James Cameron's Blade Runner: "Strange Days" (1995) Movie Review
James Cameron can do no wrong. The impression is effectively that everything the man touches turns to gold. With films like The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) under his belt (to name a few), that is pretty understandable. These films revolutionized cinema in their own way and set the box office ablaze upon release. However, one project is completely overlooked in Cameron's impressive filmography. That film is Strange Days (1995), which he wrote and produced. The directorial duties were assumed by none other than his ex-wife and the woman behind Point Break (1991), Kathryn Bigelow. Featuring a witty script, an intriguing premise, a superb cast and an overall wonderful atmosphere reminiscent of Blade Runner (1982), this film has a lot to offer and I consider it among the very best of the sci-fi genre. Despire it's obvious qualities, the film bombed upon release, only grossing $8,000,000 out of a $42,000,000 budget. Critical reaction was mixed but the movie acquired a small cult following since its theatrical run. Nonetheless, Strange Days deserves much more attention and is worth your time. Let's take a closer look at this gem! Warning: spoilers ahead!
I can get you what you want, I can. I can get you anything, you just have to talk to me, you have to trust me. You can trust me, 'cause I'm your priest, I'm your shrink... I am your main connection to the switchboard of the soul. I'm the magic man... Santa Claus of the subconscious. You say it, you think it, you can have it.
With these words, Ralph Fiennes' character pretty much summarizes the intriguing premise behind the film: former policeman Lenny Nero (Fiennes) has moved into a more lucrative trade: the illegal sale of virtual reality-like recordings that allow users to experience the emotions and past experiences of others. While the bootlegs typically contain tawdry incidents, Nero is shocked when he receives one showing a murder. He enlists a friend, bodyguard Mace (Angela Bassett), to help find the killer -- and the two soon stumble upon a vast conspiracy involving the police force Nero once worked for.
The plot is quite complex and requires your undivided attention. I actually had to watch the film twice to fully understand it's twists and turns. This acts as both a drawback and a strength of the film ; it might turn off some viewers (it does get pretty confusing) but like other masterpieces of the genre such as Total Recall (1990) and Minority Report (2002), the film is a joy to revisit due to its rich story and compelling characters. Despite its 145 minutes running time, it is tightly paced and never lets go. Strange Days is not your usual big budget Hollywood extravaganza but instead plays off as a powerful visceral experience. It's dark, violent and surprisingly poignant at times.
Despite the fact that he did not direct Strange Days, the film remains at its core a James Cameron movie. He reportedly came up with the film's premise way back in 1986, eventually delivering a finished screenplay in 1993 with the help of screenwriter Jay Cocks. The finished project also features plenty of Cameron's trademarks ; spectacular special effects, a strong heroine, an atypical love story and an overall sense of grandeur. For a while, Cameron was supposedly considering directing the film but was made unavailable due to his work on True Lies (1994), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not surprisingly, he chose his talented ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow to direct this very personal project of his while he occupied the producer's chair. Bigelow felt inspired by the chaos created during the 1992 L.A. Riots and the Rodney King trial. Therefore, the film deals with racism, anarchy, rape, voyeurism and abuse of power. These are heavy themes that rarely translate in box office gold. The film is very intense and plays with your emotions, constantly putting characters we care about in harm's way while we never know what is going to happen, doing so in a very believable fashion. I remember feeling genuinely uneasy when Angela Bassett's character gets beaten up by the police near the end. Few movies can actually generate this kind of tension as a lot of the action is usually quite predictable.
Set during the last day of 1999 in L.A., the society depicted in Strange Days is far from friendly and seems to be on the verge of apocalypse. Crime is everywhere and the police is corrupted. Gangs, drug dealers and prostitutes are ruling the streets. Here the end of millennium celebrations seem to be leading towards the end of the world, as the masses indulge themselves in an orgy of violence and anarchy. The overall feeling is one of dread and despair. There is a bit of humor here and there (Nero's ties are kind of a running gag) but the film remains a dark affair until the very end. Cameron intended to create a film noir and that's exactly what he did. As such, it is similar to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), which also features a troubled and lonely protagonist, a bleak version of the future, a misused new technology and an intriguing police investigation under it all. Of course, Strange Days never reaches the emotional or technical level of Scott's film but it is probably the closest thing you can find and remains no doubt the most effective sci-fi noir film of the 90's. Both films were unsuccessful upon release but Blade Runner acquired a well-deserved cult status and is widely regarded as one of the most influential films of all-time, casting a huge shadow on other movies, including Strange Days.
