The Film: Strange Days (1995)

The Principals: Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, Vincent D’Onofrio, William Fichtner, Glenn Plummer. Written by James Cameron & Jay Cocks. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

The Premise: Los Angeles, New Year’s Eve, 1999. Ex-cop Lenny Nero (Fiennes) skates by a near-dystopian society, yearning for his beautiful ex-girlfriend singer Faith (Lewis) selling black-market SQUID discs—recordable discs that record life experiences and their exact feelings and senses directly from the cerebral cortex. When one of his devices is involved in the brutal murder and rape of a prostitute, Nero falls into a deep-embedded web of police corruption, blackmail, and murder. Can his one true friend, Macey (Bassett) help save him?

Is It Good? In the summer of 1995, I was seven years old, going on eight. I went to see Nine Months with my mother one Saturday night and this mysterious, alluring teaser trailer unveiled itself before the film:

I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of it at the time, but there was a coolly dangerous swagger to that spot. It wouldn’t be until I rented it in 2001, after I’d been a massive James Cameron fan, that I finally saw it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it then, even though much of the subject matter went well over my head as a seventh grader.

Recently, I revisited this in preparation for my guest stint on the Directors’ Club Podcast back in March for their Kathryn Bigelow episode, and that eleven-year gap between watching the film made all the difference for my view. Arguably, Strange Days is my favorite film Kathryn Bigelow has ever directed, a bold aesthetic experience that exploits her painting background with a wild, fluorescent color palate accentuated by neon signs and many smart directorial decisions. Further, she brilliantly juxtaposes her visionary craft with the steely, cold urban decay of a futuristic Los Angeles wounded further than the Rodney King beating and the 1992 riots.

Most importantly, however, it represents the most ambitious and multifaceted work that James Cameron has ever written, a sprawling future noir and conspiracy thriller where “the biggest party of all time”—the turn of the century—is not even a party at all. It’s a widespread agent of chaos providing an opportunity to expose corruption, a defined, volatile line between poverty and wealth, a society so dependent on technology that the ability to record and relive your memories from your mind exists.

No social media or political screaming matches have a place in this short-term vision of the future, but what does exist here is a symmetrical message about where cultural and societal norms stand. Alongside co-writer Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York), Cameron realized an idea he had proposed years ago in The Terminator through the name of a nightclub—Strange Days is a living, breathing “Tech-Noir.”

The film takes no time in showing its prowess by opening with the recording of a robbery at a Chinese restaurant. Straight out of the playbook of Bigelow’s previous film, Point Break, she immediately sets the bar for the adrenaline level of the world we have escaped into. Using a portable 35-millimeter camera designed especially for the film, the robbery unfolds in real time, in a single take from the point of view of one of the robbers. Not only are we experiencing the robbery, we are living the robbery—the suspense doubles because, in Bigelow’s eyes, you are brandishing the .357 Magnum in front of myriad scared patrons and employees. With the omnipresence of first-person shooters in gamers’ hearts today and the heightened realism of the way it unfolds, the opening scene is a crackling experience far removed from a gimmicky experiment.

Bigelow’s films—from her early years to now—have always had a common thematic device that I refer to as “the rush”—a specific addiction to something tangible or ideological that drives its protagonists. In Near Dark, it’s the need for blood for the vampires to survive. In Point Break, Bodhi and his crew instill the adrenaline-tinged thrills of bank robberies and extreme sports in Johnny Utah as essential to life. The Hurt Locker is centric around Sgt. James’s assumption that the danger of war propels his spirit, and the more risk and peril he can put himself into, the more powerful he feels. While I woefully have not seen Zero Dark Thirty yet, I’d wager to guess that “the rush” is the obsession and determination to find Osama bin Laden. In Strange Days, it’s the persistence of memory and its role in our psyches, an overall digital toxicity that fuels the public of the future.

In the film’s grand scheme, that opening scene’s effect and its portrayal as a recording is not only our hook into the film, it’s also the sales pitch we are given to buy into the advent of SQUID’s—for both the audience and the skeptical buyers of Lenny Nero’s product. As the shady but smart-witted Lenny Nero, Ralph Fiennes is a revelation. His sleaze is muted by the women in his lives, the strong-willed, independent Mace and the friend with benefit Faith. He’s excited by the drug-like properties of the SQUID media and by the chance to let others experience it, “the Santa Claus of the subconscious.” Nero is an edgy but concerned man, a sort of Willy Wonka by way of Ricky Roma, and Fiennes assimilates himself into every aspect of longing, guilt, paranoia, and despair the character demands.

