Strange Days Revisited

July 14, 2011

I decided to post this as a love letter to a film that has become quite unfairly overlooked and almost forgotten about. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and co-written by her one-time spouse, James Cameron, Strange Days is a science fiction flick released in 1995 which starred Ralph Fiennes in a wonderfully atypical role*. It flopped at the box-office despite a decent critical reception but it remains notable not only for being amongst the few decently realized cyberpunk films in existence, but also for the deft manner in which it fuses this sub-genre with contemporary socio-political controversy and its overall status as one of the last of the big-budget, dark, dystopian sci-fi films made for adults.

Strange Days is set in Los Angeles 1999. The film begins on December 30th and plays out over the final two days of the 20th century, a time where L.A. is a veritable police state with mass unrest, critical racial tension and an extreme atmosphere of pre-millennial tension. Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is a disgraced ex-cop turned street hustler specializing in the illegal trade of recordings from illicit surveillance technology known as ‘SQUID’ (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device). A high-tech rubbery skull-cap, easily concealed under wigs or hats, records events from the wearer’s cerebral cortex, not only what they see and hear but also what they feel. This data can be stored on discs which are then traded on the black market to be “played back” by other users later, the experience neatly encapsulated in the dazzling first-person view prologue shot through the eyes of a member of a criminal gang taking part in a violent armed robbery, later to be revealed as Nero playing the clip for himself and experiencing all the adrenaline and thrills therein. Nero is a sleazy loser, albeit one who reveals glimpses of a good heart. He has a lingering obsession with his ex-lover, Faith (Juliette Lewis) who has taken up with an even sleazier figure, music producer Philo (Michael Wincott), who in turn strings her along with promises of fame whilst she performs pretty decent covers of PJ Harvey songs in a mad industrial-goth club. Meanwhile, Faith and Lenny’s friend Iris is running for her life pursued by some desperate cops. She has a dark secret on a SQUID disc that she needs to get to Lenny but her time is fast running out. Soon Lenny finds himself caught up in a tangled web of rape and murder, being set-up and stalked by an unknown assailant as the city around him continues its increasingly volatile meltdown. He has only his ass-kicking friend Mace (Angela Bassett) and his equally sleazy buddy Max (Tom Sizemore) to help him as he tries to uncover the mystery of the killings and the SQUID disc before it’s too late.

The success of Strange Days is down to the skilful manner in which it manages to blend a number of different themes into its impressive techno-thriller, cyberpunk noir. The SQUID technology is wonderfully prescient, combining qualities of highly addictive drugs, pornography and video games into one lurid, irresistible package of vicarious voyeurism. Users dabble in reliving polysexual trysts, violent crime and even snuff clips, known as ‘blackjack’. This is but one element of the near-future, dystopian tapestry here, however. There is also the desperate anxiety of the end of the millennium and the impending revolutionary promise of Y2K but perhaps the most striking and subversive feature of Strange Days is its depiction of a Los Angeles that not only hasn’t recovered from the 1992 riots stemming from the LAPD beating of Rodney King (and subsequent acquittal), but which has actually steadily worsened. Many scenes in the film involve shots of a ruined, violent city at night with random beatings, burning cars and everywhere police personnel in full riot gear putting black men against walls at gunpoint and facing off against enraged mobs in the streets. The little-seen but pivotal character, Jeriko One, a firebrand activist rapper, parallels Rodney King whilst also representing every controversial hip-hop musician of the early 90s as he defiantly speaks out against the brutal, oppressive tactics of the LAPD and rallies a disaffected populace behind his revolutionary message. Strange Days predicts the continued erosion of humanity by technological means and explores a city brought to the brink of chaos by wrenching open the very real wound of the 1992 LA riots. The best science fiction comments on the present, as they say, and here is where this film is particularly effective, as the events are much closer to home than in the many sci-fi flicks which framed their dark future visions in terms of more vague corporate fascist takeovers and techno-wasteland Americas.

The single darkest moment however is a rape and murder scene shot in the first-person view that indicates it’s a ‘wire clip’ (SQUID recording). The unknown killer attacks a woman in a hotel room and records the experience of handcuffing her to a towel rack before raping and strangling her. As gruesome as it is, the scene is made all the more disturbing when the killer produces a second SQUID headset which he places on his victim’s head. It is later explained that, in so doing, the assailant was relaying the same recorded experience of the rape and murder from his point of view to his victim with the effect that she witnesses the crime and feels his same thrill and excitement as the attack is carried out. This was the most controversial scene in Strange Days as it took the very serious subject of rape and applied the twist of its central, fanciful sci-fi gimmick to the act, risking the film being exposed to charges of exploitation and a frivolous lack of sensitivity. It’s a bold move and it succeeds in infusing the proceedings with a sense of gravitas in terms of the dangers and repugnance of the technology and the role of the voyeuristic spectator/audience. It also marks the moment in Strange Days when the viewer recognizes that it is a more adult and challenging piece than the mere premise or marketing suggested.

Kathryn Bigelow delivered a well-crafted cyberpunk noir with an assured technical flair but what is most impressive is the surprisingly downbeat and brutal tone of Strange Days. The film focuses on a protagonist who slowly appears to be salvaging his lost humanity, paired with a supporting character (Mace) who defiantly struggles against all odds with her own humanity intact, but it is clear that the nihilism and depravity of almost every other character is a more accurate reflection of the ruined world being presented. There is an attempt to alleviate this ruin and despair with a hopeful, optimistic ending but this is easily the weakest part of the film, offering no convincing or lasting redemption. Strange Days pushed a hard vision of the end of the 20th century in which we were ultimately lost, corrupt, hideously perverse, and we absolutely could not all just get along.

(*Ralph Fiennes, weirdly, looks a lot like Bradley Cooper in this film. Fifteen years before Bradley Cooper was even famous. It’s spooky.)



  1. I do like this film. Skunk Anansie are it as well aren’t they? I think they’re the band that’s playing for ‘the bells’. I’ve not seen it for a long time, probably about 12 years or so. I think I’ll see if it’s cheap to buy.

  2. Indeed they are. They treat us to a rendition of ‘Selling Jesus’ during the climactic New Year’s Eve street party. Juliette Lewis’ PJ Harvey covers aren’t too bad either. ‘Rid of Me’ ain’t up to much but ‘I Can Hardly Wait’ is damn catchy.

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