“Strange Days” is a prophetic work of science fiction showing how an obsession with technological taboos and voyeuristic imagery will be the death of us.
The 1995 film centered on virtual reality, while today we grapple with the post-YouTube age.
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s film is also a plea for justice over chaos, love over hatred, accountability at the highest levels over take-it-or-leave-it corruption. It was released in 1995 and, despite some aspects that feel very of its time, Bigelow’s film, one of her absolute best, feels very RIGHT NOW.
The time is 1999, on the last day before the new Millennium, in Los Angeles. Ralph Fiennes stars as Lenny Nero, a dealer of “playback” discs that offer the viewer virtual reality clips of various moments and sensations that, while you’re watching them, feel like the real thing.
These clips were filmed from the visage of volunteers, who willingly recorded their experiences, which are variations of unlawful behavior and/or sex. Angela Bassett’s Mace describes them as “used emotions.”
Lenny has a line and pitch for everything, something his best friend Mace has grown tired of. An unceasing crush in Faith, a rock star ex-girlfriend (Juliette Lewis) becomes Lenny’s Achille’s Heel, as well as his immersion in peddling other people’s sordid experiences for profit.
The discs come across as sleazy but harmless at first, until we learn a much sought after disc of a hate crime is given to Lenny, who recognizes that, were it to become public, could lead to massive civil unrest.
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This is a world where Dante’s Inferno isn’t a lower level to ascend but a club down the street. Police brutality is everywhere, violence constantly breaks out and no one seems strong enough to stand up to any of it. Lenny’s line of work is booming, because who wants to deal with civil unrest when you can “jack in” and live vicariously through someone else’s experiences?
The amazing opening set piece is, like all of the recorded experiences we witness, off-putting, vivid and sordid. Like a YouTube video we know we shouldn’t be watching but do anyway. It plays its premise to the bone, exploring every possibility the premise offers (like the delirious scene where Lenny watches “playback” of being stalked while in pursuit of the intruder).
To pause for a moment in describing a pivotal act three transition: I saw “Strange Days” on opening night, in a theater that was a little over half full; clearly everyone in my zip code who wanted to see the film was present. During the scene in which Lenny (and we) view a first-person rape scene, in which we see this occur through the eyes of a rapist, the theater rapidly began to empty.
This sequence, which appears at the two-hour mark, inspired a mass exit to take place, as theater patrons silently but quickly fled. Aside from observing a full auditorium at Denver’s Esquire Theater give up on Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” before the first hour (at which point the lobby was full of patrons demanding a refund,) I have never attended a movie that has inspired so many people to walk out.
The scene in question is nowhere near as bad as I remember, but still horrifying and impactful, as it should be. You can make an intellectual argument for the violence in Bigelow’s films; the scenes in question are graphic, ugly and off-putting, which is exactly the point.
The violent scenes in Bigelow’s films (ALL of them, from “Near Dark” onto “Zero Dark Thirty”) are meant to be painful to endure. This sequence may be about a snuff film, but Bigelow avoids exploitation and invites us to share the horror of the moment.
FAST FACT: “Strange Days” earned an anemic $7.9 million at the U.S. box office in 1995. The year’s big winner? Val Kilmer’s “Batman Forever” with $184 million stateside.
I write all this as a warning, sort of but also a plea that you don’t give up on the movie. Bigelow isn’t glamourizing any of this and the sleazy quality of these virtual films isn’t glossed over. The “Snuff Clip” that becomes a focal point, as even Lenny, after all, isn’t indifferent to human suffering.
“Strange Days” is constantly testing its audience: How Much Can You Take? In 1995, it was too much, especially for the big screen.
This was promoted as an action movie (one of the many botches in the marketing of the film), which is somewhat understandable, as Bigelow, then and now, is among the best living filmmakers who makes action movies. “Strange Days” is a tour de force for Bigelow, whose forceful visual style and gift for encouraging great work from her cast, is in plain view.
“Strange Days” is, unfortunately, prophetic, an indication that the justified rage at the Rodney King verdict was just the beginning…
Fiennes, post-“Hamlet,” is utterly convincing and always compelling as this Ratzo Rizzo-like hustler, an American peddler so immersed in sleaze, he appears stained by the human grime he dishes out.
Bassett is sensational as Mace, in a compelling, emotionally volcanic performance. Bassett has always been a heavyweight (particularly in “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” “Malcolm X,” and “Waiting to Exhale”) and has a habit of juicing up supporting roles in big movies. This is her finest work, a ferocious, deeply felt turn.
Mace is screenwriter James Cameron’s best female protagonist; she’s strong and independent, lacking the mania of Sarah Connor but matching her warrior-like physique and determination. Mace isn’t a male fantasy or a contrivance but the real hero of the film. Lenny doesn’t realize he’s the sidekick of his own story.
