clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Revisiting ‘Strange Days,’ Kathryn Bigelow’s Misunderstood, Prescient Film

Twenty-two years after it flopped out of theaters, a closer look at a film that imagines a dystopian L.A. where virtual reality and racial injustice discomfitingly cross paths

20th Century Fox

"You ready?" a voice says.

"Yeah. Boot it."

Strange Days, Kathryn Bigelow’s marvelously weird sci-fi neo-noir from 1995, opens on December 30, 1999, the cusp of a new millennium, from a criminal’s point of view. You’re in the back seat of a car that’s on its way to a robbery. You pull your stocking over your head, make sure your gun is loaded, and bicker with your partners in crime because you’re all a little too amped. You bust into a Chinese restaurant through the kitchen. You assault the chefs. Out front, you pistol-whip a customer and hold your gun to the cashier’s head, demanding money. This all happens in a couple minutes, and it’s frantic and exhilarating—until the cops show up, that is, and you get chased across rooftops. In a stroke of bad luck, you fall to your death. It’s a moment not unlike the rooftop police chase that opens Vertigo, except instead of being Scottie, the cop traumatized by watching another guy die, you’re just the goof who meets his end. Rather, the dead robber meets his end. Whoever’s watching died only virtually.

It’s a recording. In the futuristic technological landscape that is Strange Days, virtual reality is practically a drug—and recordings like this, dangerous and invigorating, are worthwhile. Or they would be, but for that ending. Vicariously experiencing a robbery is one thing. It’s illegal and violent, but it’s also, admittedly, a thrill. A pornographic experience—sex experienced through another person—would also have been fair game. But death is a little different: Death is smut. And that’s where Lenny Nero, who’s peddling this virtual-reality tech on the streets of L.A., draws the line.

Lenny, played by Ralph Fiennes, is a former cop turned hustler, and his product, called SQUID, is the hustle of the future. Designed by the FBI to replace body mics, SQUID stands for Superconducting Quantum Interference Device—it’s a headset that records the wearer’s experiences for others to later plug in and experience themselves. With SQUID, the elevator pitch goes, you can be anyone, do anything. You can be an attractive woman taking a shower or, if you live for drama, one half of a couple in the middle of a breakup. You can also use SQUID to break the rules, do what you not only wouldn’t really do, but also what you can’t: switch biological sexes in a heartbeat, for example, or commit crimes for the thrill of it. It’s no wonder being "wired," or "jacked in," as the movie’s terms go, comes to resemble a drug addiction. "This is not like, ‘TV, only better,’" explains Lenny to a customer. "This is life. This is a piece of somebody’s life. Pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex. I mean, you’re there, you’re doing it, you’re hearing it, you’re feeling it."

Strange Days was cowritten by James Cameron and Jay Cocks, but it could very well have been written by Philip K. Dick. Its paranoid fascination with technology, to say nothing of its frustration, is that palpable. In the movie, virtual reality is an addictive alternative to a reality that blatantly sucks. The millennium is fast approaching, and Los Angeles has gone to shambles. A black hip-hop activist and icon named Jeriko One has just been murdered; there’s a rapist and murderer loose on the streets who’s been using SQUID to make his victims experience their assaults from his perspective; and a rogue pair of cops is amiss, in pursuit of who knows what. All of this is happening amid trash fires in the streets, looters, protesters, and, of course, cops in riot gear. Lots of them. Strange Days, though set four years in the future from its 1995 release, occupies the same chaotic, post-riots L.A. universe of a film like 1993’s Falling Down, in which racial violence is less an imminent possibility than an outright promise.

