watch this recording over and over until it fried his brain, basically.
Max and Lenny have a fight that ends with Max going over the balcony and hanging onto Lenny’s tie for dear life. Lenny cuts his tie, causing Max to fall to his death, while Faith gets arrested for Philo’s murder. Meanwhile on the street, the police commissioner swoops in to save Mace and arrest the corrupt cops. Alas, one cop chooses to eat a bullet, while the other decides he’d rather go out in a hail of gunfire.
With the bad guys all dead or soon to be behind bars, the pseudo-riot on the street abruptly shifts back to the Y2K party. Lenny and Mace finally have time to confess their feelings for one another and share a kiss. The city around them counts down to the end of the world, or as it turns out, simply the year 2000.
The technology in the movie, although not entirely original, is quite cool. The 3D IMAX experience pales in comparison to the squid, and I sort of wished the movie showed us more of the virtual world than the drab L.A. scene. But the big problem with the squid is there seemed to be no other technological advances apparent in the world of this movie. It’s hard to believe that one day the squid was suddenly invented without any other advancements to push it along.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate; there’s a moment where Iris leaves a message on Lenny’s phone, which transcribes her message as she talks, just like current voicemail-to-text services. So that’s one prediction this movie got right, at least.
One huge advancement the filmmakers totally missed was the explosion of the internet at about the same time the movie came out (in fact, the only reference to the internet is the official site URL in the closing credits—which naturally uses the wrong slashes). Of course, including the internet would have invalidated the story entirely. If one can just download somebody else’s brain recordings, then there’s no need for a dealer like Lenny, and poof!—there goes the whole movie.
Prior to winning an Oscar, Bigelow specialized in action movies like Near Dark and Blue Steel and Point Break that tended more towards the B-grade, high-testosterone, exploitation side of Hollywood cinema. If you liked those movies, you may like Strange Days, but I felt it was trying too hard to be provocative, with lots of graphic violence that served no purpose, and way too many lingering shots of women being raped. The technology is fascinating, at least for the first hour or so, but then the plot kicks in and the movie turns into a rather average neo-noir mystery/thriller.
Strange Days didn’t get great reviews upon release, and it fizzled at the box office thanks to lackluster marketing. And it’s not really much more than an okay film, frankly, but it’s become a cult classic for a reason. It kind of forecasted all sorts of obsessions we’re dealing with today, with straight-up voyeurism now considered entertainment, and many of us now feeling the need to share even our most intimate moments with the entire world. While the end result is a bit jumbled and overlong and underdeveloped, it’s cool to see this in a movie that was made during the era of the flip phone.