Despite its thick plot and multiple layers, Strange Days is a character driven film. As such, the cast is all around excellent, featuring Ralph Fiennes as our protagonist while Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis and Tom Sizemore fill the supporting roles. The amount of talent assembled here is impressive to say the least and its shows. Fiennes' Lenny Nero is a loser, an ex-cop living in the moment, selling cheap thrills and helplessly in love with a woman who does not love him (Lewis' Faith). At first, a character like Nero seems quite unsympathetic and is far from your usual hero (Fiennes is also not your usual big budget film star either). However, he successfully portrays the character's evolution and utlimate redemption. We end up rooting for him despite his shortcomings due to Fiennes' powerful performance. Nero feels like a real man and is far from indestructible, unlike what you can see too often in Hollywood. The threats he faces seems real and it is frankly quite refreshing. My favorite character in the film is Mace Mason, the kick-ass limousine driver portrayed by Angela Bassett and who seems to be Nero's only friend. Bassett is Instantly likeable here. She is the definition of cool, beating the crap out of bad guys while looking incredibly sexy throughout the movie. We also get to learn that she is in love with Nero. Their relationship is a complex one and is a highlight of the the film ; the ending is extremely satisfying as they at last let their friendship evolve into something more. Strange Days is also surprising as it is one of the few big budget Hollywood films that features an interracial love story, even today. Bassett is a very gifted actress who sadly seems to be underrated in the industry. I would definitely like to see more of her! Juliette Lewis portrays Faith, en ex-prostitute who was saved from the streets by Nero but ultimately left him for a music producer in order to have a successful singing career. Lewis is outstanding here, especially during the musical numbers, during which she herself sang. I was totally surprised by the twist ending involving her character and she remains in my mind one of the best femme fatales the genre has ever witnessed.
Fall in the Light by Graeme Revell & Lori Carson
The film's oppressive and fantastic atmosphere benefits greatly from it's soundtrack. The musical score was composed by Graeme Revell. While the music he created fits the scenes well, it doesn't stand on its own as particularly groundbreaking or as evocative as Vangelis' score to Blade Runner, which can be considered as a masterpiece on its own. However, Revell created a superb track which apears near the end and adds a lot to the final scene's emotional resonance. The song in question is known as Fall in the Light and features Lori Carson on vocals (you can listen to it using the link on the right). Numerous tracks are featured throughout the movie, including the two PJ Harvey covers sung by Juliette Lewis (Hardly Wait and Rid of Me). Plenty of hard rock songs appear to accentuate the chaotic end-of-millennium setting, most notably Skunk Anansie's Sellling Jesus (the band's lead singer also appears during the final party sequence). An album containing highlights from the movie's soundtrack was released and is a must own for fans ; it will immediately suck you back in the world of the film. My favorite piece of music remains While the Earth Sleeps, a groovy world-techno track by Deep Forest & Peter Gabriel (you can listen to it below) which is played during the end credits. It's a perfect piece to accompany the happy ending and it automatically lifts your spirits!
Despite Strange Days' unsuccessful run at the box office, none of the cast and crew (except one) seemed to suffer major blows at their career. James Cameron especially went on to direct two of the most successful films of all time with 1997's Titanic and 2009's Avatar, while Fiennes, Bassett and Lewis all kept working steadily in high-profile projects in the following years. The film's apparent failure sadly rested on Kathryn Bigelow's shoulders despite the fact that she became the first woman to win Best Director at the 22nd Saturn Awards for her work on the film. She wouldn't direct another project until 2000 and receive the acclaim she deserved until 2008's The Hurt Locker. Strange Days is a truly unique film and ranks high in my mind amongst sci-fi's best offerings. It packs quite an emotional punch and never fails to entertain, while it's message is still as powerful and universal today as it was in 1995. Don't miss it!