Strange Days is about a lot of things, in other words—perhaps too many for its own good. It remains underseen, if not underrated, in large part because it tanked on release, earning a mere $8 million to date on a $42 million budget and effectively stalling Bigelow’s career. Roger Ebert, who gave the film four stars, predicted that it would become a cult classic, much like Bigelow’s 1987 vampire feature Near Dark, which also tanked. I’m not sure Strange Days has quite reached cult status, either. Really, how do you sell this? It is a movie in which we witness a sexual assault from the point of view of the assailant, knowing fully well that the SQUID receptors the victim is made to wear have been rigged to make her experience her own assault from the perspective of her attacker. It’s cowritten by James Cameron—not exactly one to invoke racial politics in his films— that openly nods to the L.A. riots and the beating of Rodney King. And on a lighter, weirder note, it’s a movie in which Angela Bassett and Ralph Fiennes have somehow been cast to play best friends, despite seeming like they belong to separate solar systems. Best of all, it’s a movie in which Bassett becomes the action hero her prowess has long promised her to be.

Strange Days has its share of idiosyncrasies and more than its share of outright flaws. Yet it is still one of the earlier Bigelow films I couldn’t help but think of, affectionately, while watching her disappointing new film, Detroit, another feature broadly concerned with one of her most prominent themes: a city and its police. Point Break has its SoCal surfer-cop, and Blue Steel is a demythologizing ode to New York City’s most powerful: the rich and the police. But where Detroit struck me as foot-shuffly and confused as to how to regard the police as a social force, these earlier films—Strange Days, especially—face that question head on. SQUID was, after all, a policing tool before it became a pleasure service. And the L.A. of this movie is an L.A. where the police choppers are always on the hunt, and in which a black rapper who made a career for himself by rapping "Fuck the Police" spinoffs has just been killed.

Maybe it’s a matter of genre. Detroit, a docudrama written by the journalist Mark Boal, deigns to provide factual realism when, really, its striving for fairness comes off as a pained naïveté. Strange Days, a sci-fi film, has no such responsibility to facts or impartiality. That’s what’s refreshing and, sure, tacky about it. It is very much a victim of the "’90s dystopia" starter kit we all bought into circa The Crow: This is heavy-metal anarchy we’re talking about, with overlong hair, grungy attitudes, an abundance of motorcycle gangs, and literal dumpster fires in the streets.

Are the people in this movie rioting, or clubbing? Tough to say. But it all sets the tone quite nicely for a believable confluence of racial injustice and technological advancement, wedded together convincingly, if oddly, by the movie’s central interracial friendship. Bassett’s character, Lornette, is a grounded, sensitive limo driver and single mother who’s not into "that wired shit." Next to her, Fiennes is the hapless goofball. Lornette’s moral backbone, key to the plot to restore justice after the murder of Jeriko One, is a significant foil to Lenny’s weak-willed immersion in the virtual reality of his past. Lenny doesn’t use SQUID to fuck models or rob banks; he uses it to relive happy memories with his ex-girlfriend.

You get the sense here that technology like this might bring out the worst in us, becoming merely a pornographic device for the people who can afford it. But the movie nods to what technology can make possible, too, by forcing the threads of racial injustice and virtual reality to merge. I won’t spoil how. Suffice it to say, however, that in our current moment of abundant but apparently ineffective body-cam footage and the heroic recording instincts of citizen journalists with smartphones, it is strange to see footage, like the killing of Jeriko One that Bigelow eventually grants us, in a techno-noir from 1995. The word that has chased this movie’s reception over the years is "prescient"—and its ending is the main reason why.

The movie’s limitations are in part the fault of the script, which is overstuffed in some ways, and undercooked in others. You almost wish the movie would drop the murder mystery, cut back on the awkward fights between Bassett and Fiennes, and tell us more about who uses this strange product, and to see what, and why. Cameron and Cocks’s script is curious about the tech, but incurious about who, besides a sad hustler and a murderer, would want to use it. Bigelow, on the other hand, is as always a master of action—curious about how it looks and what it means to keep looking, even when we want to turn away. She shows she’s a master of perspective; our time looking through the eyes of SQUID is as serious and discomfiting as anything she’s done. It’s powerful filmmaking: a reminder that Bigelow was serious long before movies like The Hurt Locker and Detroit inclined the staid institutions of Hollywood to take her seriously.