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Strange Days: An Underrated Sci-Fi Gem

Ralph Fiennes in a scene from sci-fi movie Strange Days

Strange Days, Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 sci-fi film, is a dark, intelligent, powerful piece of work deserving far more love. Here’s why…

For my money, Strange Days is one of the best sci-fi movies of the 1990s (if not all time). Sadly, it’s criminally underrated in all respects – its brilliant direction, outstanding performances, as well as its bold themes of racism and corruption. It deserves far more love than it currently receives, and damn it, I want to change that!

If you’ve never heard of Strange Days, you’re not alone. The film definitely has a following, but it had a warm reception when it was first released. Actually, to be honest, it was regarded as something of a box-office bomb way, way back in 1995: on a budget of $42m, the movie only managed to earn back $8m at theaters.

As is often the case, lackluster marketing was largely to blame for Strange Days’ weak performance, with the fairly cryptic trailers and posters not exactly selling the film as well as they should have.

Regardless of its financial performance, Strange Days is a beautiful thing. It may have been very much a product of its time, dealing with fears surrounding the then-approaching new millennium and tensions in American society, but it’s just as relevant today, for various reasons.

Corruption, Fear, and Mistrust

Okay, so for those of you not in the know, Strange Days focuses on Lenny Nero, played by a fantastic Ralph Fiennes (cast bravely against type here, as a sleazy, wily American with greasy hair and, er, leather pants). Nero is a jittery ex-cop, who was kicked off the force for undefined reasons (though we can assume it has something to do with his fondness for illegal technology).

Lenny now earns his bread and butter by selling recycled memories, illegal recordings of people’s experiences captured with a SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device). When wearing a SQUID headset, anyone can embed their sensations onto a disc for their own repeat pleasure – or someone else’s.

It’s a fairly complex plot, and to say too much would be to spoil it for anyone yet to watch the film, but let’s just say Lenny ends up in possession of a very bad recording with the power to make a wide-reaching impact. The film has elements of the noir tradition, with a femme fatale (Juliette Lewis’ Faith), a grizzled PI (Tom Sizemore’s Max), and numerous shady villains (played by Michael Wincott, Vincent D’Onofrio, and William Fichtner, all in top form).

As I mentioned earlier, Strange Days boldly deals with issues of racism and corruption. This is a film set in LA at the end of the decade which saw Rodney King brutally beaten by police and horrific riots following the guilty officers’ acquittal. The chaos lasted for six days, caused 55 deaths, and left billions’ of dollars’ worth of damage, ending only once the National Guard managed to take control.

Trust in the system was dealt a massive blow (to say the least) by the Rodney King case, and Strange Days extrapolates from this tension brilliantly. The story takes place over the final couple of days in December 1999, with LA clearly on the verge of exploding. The police have the populace on a tight leash, fights are commonly seen breaking out in the streets, and, to make it all worse, a prominent local rapper (Jeriko One) has been murdered.

In this day and age, over two decades since the film was released, distrust in America’s police force is still (sadly) common. In the past few years, we’ve seen unrest caused by the shootings of multiple black men, with some spawning riots (the London riots of 2011 were also sparked by one such incident). 2005 saw similar trouble in Paris, and there have other outrages elsewhere.

Talent on Top Form

Lenny is caught in the middle of something he doesn’t understand, and watching him try to get out of it is a blast, thanks in large part to a great script and terrific performances. Not only does Fiennes clearly have a blast in the role, but Angela Bassett almost steals the show as Lornette ‘Mace’ Mason. Being a bodyguard and VIP limo driver, Mace is in killer shape and has a way out of most situations.

Anyone who knows Bassett’s work won’t need telling how tremendous she is, but she truly excels here as a strong, intelligent, feisty, yet incredibly compassionate woman. The chemistry between herself and Fiennes results in some genuinely funny moments, but they also have their fair share of powerful, moving scenes too.

That Angela Bassett is given such a great, kick-ass role is no surprise, considering the script was co-written by the mighty James Cameron (along with Jay Cocks). This is, after all, the man who transformed Ellen Ripley into an action icon in Aliens and gave Linda Hamilton the role of a lifetime in his two Terminator films.

