Robin’s Underrated Gems: Strange Days (1995)

The first film I watched on the first day of 2010 was, of course, 2010, the underrated sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I had fun seeing how inaccurate its vision of the future turned out to be. As we begin 2011 (and there are only have four years left for the flying cars from Back to the Future Part II to take shape), I want to journey back to eleven years ago when the millennium hit and people had Y2K fever and were convinced the world was going to end. Four years before that, a little-seen film called Strange Days presented a vision of December 31, 1999 that, well, turned out to be about as accurate as 2010 was. However, I really don’t think Strange Days ever pretended to be an accurate representation of the future, but just wanted to present an apocalyptic vision of where the world could eventually be heading. We may not be using the particular technology presented in this film, but back in 1995, could we ever have predicted how much the Internet would take over our lives? Anyway, Strange Days is undoubtedly one of the most underrated films to come out in the 1990s. It has garnered a devoted cult following over the years, but virtually no one saw it in theatres when it was originally released and it was a colossal flop at the box office. From what I remember, there was very little advertising and publicity surrounding the film during its theatrical run and it was only after watching it on home video several months later that I discovered its greatness and wondered why the hell more people weren’t talking about it. I think the distributors just had no clue about how to market Strange Days, but considering the massive success the people behind it have since gone on to achieve, it demands rediscovery.

It was pretty sweet to see Kathryn Bigelow win the “Best Picture” and “Best Director” awards for The Hurt Locker at the Oscars last year, as it’s always a feeling of validation when an underrated cult director you’ve been following for many years finally garners mainstream recognition. I had always been a big fan of Bigelow ever since I saw her tremendous vampire film, Near Dark, and will always defend her Keanu Reeves-Patrick Swayze surfing/bank robbery film, Point Break, until my dying breath. Strange Days was definitely the masterpiece of her career up until that point, but because it flopped so badly, her career never really recovered for a long time. Bigelow had been married to James Cameron for two years and even though they divorced in 1991, they remained on amicable enough terms that Cameron was willing to hand a screenplay he wrote over to her since he wouldn’t have had the time to direct it himself. The story covers the last two days of the millennium in Los Angeles in 1999 where society is on the verge of tearing itself apart. There seems to be a riot or a crime taking place on every other street corner in L.A. and racial tension is at an all-time high. The protagonist is an ex-cop named Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) who deals in an illegal black market technology called “playback” which involves putting a device called a SQUID (Superconductor Quantum Interference Device) on your head. This is a form of virtual reality that allows you to watch a recording that was made of someone else’s memories from their cerebral cortex and you can literally feel what the subject was feeling. This technology is particularly in demand for people who want to experience sexual fantasies they couldn’t have in real life, or wish to feel the adrenaline rush of committing an illegal crime. Strange Days establishes this premise with one of the most spectacular opening sequences I’ve ever seen in a film, a prolonged non-stop point-of-view camera shot taken entirely from the perspective of a criminal committing a robbery.

Lenny is something of a “playback” junkie himself as he constantly watches recordings of his experiences with his ex-girlfriend, Faith (Juliette Lewis), who has left him and is now hanging out with the wrong crowd. Lenny’s most loyal friend is a working-class single mom named Mace (Angela Bassett), who is constantly bailing Lenny out of trouble and, in typical James Cameron fashion, is a tough, ass-kicking heroine. Lenny soon finds himself embroiled in a very convoluted murder mystery when one of his female friends, Iris (Brigitte Bako) is killed after she uses her SQUID device to secretly record something she wasn’t supposed to see. After the movie has spent its first act establishing what a fun experience “playback” seems to be, it suddenly goes in the other direction and delivers a harrowing scene of Iris getting raped and murdered, which is presented entirely from the point-of-view of her attacker in a SQUID “blackjack” (i.e. snuff) clip. This scene did not sit well with a lot of viewers when the film originally came out, but it does present a very interesting commentary on the concept of voyeurism in cinema. We, the audience, have always found entertainment in being voyeurs to the sight of screen violence, but the idea of actually getting to share a murderer and rapist’s cerebral experience is not so much fun and makes one question how much enjoyment we should really get out of witnessing such acts. Like I said earlier, while virtual reality has not become as prevalent a technology as depicted in this film, the Internet has provided a bigger window for voyeurism that no one would have ever thought possible in 1995. The film is clearly intended as a dark futuristic sci-fi fantasy, there is definitely a lot of truth and reality mixed in. The plot involves the murder of a politically outspoken rapper named Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) and one of the most eerily presicent moments in the film is Lenny’s statement that now that Jeriko One has been murdered, he’s going to wind up selling more albums than ever before. Tupac Shakur, anyone? It’s obvious that Cameron was also inspired by the Rodney King incident and the racial tension that existed in Los Angeles at the time between its black citizens and the cops.

Bigelow and Cameron present their ideas very well, delivering an uncommonly intelligent, thought-provoking story that still contains all the usual action ingredients like shootouts, car chases and fight scenes. The plot isn’t exactly airtight and without its flaws (you’ll probably figure out the film’s biggest twist if you’re familiar with Roger Ebert’s “Law of Economy of Characters”), but Bigelow keeps everything moving at a terrific pace and even though the film is almost two-and-a-half hours long, it seems to fly by really quickly. She infuses Strange Days so much kinetic energy that it perfectly conveys the adrenaline rush its characters like to experience when they become immersed in “playback”. The movie also looks terrific, providing a convincingly hellacious vision of L.A. that resembles a cross between Blade Runner and 1940s film noir, and the climactic New Year’s Eve millennium party involving a humongous crowd of people in the middle of the city looks truly spectacular. The performances from the cast are uniformly strong, particularly from Ralph Fiennes, who manages to make Lenny into a very sympathetic and likable individual despite his questionable lifestyle and many character flaws. The role of the sleazy, fast-talking Lenny Nero couldn’t have been any more different from Fiennes’ previous roles as an evil Nazi in Schindler’s List and an intellectual contest in Quiz Show only showcased his tremendous range as an actor. Angela Bassett also does a terrific job at turning Mace into one of the strongest and more underrated screen heroines of the past twenty years. Considering what an effective mixture it is of intelligent ideas and exciting action, it’s really surprising that Strange Days didn’t find a bigger audience. The most recent sci-fi outing that managed to mesh those elements together so well was Inception and it became an enormous hit. I guess Strange Days is just another case of a film that may have been a hit if it had been released in another era, but had the misfortune of coming out when audiences were just not ready for it. Even though a lot of its visions about the future didn’t wind up coming true, the film surprisingly does not seem that dated at all, and one can only hope that Kathryn Bigelow’s success with The Hurt Locker might help Strange Days gain more exposure in the years to come. If I had been writing my “Robin’s Underrated Gems” column in the early days of the Internet, Strange Days might have been my very first subject of choice.

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