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25 years on, cyberpunk classic ‘Strange Days’ looks like a documentary

Although it died a death on initial release back in ‘95, Kathryn Bigelow’s propulsive sci-fi thriller Strange Days is a stone cold, ass-kicking classic.

You ever see that movie where the murder of an African American man leads to widespread civil unrest and rioting, and a militarized police force cracking down on the people with merciless brutality, while the populace are too absorbed in artificial experiences mediated by digital technology to really give a shit? Or did you just live it this year?

Released back in 1995 to dismal box office ($8m against a $42m budget, Jesus wept) and indifferent critical response, Strange Days, as the kids on Twitter like to say, is good, actually. In point of fact, it’s a bona fide cyberpunk cinema classic, coming in at third place behind Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (forever the king) and Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (Verhoeven was right about everything). Directed by the absolute machine known as Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, The Hurt Locker) and written by oceanographer and occasional filmmaker James Cameron (The Terminator, Avatar) and former critic Jay Cocks (The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York), was positioned to be a big blockbuster release, and rightly so. After all, James Cameron had brought the entire sci-fi genre a quantum leap forward with the Terminator flicks (Big Jim likes to call cyberpunk “tech noir”, and the fact that a nightclub in the Terminator is called that is no coincidence) while Bigelow, with Near Dark, Blue Steel, and Point Break under her belt by this stage, had proved herself a brilliant and stylish director of thoughtful action flicks (deliciously, Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker would shoulder check Cameron’s Avatar out of the Oscar race thirteen years later). Instead it crashed and burned, and even today you’d be hard pressed to track down a copy or even a stream.

Why? Damned if I know; the film is a baller. Set on the last two days of 1999 (millennial anxiety infected everything in the late ‘90s), Strange Days is a sci-fi murder mystery that doubles down in the Raymond Chandler flavour that had already influenced authors like Philip K. Dick and William Gibson. Our hero is former L.A. vice cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes – yeah, Voldemort is up in this thing), who now scrapes out a living peddling SQUID clips; VR recordings of other people’s lives, which are the digital drug du jour in the film’s 20-minutes-into-the-future setting. He’s a sleazebag, living by his wits and his questionable charisma, and losing himself in SQUID clips of his ex-girlfriend, up and coming rocker Faith (Juliette Lewis – the cast is ‘90s AF), every night. Lenny’s street-grifter existence is upended when he is given a clip that shows an acquaintance of his being sadistically raped and murdered. Lenny thinks he’s attracted the attention of a serial killer, but this is a noir after all, and he’s soon mired in a tangled conspiracy involving the murder of rapper and political activist Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) by the LAPD. With the help of his only friends, bodyguard and driver Mace (Angela Bassett kicking all the ass) and down-at-heel P.I. Max Peltier (Tom Sizemore), Lenny must figure out what’s what before someone cancels his ticket.

“…it’s impossible not to marvel at how the events of the film echo and reflect what’s happening in the United States and around the world right now.”

Put into historical context, Strange Days is clearly a cultural response to the 1991 Rodney King beating, with Bigelow and company extrapolating a Los Angeles even more torn by racial violence, brutalized by militarized cops, rent by riots and seemingly teetering on the edge of the apocalypse. So, effectively, it was prescient as hell, as our current global crises demonstrate. Indeed, what sets Strange Days apart from reality is simply the fact that nobody is social distancing in the film (who could have seen that coming?); instead, there’s a kind of delirious House of Usher/Fellini’s Roma thing going on, with people partying hard while the world burns down around them. Lenny prowls back alleys, bars, and nightclubs, a lonely grifter surrounded by beautiful hedonists. Club kids strut past armoured cops and tanks, two hookers bash and rob a charity Santa Claus, while on Lenny’s car radio talk show callers rant about conspiracies, religious mania, and the End of All Things (it’s a lot like Twitter, really).

And within this neon nightmare, running through it and connecting characters, is this weird little VR technology, SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device), which is both the McGuffin and the tech toy that makes Strange Days sci-fi instead of urban drama. In terms of plot mechanics, you could turf it and retain the same basic story without too much fiddling – it’s just a bit of sci-fi business that lends the film some of its genre frisson. But it’s what Bigelow does with the idea of the SQUID that matters.

For one thing, it gives her license to shoot some incredible first person point of view action sequences; the film opens with one of these, completely free of context, dropping straight into the action and expecting us to figure things out for ourselves. For another, crucially, the aesthetic of the SQUID recordings preaged the YouTube/Tiktok/whatever the next thing is with alarming accuracy. We’re used to seeing the news mediated by citizen journalists, viewing crimes and crises through shaky, handheld phone cameras. We see funny cat videos, recipes, amateur porn, concert videos, and more the same way. We’re a planet of voyeurs, living vicariously through the digitally captured experiences of other people we will never meet. We preen for Instagram selfies; in Strange Days, Lenny counsels a would-be porn starlet that she needs to “make love with her eyes” to be a SQUID clip success. Strange Days might have gotten the specific details wrong, but it was right on the money when it came to the vibe.

And while much of the film’s racial politics are in reaction to the King beating and subsequent riots, in light of this year’s Black Lives Matter protests, riots, and police atrocities, it’s impossible not to marvel at how the events of the film echo and reflect what’s happening in the United States and around the world right now. If there’s a problem, it’s that (spoilers for a 25 year old film ahoy) the murder of Jeriko One is eventually revealed to be the work of two rogue cops (William Fichtner and Vincent D’Onofrio), while an earlier supposition that he was put down by an LAPD death squad is revealed to be a red herring – it was two bad apples, not the whole bunch. The moral quandary of the film becomes deciding whether to release the clip, which will in all likelihood result in a city-wide riot, or use it as a bargaining chip to get the bad guys off Lenny’s back. Ultimately, the film favours the latter. Knowing what we do now about ingrained police racism, white supremacism and fascist sympathies, having seen the teargassing of peaceful protestors, the shooting of journalists, and the tacit approval of right wing militias, this comes across as naïve, and the film’s final note of reconciliation rather than revolution far too hopeful.

But one bum note won’t ruin a symphony, and Strange Days is a bravura work of socially conscious and street tough science fiction. The old adage about sci-fi is that it’s never really about the future, but about the time it was conceived in. With 2020 hindsight in full force, Strange Days is clearly the exception to the rule.

Strange Days is screening at selected Palace Cinemas on Monday, October 26.