Strange Days

(USA - 1995)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Lewis, Angela Bassett, Tom Sizemore, Vincent D'Onofrio, Brigitte Bako, Michael Wincott, Glenn Plummer, Josef Sommer
Genre: Sci-Fi
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay: James Cameron, Jay Cocks
Cinematography: Matthew F. Leonetti
Composer: Graeme Revell, Peter Gabriel
Runtime: 145 minutes

"This is not 'like TV, only better.' This is like a piece of someone's life, straight from the cerebral cortex" - Lenny Nero

It's not a matter of if you want it; it's a matter of how much you are willing to pay. In Strange Days, the technology to essentially become someone else for a brief time is in place. All you have to do is put a "squid" on your head and a tape in the machine and you experience whatever footage that tape contains just as the person who made the tape did. The key to the technology is the transmitter doesn't really record the footage like a camera does, rather it captures the brain waves of the recorder and transmits them to the viewer.

The opening scene in the film is so good that it's hard for the rest not to be a let down. It demonstrates how the technology works, but we don't know that's what it's doing until Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is finished viewing the clip. Kathryn Bigelow may not be Chantal Akerman, but she's easily the best American female director when it comes to style. For proof check out the brilliantly photographed atmospheric horror Near Dark; it's one of the most underrated vampire flicks and well worth the rental just for the amazing humorous and gory bar scene that shows Bill Paxton at his best. Bigelow's forte is the point of view shot. This was demonstrated so well during the chase scenes in Point Break, but unfortunately that film was ruined, at least in part, by the casting of women pleasing non-actors Keanu (once again the opposite of "excellent") Reeves and Patrick Swayze. The scene here is a wildly disorienting robbery of a Chinese restaurant and subsequent getaway chase with kinetic camera work to bring home the perspective of one of the robbers who ultimately winds up, in an unbroken shot, plunging off the rooftop to his death.

Strange Days is in good company. Although it's not as good as any of them, it can be seen as both a descendant of Peeping Tom and Blade Runner a precursor to Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes), Dark City, & eXistenZ. The later comparison is easy because they are all virtual reality movies. Although there were other VR movies before Strange Days like Brainstorm (which does the most realistic job of the VR entries in examining the dangers of technology), Total Recall, and Brainscan, Strange Days was very topically unique at the time and has a style of it's own. Where Blade Runner comes in is the noirish city, which we get stunning overhead views of, and the focus on technology run amuck. Luckily, Ridley Scott wasn't involved in this so we don't have to worry about him just getting around to changing the meaning of his film.

I draw the comparison to Peeping Tom because this film really questions the audience as voyeurs. Although Lenny has ethics, he doesn't deal in "blackjack" (a "wire trip" that's a recording of a real death), he is forced to experience death and rape trips. Thus, we are forced to experience them with him, to look at them in the horrific light that Lenny is and realize these aren't the things we want to watch. Ultimately, this is one of the one of the places Strange Days falls short because, although its heart is in the right place and the rest of the movie rightfully isn't particularly explicit or graphic, the screen doesn't send brainwaves to our heads. Although it's not glorified, the murder still looks like any old murder that's not played up (Near Dark is harder to watch in this regard without trying to make a point of being that way). Although it's not eroticised, the rapes are not particularly horrific and the subsequent murder isn't shown. They are kind of creepy, but while this may come off bad, I don't find myself questioning looking at the lovely Brigitte Bako like I do with Asia Argento in The Stendahl Syndrome or (the ultimate for the said reviewer even though the circumstance is somewhat different) Jennifer Connelly in Requiem for a Dream. Actually, Bako's rape scene in Dark Tide was far more disturbing even though it's a sexploitation flick (okay, it did try to be serious) whose only saving grace was her doing plenty of nudity. The creepiest shot is not the rape with the razor blade, which is not nearly as creepy as what a weaponless Art Garfunkel does to Theresa Russell at the end of one of the great "lost" Nicolas Roeg films, Bad Timing. It's when Lenny views a tape of the killer breaking into his place and running the blade as close to his neck (Lenny is sleeping) as he can without cutting. For the film really to work in these points, it needed more intensity, gore, and brutality because (granted I'm more think skinned than most) the bar has already been set high by other films, we've been desensitized to standard and the 1st person point of view is the only thing that makes this different from that. Taking it further would have killed the box office because you can guarantee it would have been slapped with an NC-17 since the Puritans try to abolish graphic, "unorthodox," or overly intense sex. As it is, the film was a huge flop grossing $7.9 million on a $42 million budget. This seemed to really put a damper on Bigelow's career. She didn't make another film until 2000, this time with a $16 million budget. In spite of including wonderful performers like of Sarah Polley and Sean Penn, The Weight of Water still has only shown at a few film festivals. Suddenly though, she has Harrison Ford and a $60 million budget for K-19: The Widowmaker.