Much like Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton before her, Angela Bassett’s forcefulness as Mace is every bit as effective in Cameron’s signature knack for female empowerment. She’s an unlikely romantic match for Lenny in that she is far too smart and determined for him, yet when the man ends up in a bind—and the entire film is a bind for him—Mace is everything he needs. Oddly, the dynamic between Lenny and Mace seems semi-autobiographical with regards to Cameron and Bigelow’s marriage and divorce. Though once romantically involved, Lenny and Mace remain close together, much as the case with Bigelow directing her ex-husband’s screenplay. With Bigelow as a possible muse for the role, Strange Days represents arguably the last time any of Cameron’s work had a truly independent female character, something that is certainly not clearly outlined in his later, bigger game-changers.

Fiennes and Bassett are backed up by a great supporting cast as peripheral: Juliette Lewis’s seductive but passive singer, Tom Sizemore’s untrustworthy equal friend and former colleague of Lenny’s, and Michael Wincott’s entertaining riff on Gary Oldman’s iconic turn as Drexl in True Romance all make for entertaining roles. The villainous, opportunistic cops played by Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner are the most obvious pawns in Cameron’s commentary on post-Rodney King L.A., a pair of overzealous brutes whose views of the law are blurred by their detrimental and aggressive actions on and off the beat. Fichtner is infallible in this kind of position, and D’Onofrio aptly goes in the same dark, disturbing path that his Pvt. Pyle ended up on, although Burton Steckler is already broken, and a true danger to anyone.

A few years ago, when The Hurt Locker hit and ended up cleaning up house at the Oscars, it seemed much of the public and industry were caught afire suddenly by the utter genius of Kathryn Bigelow. I went into that film expecting—and receiving—the return of a director I adore. Truth be told, she’s been assimilated as one of the best filmmakers of her generation, and with that film and now Zero Dark Thirty, she’s entered a higher elite. Nevertheless, Strange Days is an exemplary body of proof that, if it is not her most accomplished achievement, it’s certainly my favorite.

Is It Worth a Look? If you haven’t already, you owe it to yourself to track down the unfortunately non-anamorphic DVD. Strange Days has established itself as a minor but prominent cult favorite since its box-office failure, and it tends to be a polarizing film. I love it, others hate it. If you’re not a fan of the film, I strongly suggest revisiting this one and taking it as a trailblazing film with regards to its commentary on technology. With Bigelow back in contention in the awards season, it’s a great time to see it again.

Random Anecdotes: Andy Garcia was reportedly first in line to take on Lenny Nero—an apt choice, I might add. Not as apt: unconfirmed reports that Arnold Schwarzenegger may have been considered for the role as well.

Filmed in the summer of 1994, pre-production on the film started even earlier due to the detail needed to rehearse and precisely scope out the technique of filming the point-of-view sequences before they could actually film.

The SQUID cartridges were retrofitted from Sony’s MiniDisc format, which notably failed to capture the consumer market in the early 90’s.

Juliette Lewis, a fellow musician herself, did her own vocals for the film and contributed the haunting track “Hardly Wait” to the film’s amazing soundtrack, which also includes Skunk Anansie, Peter Gabriel, Ray Manzarek and many others.

Not only is the film’s title a reference to The Doors’ 1967 song and album of the same name, but the character of Tick (Richard Edson) owns a pet lizard—ostensibly an homage to the Lizard King himself, Jim Morrison.

Of the 80-day shooting schedule, 77 of those days were filmed at night.

While Howard E. Smith is the credited editor of the film, James Cameron did extensive uncredited work on the film’s editing (as he did on True Lies). Cameron later joined the editors’ union and has been credited as co-editor on Titanic and Avatar.

Mace’s line of dialogue, “right here, right now” was later sampled by Fatboy Slim in his hit 1998 song of the same name.

Back in March, I had the pleasure of discussing Kathryn Bigelow’s career alongside the great Patrick Ripoll and Jim Laczkowski on their worth-your-time Director’s Club Podcast, where we extensively discussed this film and Point Break. Hear us discuss the film and much more here!

Cinematic Soulmates: Chinatown, Blade Runner, Do the Right Thing, Inception, Altered States, Dreamscape, The Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic, Total Recall