• ReView: ‘Strange Days’ (1995)

    Cast your mind back 22 years. Bill Clinton was President and John Major occupied Downing Street; both were trying to address the continuing Balkans conflict. The Tokyo subway Sarin attack, collapse of Barings Bank and Oklahoma City bombing also took place, whilst more encouragingly advances in consumer technology saw the invention of the DVD, appearance of the first widely-available web browsers and release of the first computer-generated feature film, Toy Story. All these events suggested to many that the looming Millennium might bring about a profound change in world society. Two acclaimed film-makers, both with careers in the ascendant, agreed, and the result was Strange Days, written by James Cameron (with Jay Cocks) and directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

    Cameron and Bigelow had begun their Hollywood rise with successful, medium-budget entries in the speculative fiction genre (The Terminator and Near Dark, respectively) released within a few years of each other, and indeed found their paths sufficiently aligned to marry soon after. That they then divorced long before production of Strange Days began seems in retrospect significant for a film that explored divisions, tensions and oppositions in a fictionalised Los Angeles over the last two days of the year 1999. That aside, a combination of Cameron’s interest in the extrapolation of real-world technology and its impact on humanity and Bigelow’s focus on marginalised individuals and groups yielded an intense focus that also addressed wider issues.

    Taken together, Strange Days appeared to be a timely and original take on an imminent future. Viewing it from the perspective of today, with the turn of the Millennium forgotten, a fresh set of socio-political challenges in America, Britain, continental Europe and the Middle East to face and the descendants of those digital pioneers embedded in everyone’s daily lives, is thus doubly instructive.

    Depicting in a believable manner a city getting ready for fireworks of both kinds is no easy thing, but perhaps the single most impressive aspect of the film on first re-viewing is exactly that. The film takes place almost entirely at night, as former cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes in an early role) goes about his business peddling Squid clips of sensory experience and trying to reconnect with his ex, singer Faith (Juliette Lewis). Since he quickly finds himself linking up with friend Mace (Angela Bassett) in her new job as a limousine driver, these journeys through the contested streets of LA become a mechanism by which vignettes of the world Bigelow and Cameron created are revealed to the characters and viewers alike.

    Fires, flares, scuffles, arrests, hustlers…. All are tightly framed by the car’s windows and never completely seen, each showing instead just a fragment of an edgy urban landscape. Crucially, they convince utterly – none feels staged or artificial, a not inconsiderable achievement in any film let alone one shot at night and set in the near future. Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti shares the credit for this, and in fact only the sublime Blade Runner (1982) impresses more in this regard. Interestingly both films are set in the same city, and both also take place over just a handful of days. The swoozy, ambient score by the underrated Graeme Revell reinforces the comparison with Ridley Scott’s masterpiece even further.

    As the canvas expands, the same verisimilitude is carried through to more complex settings such as the club in which Faith works. A credible atmosphere is managed here too, forming a perfect backdrop for Lewis’s storming performance of P.J. Harvey’s 'Hardly Wait'. The New Millennium party which forms the climax of the film is the ultimate iteration of this rigorous approach, and is as authentic as the rest. It was achieved in the pragmatic manner that came to hallmark Cameron’s work, here by the production company simply marketing and staging an actual party on the streets of Los Angeles. Ten thousand attended and real bands performed, all to be incorporated into the film. Leonard Cohen is also heard in the film, presumably on the basis that if anyone could soundtrack such a tense time, he could.

    The film’s other great achievement is the visualisation of the first-person point-of-view that derives from the Squid clips. Presented as a single shot, they are hugely impressive even today, particularly the famous early chase scene that ends in a fatal roof jump. The later rape scene, involving the victim being forced to wear a Squid headset that receives the input of her attacker, was extremely – and perhaps deservedly – controversial, yet few critics seemed to recognise the near-exact precedent seen in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom of 1960.

    Bigelow has cited the centrality of both the O.J. Simpson and Rodney King trial verdicts to the concept of Strange Days. In truth, and in retrospect for me, the results of this element too have their parallels in many previous films. Certainly plotlines involving the state-sanctioned murder of agitators and a fleeing prostitute’s evidence are somewhat pedestrian. They do though have an undeniably propulsive effect on the narrative’s progress. Aided by on-screen captions indicating a timeline, there is a palpable sense of conversion as the end approaches, making Strange Days a kind of pre-apocalyptic drama.

    Throughout, the principal secondary characters engage. Mace is superb, assisted greatly by Bassett’s performance. Continually dragging Lenny out of the fire, her true feelings are clear when she delivers the best line in the film – “Pussy-whipped sorry-assed motherfucker” – with affection underlying her contempt. Lewis is similarly perfect as the ballsy, slightly wired Faith, channelling – as does much of the film’s look – the emerging grunge culture. And did I mention how good her singing was?

    It is at this point, though, that the film’s weaker elements must be considered, and here the writing of the lead character remains a problem for me. Nero simply isn’t credible as a former police officer, let alone one with the heavily militarised and apparently competent LAPD depicted in the film. The scene in which he wields a pistol for a considerable period without realising it isn’t loaded grates as much now as it did first time around, and his continual inability to outfight or even outfox his opponents irritates to a point that is surely unhelpful in such a film. This may of course be deliberate, in that Mace and Faith are obviously intended to be stronger mirrors of Lenny, but it still feels a miss-step, and that conceivably might have contributed to the film’s commercial failure. That said, Fiennes is actually excellent as the man Nero has become, the sleazy “Santa Claus of the subconscious” at the margins of society. A little additional writing and, perhaps, direction might have bridged the gap between the two Nero more effectively.

    The other major failing remains the depiction of the Squid technology itself. The size and crudeness of the headsets needed to record and play back – large, plastic crab-like devices – is at odds with technology at the time the film was made, let alone when that was projected five years into the future. And given they require the wearer to don an elaborate wig for one to remain undetected, the idea that the Squid was developed as a more discreet version of the old ‘wire’ microphone, as the screenplay solemnly tells us, is of course risible.

    I was also aggrieved first time around that no acknowledgement was made to the novels of William Gibson, since an obvious debt is owed to SimStim, Gibson’s equivalent, conceived way back in the early 1980s (it is also far more elegantly envisaged). There is in fact considerable crossover between the two Canadians’ work even beyond this one point; the Strange Days promotor Milo Gant and his two female bodyguards are dead ringers for Lonny Zone and his henchwomen in Neuromancer (1984), characters in both talk of being “jacked in”, using “trodes” that connect to a “deck”, and a casual reference to America gaining its second woman President seems almost designed to follow Gibson’s Virtual Light, published in 1993, in whose world the same office is also filled by a woman.

    But overall, this new look at an old view of a possible future was pleasingly positive. Given how far the world has moved in two decades, the film’s advertising tagline of ‘You Know You want It’ suggests we really did.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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