Lewis has some scenes here that must have taken some real nerve. Some critics incorrectly reported that she was just playing the same character from “Natural Born Killers,” which is unfair and untrue. Faith is a fallen angel and an obsession of Lenny’s but Lewis captures the defiant heart of this artist consumed by the power and comfort of a new lover, played by the always riveting Michael Wincott. Few actors do petulant Lizard King villainy better than Wincott, one of the best character actors to emerge in the ’90s.
Playing the two hateful, corrupt L.A.P.D. officers, William Fichter and Vincent D’Onofrio are vivid in their portrait of a devilish, lawless, entitled monsters hiding behind badges.
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Cameron’s screenplay has some trademark touches, like the corny one-liners and a dangling fluorescent light (a la “The Abyss”). While the L.A.P.D. (or representatives of them) represents the film greatest threat, Cameron is going after any law enforcer who indulges in despicable behavior.
The CD-ROMs and recorded experiences on discs may be dated hardware today, but the addiction to cheap thrills, quick-fix visual hits of forbidden visions will never date itself. At showing us our darkest dreams, Bigelow does this better than Douglas Trumball’s still-astonishing “Brainstorm” from 1983.
Like Wim Wenders’ 1991 “Until the End of the World,” “Strange Days” offers a cautionary tale about experiencing existence through virtual means, which is no substitute for human contact.
“Strange Days” lacks the quiet and visual poetry of Wenders’ film but is among the best works that explore the fantasy, addiction and possibilities of VR.
How big a money loser was “Strange Days?” To put it in perspective: it came out the same year as “Waterworld,” which was deemed a disaster in the press but actually made enough worldwide to turn a profit.
Bigelow’s film, on the other hand, was hampered by an overly cryptic ad campaign, particularly its aggressive, galvanizing trailer. Fiennes stared right into the camera and pitched the film’s tech to the audience.
It’s a great trailer, capped by the tagline everyone involved clearly thought was going to catch on: “You Know You Want It.” Despite some strong reviews, it vanished quickly from theaters and unfairly hurt Bigelow’s career, which eventually rebounded with the success of “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Setting this in the year 1999 is problematic, and not just because setting a specific time automatically dates the film: there’s no Y2K but there’s also not enough of a payoff after the big buildup and Armageddon tease. On the other hand, this adds to the film noir approach, as promise of the world’s end appears to be a relief to these characters, all of whom are worn down by life’s disappointments.
Cameron’s screenplay remains busy and loaded with twists until the very end; his finale is conventional but it sure is big. The “End of the Millennium Party” (an actual event staged at the Bonaventura Hotel in Los Angeles) is an awesome swarm of partygoers, hard rockers, Taiko drums, giant screens and bagpipes (!).
Although Cameron’s concluding moments are conventional (particularly in how tidy they are), they sure are BIG.
The heart of the film is the reveal of Fiennes’ fallen angel, how Lenny came into Mace’s life. The flashback to this initial meeting is done in one-take and it hits hard. Because it’s a real flashback and isn’t a “playback,” the scene makes the unspoken point that real memories are the only ones worth watching. Although a frenetic and often caustic experience, the human center of Bigelow’s film is moving and strong enough to elevate it above the rough patches.
Bigelow’s film is long but never stops moving. A shorter version might have helped it commercially, but a leaner cut would have lost the quitter character scenes that give it depth.
The depiction of a big city torn apart by police brutality is, to say the least, sadly relevant and hasn’t aged a minute. Cameron wrote “Strange Days” as a response to the 1992 L.A. riots over the Rodney King verdict. His vision is of a pessimistic world, with a dangerous over-reliance on technology-for-pleasure, being ripped apart by racist hate crimes, and out-in-the-open injustice.
Bigelow’s imperfect but harrowing 2017 “Detroit” is another portrayal of racist hate and a grotesque abuse of power by law enforcement.
Whereas that film is a reenactment of a terrible occurrence from 1967, “Strange Days” is just as troubling, due to apt her disturbing vision of our immediate future is.
In 1995, the “playback” clips we witness were a metaphor for drugs- today, the metaphor is unnecessary, as everyone is “jacked in.” We’re trapped in William Gibson Land, with all the violence of the late 1960’s replayed as though it were new.
“Strange Days” is, unfortunately, prophetic, an indication that the justified rage at the Rodney King verdict was just the beginning, as police brutality and systemic racism has only become even more visible in the age of camera phones. However, Bigelow and Cameron do offer hope, as hard won and bitter as it is in the end.
I won’t describe the final moments, but will note that it indicates how understanding, respect and love are enough to overcome the charred ruins we walk away from and survive. What felt like a forced conclusion in 1995 now seems like a necessity, a welcome respite to how most movies would wrap up before fading to black.
Bigelow and Cameron are saying that we will overcome this, all this abuse of power, violence and apathy. Moreover, their film implies that we must overcome it, or we’ll continue to spiral downward. “Strange Days” ends in a manner that might be naïve but the anger and immediacy of its message is intact: if we don’t respond to oppression, nothing will change.