Cameron gave the script to Kathryn Bigelow (who happened to be his ex-wife), the director behind such awesomeness as Near Dark and Point Break. Bigelow went on to win an Oscar for The Hurt Locker years later, of course, and Strange Days is just as stunning as her other movies. Not only does it still look brand new now, more than 20 years on, but she manages to make a near-future Los Angeles feel like a city on the brink of hitting the self-destruct button.

Bigelow also manages to make the semi-virtual-reality technology in the film work brilliantly. The film opens with a robbery in a restaurant, seen through the eyes of one of the thieves, being watched back by Lenny himself. It’s frantic, it’s dark, and it feels absolutely believable. You never doubt for a second that people would become immersed in reliving others’ experiences, whether they’re of a sexual nature or something more mundane (such as a man with no legs enjoying the chance to run along a beach again).

Timeless Truths

Voyeurism is another aspect of Strange Days which feels especially relevant today. The majority of us spend hours each week (if not each day) online, watching countless snippets of people’s lives through videos, while many others seem happy to share their experiences with strangers. In a smaller way, Reality TV also allows us to live vicariously, but it’s the videos catering to our basest impulses (violence, sex) available in abundance online that may be cause for concern.

The film doesn’t flinch from showing how entertainment can be used in potentially unhealthy ways, fulfilling our voyeuristic fantasies to give us a vicarious thrill, satisfying those dangerous instincts we have without us having to get our own hands dirty.

The SQUIDs and playback are a different type of technology to today’s, certainly, but Strange Day demonstrates how dangerous forms of entertainment can be. Lenny is so fixated on enjoying his past memories, in losing himself in things that aren’t real, that he’s unable to realize they’re over with or that he should look towards making new memories in the future.

Blade Runner is regarded as one of the most important science-fiction films ever made – and with good reason. From the stunning production design and incredible effects to Vangelis’ iconic score, Blade Runner’s an unforgettable film that’s hard to forget, whether you like it or not.

We’ve been teased with rumours of a sequel [Click here to read more…]

Indeed, this is the film’s final beat, for the city of LA itself as well as Lenny: the realization that it’s time to embrace a new dawn, a new millennium, as a new chance to get things right.

Again, without giving anything away, the film’s conclusion is beautifully optimistic. Not only does it look towards another 1000 years as an opportunity to improve, it both indicts and supports the system at the story’s center, showing its strengths and weaknesses.

When that system we rely on fails, we have corrupt police, untrustworthy politicians, and cataclysmic divides between the people and their state. When it works, though, it brings justice, support, and fairness, holding everyone – no matter their position – accountable for their actions.

Final Thoughts

If you haven’t seen Strange Days, you’re missing out on a truly great film. For fans of William Gibson’s work, this is especially a must-watch, bearing various similarities to aspects of his Sprawl and Bridge trilogies alike. Not only in the presence of a pseudo-virtual reality, but also in its grungy aesthetic, its tough-talking characters, and its strong noir-streak. Strange Days could well be the best unofficial adaptation of Gibson’s work to date.

Strange Days certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but for anyone looking for a smart, stylish, exciting sci-fi film, it’s definitely worth trying.

Featured Image: 20th Century Fox

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2 Responses

  1. Lemmington

    Top notch choice Mr. McManus.
    This is a dam good flick. Loads of thought went into this film, the cinematography, the soundtrack, excellent cast of circa mid-nineties character actors, and there’s genuine commentary on human nature – particularly voyeurism and how we view cinema violence, modern media addictions and self-medicating, and eerily prophetic about the civil state America’s in now.
    It has a few flaws however which I think’s due to the film trying to juggle so many themes at once, and that the “murder mystery/ twist ending” is anything but… Maybe cos Tom Seizmore’s a deplorable in everything he shows up in? But besides that, stunning.
    Just wish I’d caught it at the cinema.

  2. RC

    saw this at the cinema on release, sadly the only person in the cinema.

    loved this film ever since, the SQUID technology was fascinating

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