Should I Watch..? Strange Days
What's the big deal?
Strange Days is a sci-fi thriller film released in 1995 and was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the ex-wife of screenwriter James Cameron. Set in the last few days before the turn of the Millennium, the film follows a run-down former cop trying to solve the murder of a prostitute against the backdrop of simmering racial tension on the crime-ridden streets of LA as it prepares to welcome Y2K. The film stars Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore and Vincent D'Onofrio and utilised cutting-edge cinematography to record several sections in first-person perspective. Dealing with themes of voyeurism, racism and corruption, the film earned a mixed reaction from critics who applauded the cast and atmosphere but objected to the film's graphic violence. The film sadly bombed at the box office and nearly ruined Bigelow's career but it has since been reappraised and is now considered one of the strongest films in Bigelow's career to date.
What's it about?
December 30th, 1999 and as LA prepares for the mother of all street parties to bring in the forthcoming new Millennium, ex-cop Lenny Nero struggles to get by dealing in illegal SQUIDs - a headset that records memories and feelings onto a disc that can be played back and experienced by another. Still heavily infatuated with his ex-girlfriend, club singer Faith Justin, Lenny is mysteriously given a SQUID that depicts the brutal rape and murder of a prostitute.
Traumatised after playing the disc, Lenny meets up with his friends Lornette "Mace" Mason and Max Peltier to discuss the disc's contents. But they are followed by shadowy forces and it soon emerges that the disc is part of a much wider conspiracy - prominent rapper Jeriko One has been murdered and the resultant fallout could spark an all-out riot on the eve of the biggest public gatherings in history. And despite Mace's insistence that he's wrong, Lenny can't help but feel that Faith could be next...
Lornette "Mace" Mason
James Cameron & Jay Cocks*
Release Date (UK)
1st March, 1996
Action, Crime, Sci-Fi, Thriller
What's to like?
Although set in the then-near-future, Strange Days is an absorbing and amazingly visualised imagining of what the future might have held. The film has a very noir-ish atmosphere reminiscent of the likes of Blade Runner (1) and Fiennes is every bit as haggard as Harrison Ford was as Deckard. However, the film belongs to Bassett who excels as the ballsy heroine dragging Lenny towards his reluctant redemption, even if it breaks her heart seeing him pine for a girl who is no longer interested in him. Lewis is also revelatory as Faith, an unrepentant femme fatale who screams blood and thunder on stage while flirting effortlessly with the camera.
But this is Bigelow's picture and she delivers a film of exquisite quality. The story can be a little tricky to follow at times but she coaxes a performance out of every cast member and the film breathes through the screen, drawing you in and never letting go. The soundtrack is a pulsating blend of electronica, rock and trance and well worth tracking down. I also loved the film's intelligent screenplay which draws on real-life incidents and isn't afraid to sign a spotlight on some ugly issues that - unfortunately - remain just as relevant today, if not more so. All good sci-fi should reflect on contemporary issues and despite this film being more than twenty years old, Strange Days continues to be one of the best examples I've seen in a long time.
- The first-person perspective camera work was the result of a year's development of a camera that weighed just 8 lbs and could fit into the palm of your hand. This was then fitted to a Steadicam and featured remote focus control and interchangeable lenses.
- The street party sequence was a genuine rave hosted on set. It featured appearances from Aphex Twin, Deee-Lite and Skunk Anansie and cost the promoters some $750'000. Five people were hospitalised after taking Ecstasy.
- For his song Right Here, Right Now, Fatboy Slim obtained the sample of dialogue between Lenny and Mace from this film. The song reached number 2 in the UK Singles Chart.
What's not to like?
Given that most of you would have experienced the actual turn of the millennium in real life (I was drunk in Southampton if you must know), it's a little off-putting seeing a pre-Millennium depiction of the end of the 20th century. There was no Y2K hysteria or doom-laden predictions about the end of civilisation although one could argue that the technology behind the SQUID was indicative of a more alternative future to the actual one.
Aside from a few more scenes detailing what was actually going on, I can't think of anything I would have added to improve the picture. I liked the fact that Strange Days subverts the usual hero stereotypes seen in movies (a weak white man playing second fiddle to a strong black woman doesn't happen that often) and it makes the film feel different enough to stand out from the usual sci-fi clichés we see so often. This is an imaginative, thought-provoking and wonderfully produced thriller that we simply don't see all that often. It deserved to do so much better at the box office than it did and I for one am pleased that the film's meagre earning failed to derail Bigelow's directing career as we wouldn't have seen the likes of The Hurt Locker (2) or Zero Dark Thirty (3).
Should I watch it?
It won't be to everybody's tastes but I believe Strange Days to be the first film of Bigelow's career that marked her out as an exceptional director. Visually stunning, brilliantly performed and utterly captivating, the film is a shining example of sci-fi that doesn't rely on unimaginative cliché to tell an original and intelligent story. I cannot praise this film enough, I loved it.
Great For: showing post-Millennium people what we lived through, Bigelow's reputation as a director, subverting Hollywood cliché, proper sci-fi fans, DJs in Brighton
Not So Great For: the easily distracted, anyone put off by excessive nudity or violence, nuns
What else should I watch?
I find it strange that Strange Days isn't recalled as one of the best sci-fi films of the Nineties alongside the likes of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (4) and the original anime version of Ghost In The Shell (5). The Nineties saw numerous sequels and spin-offs that often failed to match their predecessors like David Fincher's Alien 3 (6) or RoboCop 2 (7) which avoided any hint of the original satirical nature or the just plain awful adaptation of Judge Dredd (8).
However, there was plenty of good sci-fi to enjoy although not much to match the quality of Strange Days. Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (9) gave us Arnold Schwarzenegger on Mars fighting to regain his memory (or does it?), Luc Besson's extremely French sci-fi epic The Fifth Element (10) is as visually unique as any film I can think of and is very different from many other sci-fi flicks, much like the obscure cult hit Dark City (11) which is just as impressive visually and proved influential for the Wachowskis when they started work on The Matrix (12).
© 2018 Benjamin Cox