Screenplay : James Cameron and Jay Cocks
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1995
Stars : Ralph Fiennes (Lenny Nero), Angela Bassett (Lornette "Mace" Mason), Juliette Lewis (Faith Justin), Tom Sizemore (Max Peltier), Michael Wincott (Philo Gant), Brigitte Bako (Iris)
What would it be like if you could record your experiences? What if you could literally replay segments of your life over and over again, never letting them fade away? Or, what would it be like if you could live other people's experiences? To maintain status as a decent citizen, but know what it feels like to rob a bank or engage in an orgy without having to actually do it, and risk paying the ultimate consequences?
These are questions posed by the startling premise of Kathryn Bigelow's science fiction thriller "Strange Days." The film takes place in the near distant future, New Year's Eve 1999 to be exact. However, it's not a bright sci-fi future of flying cars and instant transport. Instead, this world is much like ours of today, but with all the negative aspects multiplied.
Los Angeles of 1999 has sunk into a chaotic netherworld of violence and unrest. The eve of the new millennium is on the horizon, and everyone is uneasy and angry, fearing that the world might come to an end. Crime, police brutality, and racial tensions, are at an all-time high, evidenced by news reports of the recent killing of a popular gangster rap star named Jericho One. Those who can afford it are chauffeured about the city in armored limousines with bullet-proof glass, carefully avoiding the burning cars that litter the side of the road.
Slinking through the societal turmoil is Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), once the member of the police vice squad, now a dealer of experience. Known as "jacking in," his brand of drugs involves letting ordinary people live the memories of others. He will sell any kind of experience, except "blackjack" or "snuff films," where the person dies in the end.
This new technology makes use of a device, which was originally designed by the FBI to replace the wire tap, but ended up on the black market. The recorder, known as a "squid," fits on people's heads and records their experiences -- what they see, what they hear, what they feel. All this is recorded on a mini-disc, and with a simple headset and player, you can close your eyes and relive the experience without ever moving.
Like any salesman, legit or criminal, Lenny is a smooth operator, more of a talker than a fighter. As he tells a potential customer, "I can get you what you want. I can get you anything. You just have to trust me 'cause I'm the magic man."
He is also, beneath is greasy exterior, a hopelessly misguided romantic. He was in love with a girl named Faith (Juliette Lewis), but she left him for a sleazy record producer, Philo Gant (Michael Wincott). Lenny still pines away for her, and when one of her friends, a prostitute named Iris (Brigitte Bako), tells him that both she and Faith are in great danger, he immediately tries to save her. But, of course, you can only save someone if she wants to be saved, and Faith will have nothing to do with it.
It isn't long before Lenny finds himself neck-deep in a murder mystery when someone anonymously gives him a disc recording of the brutal rape and murder of Iris. He knows that Faith knows something, and perhaps her new boyfriend is involved. Lenny can't go to the cops, and they probably couldn't do much for him even if he did. Along with Mace (Angela Bassett), a chauffeur driver and friend of Lenny's who is constantly pulling him out of trouble and playing his conscience, and Max (Tom Sizemore) a private eye hired by Philo to keep tabs on Faith, Lenny is forced to figure out who the killer is before he gets to Faith and maybe even him.
Directing from an original screenplay by James Cameron ("Aliens," "The Terminator") and Jay Cocks, Kathryn Bigelow ("Point Break") creates a hair-raising thriller in an all too plausible future. The setting of "Strange Days" is something like a Nine Inch Nails video -- everything is loud and angry and chaotic, and there is constant sense that the whole world might suddenly slip over the edge into a dark abyss. Although the streets are filled with people celebrating the turn of the millennium, it is more like a riot than a party. Punks and gangsters and wired-up "tapeheads" are everywhere, making Los Angeles into one giant gutter.
Aside from the memorable atmosphere, the most potent aspect of "Strange Days" is its uncompromising portrayal of violence. Because the central focus of the film is living through other's eyes, "Strange Days" doesn't shy away from forcing the viewer into the uncomfortable position of watching murder through the eyes of the murderer. This trick was utilized to cheap effect in 80's slasher movies like "Friday the 13th," but here it is sickeningly effective because it is so stark and unexploitive. This is one of a handful of films that really conveys a sense of dread in its depiction of violence acts.
Unfortunately, "Strange Days" goes on a little too long, and gets patched together a little too neatly at the end. Like a finely tuned Hitchcock film, the mystery keeps you in taut suspense, and when the killer is finally unmasked, it is a true surprise done in outstanding fashion. However, once it arrives at that point, the climax and falling action are a little too scripted , and some of the characters' rationalizations for their actions stretch credulity.
Nevertheless, "Strange Days" is a vivid and remarkably original movie. It boasts fines performance by all involved, and utilizes set design and special effects to create a memorable world. "Strange Days" works best as a warning flag of what may come if we continue down the road we are presently set on. The film portrays such timely topics as racial unrest, violence in the media, and over reliance on alternate realities, and what might follow if they all come to a head, which could potentially happen sooner than you think.
©1997 James Kendrick