(Kathryn Bigelow, US, 1995)
Set in Los Angeles on December 31st 1999, Strange Days is a future-noir thriller that depicts a city on the brink of collapse. Armed riot police stalk the streets, young Koreans defend their storefronts with pump action shotguns, crazed prophets predict impending apocalypse over the airwaves, and teenage girls attack Santa Claus on the sidewalk. Against this threatening backdrop, we meet Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), a high-tech pusher. Kicked off the police force, Nero ekes out a living off-loading illicit virtual reality discs. The discs are played on a customised version of a portable CD player, in conjunction with a headpiece instead of headphones. Using SQUID (Superconducting QUantum Interface Device) technology, the discs not only record unedited, uncut, visuals 'straight from the cerebral cortex' of the person who recorded them, they also retain the full range of sensory input, ready for access by whoever uses them. Specialising in porn and robbery footage, Lenny draws the line at 'Blackjacks': snuff clips that show the death of the star, through their own eyes. Ignoring the pushers' code of never get high on your own supply', he spends his evenings obsessing over his former girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis), while replaying favourite highlights of their relationship on his SQUID deck. One night, Iris (Brigitte Bako), an old friend of Faith's; turns up at Lenny's favourite hang out. Soon after, Nero receives a disc depicting Iris' rape and murder. In an attempt to find the killer, Nero begs favours from his old friend Mace (Angela Basset), a super tough bodyguard. Helped by Nero's friend Max, the trio discover disturbing evidence, connected to the recent death of superstar rapper Jericho One.
An action film that is also an meditation on voyeurism. An experimental piece, with exciting set pieces. A movie that finds room for a strongly aggressive female character, and a protracted rape scene. A vision of Los Angeles that sees the city as simultaneously on the edge of diaster, and on the cusp of a new Golden Age. A film that views the police as thugs and saviours. Science fiction in retro, seventies clothes. Strange Days is a contradiction. Just like its director, Kathryn Bigelow. In each of her films, she has attempted to reconcile the perceived chasm between the intellectual discipline of her education, and the 'trashiness' of genre moviemaking. With this film, Bigelow's contrasting influences meet head on. The result is a confused, self-contradictory picture, that also contains some of the most exciting science fiction images of recent years. Judged as pure adrenalin rush, it delivers the goods. From the lurching, heart stopping, point-of-view opening, to the massive rave that provides the setting for the climax, the film crashes through a myriad of different styles.
Writers James Cameron and Jay Cocks have fashioned a group of fresh, beguiling characters, who never fail to hold the attention. Making Nero a self serving whimp; while allowing Mace to provide the muscle; is a neat reversal, which adds to the film's value. Strange Days is easily the best cyberpunk movie made so far. The scenes through the SQUID are fearsomely exciting, (and obviously made with a perfectionists care and attention), but the film also attempts to criticise its audience for taking pleasure in such images. Only in the rape scene does Strange Days successfully manoeuvre its audience into moral ambiguity, triggering doubts about whether we are simply Bigelow's punters, eager to buy voyeuristic thrills. The choice of music is eclectic and hip giving credibility to the superbly staged New Years Eve party, and it is hard to imagine anything more convincing this side of the real event. Attempting to tackle the tense racial situation in Los Angeles is a brave move, but the subject defeats the film. The Rodney King video is alluded to in thinly disguised form, and there is much talk of a police conspiracy. Throughout the film, tension mounts, underlining the fear that the dawn of the millennium will also see the beginning of the apocalypse. Shortly before the ending there is an abrupt change of pace, (possibly due to studio interference) after which the picture seems to advance the naïve view that the LA riots were caused by the TV broadcasting of the Rodney King video, rather than by an unjust verdict. Strange Days' mixture of disparate elements is daring, but ultimately foolhardy. Bigelow strives to include so many opposing themes, that the film seems to have no opinion on any of the issues it raises.