Long before The Academy considered her the only woman worthy of a Best Director Oscar, Kathryn Bigelow spent decades crafting cinema that combined barbarous action with scholarly ideas. Though Blue Steel, Near Dark, and Point Break get a lot of praise, very little is said about Strange Days; a rich tech-noir thriller with bite.
Set in a future where people get their kicks jacking into other people’s memories and the ubiquitous military presence hangs over the streets of LA; Lenny Nero, a skeezy former-cop-turned-lowlife, finds himself neck deep in conspiracies as his friends start turning up dead after the murder of a prominent activist and rapper. Aided by Mace (Angela Bassett), an ass-kicking chick with a gentle heart, Nero is forced to take on crooked police, tweaked out record producers, twitchy cybergoths, and his own demons, as a new century looms.
In a year populated by cyberpunk flicks such as Hackers and Johnny Mnemonic, Strange Days was almost lost in the shuffle. Despite being a film of infinitely more scope and ambition, it may have been the fairly conventional thriller plot hidden beneath the dystopia that allowed people to forget exactly how special it is. Birthed from the verdict in the Rodney King case – in which five LAPD officers were acquitted of brutally beating an unarmed suspect with batons – that incited the Los Angeles riots, the screenplay melds rising racial tensions and hip hop culture with William Gibson-esque machinery to create a vivid world that is as opulent as it is credible. Even considering the peppering of awkward terminology that accompanies this type of fiction (jacking in, etc.), the script is smartly written and tightly coiled. The title is a reference to The Doors’ song of the same name, played within the film to remove any ambiguity, containing the lyrics: “bodies confused/memories misused/as we run from the day”.
Ralph Fiennes may seem like an odd choice for the sleazeball ex-cop who has retired to the gutter, but he handles it marvellously. At points it seems like the role was written with James Woods in mind, but Fiennes manages to bring a vulnerability to the character that Woods simply couldn’t muster. Nero is a textbook example of the Byronic Hero, displaying every required trait in his redemptive arc. Though we had seen relatively little from Bassett at this point – prior stand out roles include Betty Shabazz in Malcolm X and Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with it – she shines throughout and manages to become the film’s emotional centre when Lenny becomes compromised. She steeps Mace with the spirits of Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson, while not just providing a facsimile of their performances. It’s a shame that her character is so defined by her proximity to Nero, as this negates the integrity of the character and Bassett has proved better than this. Elsewhere, Tom Sizemore and Juliette Lewis over-egg their turns while Michael Wincott clops through a pan-Atlantic David Carradine panto villain with relish. Pitched at various levels, the performances within Strange Days shouldn’t gel. It’s Bigelow’s careful construction of moments and the
urgency of the editing that creates a environment where these performances can safely coexist.
Some may find that the film dates itself by using the year 2000 as a punctuative measure and it’s true that in 2013, the concept of 1999 being the future does elicit some mirth. Strange Days is not about flying cars and hover boards. It is, however, about positing potential scenarios of governmental surveillance and outcomes of continually strained inter-cultural friction to tell a moral story. It could well be set in any future, but the turn of the millennium allows the writers to underline and emphasise specific themes. Sure, the fashion and tech is a little bit iffy but any cyberpunk dystopia worth its spinners have to be both clad in leather and repurposed obsolete electronics to be considered cannon. Right?
Written by Bigelow’s ex James Cameron, sharing screenplay credit with critic Jay Cocks, many of his trademark themes are included. Although it bleeds Cameron, it is Kathryn Bigelow’s commitment to a strong foundation that keeps Strange Days together. It’s her trust in the viewer’s patience and participation that
really allows this 145 minute grunge-fest to elevate itself. Composed with a kinetic canvas of steadicam and using an inventive approach to craft cinema vérité style that would serve as a base for found footage films, Strange Days is a visual buffet. It may prove too long and protracted for straight up action fans but, dealing in harsh reality and science fantasy, Strange Days is a eminently watchable, enduring sci-fi thriller that wears it themes as bold as brass.
Stimulating – Strange Days may appear to be crystalline 90s buts its ambition, innovative technique, and recognisable themes make a relevant and stirring sci-fi thriller with serious grimy endurance.
Engaging characters: 9
Retro-futurist technology: 8
Compelling narrative: 9
Social deconstruction: 10
Bleak optimism: 9