September 2022

Strange Days (1995)

DIRECTOR: Kathryn Bigelow


Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, Vincent D’Onofrio, William Fichtner, Brigitte Bako, Josef Sommer, Glenn Plummer


A murder-mystery with the backdrop of a vivid and fascinating slightly futuristic sci-fi visionary thriller, Strange Days is entirely worthy of anything with James Cameron’s name attached, and director Kathryn Bigelow (Cameron’s ex-wife) is entirely up to the task of helming Cameron’s story. Strange Days is the whole package: thinking man’s entertainment while appealing equally to the brain and the visceral.

It’s 1999 Los Angeles on the eve of the new millennium (keep in mind the movie was made in 1995), and fears about Y2K, economic collapse, and primed-to-explode racial tensions have some convinced the world is in its final days. Ex-cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes in an against typecasting, engaging performance) is ‘backstroking along the big toilet bowl of life’ as a black market dealer of SQUID (Superconductor Quantram Interference Device), which serve as video cameras taken to the next level. When placed on a user’s head, the squid records not only what he’s seeing, but what he’s feeling, and Lenny has an endless supply of clients, some timid, curious newcomers, some obsessed addicts, who will pay for experiencing something through someone else’s eyes: anything from having an affair without tarnishing their wedding ring to the adrenaline rush of a robbery (without the danger) to something as grotesque as committing a heinous murder (although among Lenny’s few scruples is that he refuses to have anything to do with “blackjacks”—snuff films).  As the new year—and, some believe, the apocalypse—approaches, Lenny is contentedly in his element; his former colleagues are too busy to bother him.  They have bigger fish to fry, most prominently the murder of rapper and black activist Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), whose execution-style killing is threatening to burst the racial fault lines running through Los Angeles wide open.  Blithely indifferent to the volatile environment around him, Lenny is just too cool to be true, so it’s not a great surprise when we learn he’s actually a lonely man pining via old squid recordings for his ex- girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis), who left him for sleazeball music producer Philo Gant (Michael Wincott).  But he can’t ignore the situation forever, when a friend of his, Iris (Brigitte Bako) comes to him for help with a couple of thuggish cops (Vincent D’Onofrio, William Fichtner) after her, and Lenny ends up in possession of a gruesome snuff film.  Soon, Lenny finds himself in over his head, and his allies are few: his friend Max (Tom Sizemore), who works for Gant, and Mace (Angela Bassett), who drives the wealthy and powerful around in armored limousines.

strangeStrange Days doesn’t pretend to be strictly rooted in reality. At the time it was made, it was set five years into the future, and in terms of appearance its world is an exaggerated, slightly futuristic, dilapidated Los Angeles with faint shades of Blade Runner. At the same time it doesn’t go too overboard or stray too outlandishly far from reality. It blurs the line between our world and its slightly exaggerated, slightly heightened one, gives it a noir feel, populates it with a bunch of shady characters, and uses it as a launching pad for a story that features a murder mystery, car chases, shootouts, and a touch of romance. One thing that is clear throughout is that Strange Days is not an unintelligent film. It focuses more on mood and characters than plot (although it has one that mostly holds up), and a few of its climactic events are a little contrived and predictable, but the script by James Cameron and Jay Cocks (based on a story by Cameron) has a clear vision. Strange Days’ world is effectively realized, and fits in a few messages involving drug addiction and the dangers of allowing endlessly dwelling on the past to stop you from living in the present. It’s easy to understand the thrill of the squids. Many of us, whether we’d like to admit it or not, have wondered, at some time or another, what it would be like to live through someone else’s eyes, if just for a little while. But there’s also something inherently voyeuristic about the squids and the characters’ (including Lenny’s) addiction to them. Then we get into the subject of squids that allow you to feel the thrill of doing things without getting caught—committing a robbery, or a murder—and it gets creepier.  For example, it’s far from the only film to feature a scene of murder and rape (and some have been more graphic), but what makes this scene in Strange Days more disturbing is the way the killer uses his ‘squid’ to record the crime and then places it on her head, enhancing his own thrill by forcing her to view her own murder as it happens.  Later there is another creepy scene, in which Lenny watches a recording left in his mail only to find it was taken of himself by the killer as he slept oblivious, that would have made Alfred Hitchcock proud.  The film is more sci-fi vision than action movie, but when it does action, it does it as adeptly as anything with Kathryn Bigelow or James Cameron’s names attached to it.  The murder scenes are harrowing with the added creepy technological twist, and there is a thrilling car chase and later an equally intense and furious climactic fight-to-the-death on a balcony.

Ralph Fiennes, often cast as intense or sinister characters, is exceptionally human and likable.  Fiennes’ looseness and charm here shows his range; Lenny Nero is far away from Schindler’s List‘s Amon Goeth.  Lenny is a little sleazy (with his slick, shallow façade and desperate wheedling out of a series of dangerous situations, he’s a bit like a used car salesman), but we like him anyway, partly because of Fiennes’ breezy performance, partly because we recognize that he’s a scoundrel with a heart of gold (albeit with a little tarnish). Lenny might act like he’s too cool to be affected by anything around him, but at his core, he’s a lonely, vulnerable figure. Angela Bassett is solid as a strong female character who’s in no need of rescuing; in fact she comes to Lenny’s aid more than once. In the supporting cast, Tom Sizemore, the dependably slimy Michael Wincott, and the dependably mad dog Vincent D’Onofrio are effective. Even the ever-spacey Juliette Lewis doesn’t come off too badly, or not enough to be a significant distraction (maybe her somewhat vacuous character isn’t too much of a stretch). In smaller roles we have William Fichtner as D’Onofrio’s likeminded partner and Josef Sommer as the police commissioner.

Strange Days is a lot of things: part visionary sci-fi, part social commentary on allowing drugs (and memories best allowed to fade) to consume one’s life, part intense, harrowing thriller, and part murder mystery. It accomplishes all of these at least competently, and almost always more than competently. There are a few candidates scattered around for the identity of the murderer (although one character is too obviously a red herring). About the only slightly disappointing thing about the way the murder mystery is resolved is that the villain falls victim to Roger Ebert’s Fallacy of the Talking Killer, in which he holds his would-be victim at gunpoint while taking the time to laboriously explain the entire plot, but everything else about Strange Days is so solid that complaining about a minor cliché like this feels like nitpicking. The movie is both ingenious and engaging, a sci-fi vision and a slick murder mystery/thriller, and the characters are not one-dimensional stock figures.  The dialogue, especially by Lenny, is a little more memorable than what we often get: he describes himself as ‘the Santa Claus of the subconsciousness’. At another point he quips ‘this is what we laughingly refer to as a plan, right?’. His assessment of one character: ‘his ass is so tight when he farts only dogs can hear it’.

Strange Days belongs in the top rungs of sci-fi action/thriller, along with the likes of Terminator 2, The Matrix, and Minority Report as films that combine vision, intelligence, and action into an engrossing, hugely entertaining morsel that’s as rich on the inside as it is on the outside.