Strange Days is not about shocking the viewer, but about technology increasing and morals decreasing. It argues that the two go hand in hand. The focus of the movie is on Lenny, a cop that got kicked off the force and now sells tapes of whatever his customers fantasy is (not coincidentally they tend to be sex oriented) on the black market. He's a great talker who puts on a great act and knows everyone. He comes up with lines like "I am your main connection to the switchboard of the soul. I'm the magic man ... Santa Claus of the subconscious. You say it, you think it, you can have it" to sell his product. However, he's also a lonely loser that lives day to day never having any money (he constantly tries to get people to accept checks or a fake Rolex) and always getting beat up.

The cyberpunk world Lenny lives in, which seems post apocalyptic, is an utter hellhole. He claims the one thing that stands between him and the jungle is his tie, which costs more than the wardrobe of a low life non-customer. He operates his business in sleazy establishments, particularly nightclubs, but they are safe in comparison to the world outside them. Punks and pillagers have taken over the streets. Some people still drive cars, but they aren't safe. To be somewhat safe you have travel in a bullet resistant limousine (Lenny asks what happened to bullet proof, but the question is never answered) like the one Lenny's friend Lornette "Mace" Mason (Angela Bassett) drives, but not that many people can afford them. The film is about Lenny getting sucked into the underworld.

The people who get "jacked in" are portrayed as a new kind of addict. The experience is so real that nothing but the real thing even compares to it. It's dangerous and illegal to get a hold of this drug, but still far less risky than its only substitute. As is the case with many dealers, Lenny is hooked on his product. He gets off on old tapes that he made with Faith (Juliette Lewis). He rescued her when she was nothing, available for $20, but now she's left him for a rock star manager named Philo Gant (Michael Wincott). Philo manages Jericho One (Glenn Plummer), who is also one of the most influential African Americans, a strong public speaker who organizes his faithful into citizen groups. Philo lets her sing at his happening club (her and Plummer really sing) and might sign her to a record contract some day; he needs a new star now that Jericho has been shot dead, inciting massive riots. Anyway, Lenny, who we see happy and caressing the air (his brain tells him her body is there) when he's watching the tape, has seemingly fallen lower than Faith because he can't let go of the past and his goofball romanticism to accept The End of the Affair came long ago.

A key theme of the film is loving people who aren't worthy of it. You remember the good times and that leads you to forgive them and still want to protect them. Forgiving people is often a good thing, but memories are meant to fade and someone who doesn't care about your life isn't worth dying for. Faith does still care for Lenny to some extent, he tries to protect her because he promised he always would (a promise that means a lot more to him than her at this point) but she does her best to get rid of him so he won't get beat up by Philo's bodyguard and involved in the mess. Mace cares for Lenny a lot more, but he can't see it because his life revolves around what his best friend Max Peltier (Tom Sizemore) joking calls "the F word."

Max is also a former cop, the slightly off kilter kind with the menacing sarcasm you'd expect from Sizemore. He didn't get off as easy as Lenny. He got a bullet in the head, and the brain of steel isn't allowed to play the man of steel. He's blessed with a chumpy little pension that he can't survive on, so he has to take whatever work he can find. This work includes watching Faith for Philo, which he doesn't inform Lenny he's doing but when Lenny finds out he essentially claims it's so he can keep both Lenny and Faith safe.

What separates Strange Days from most movies is it develops the characters. That's kind of ironic considering the movie was written by James Cameron, who more often than not forsakes this element in favor of major action and innovative special effects. Perhaps that's why he gave this one to his ex-wife, actually I think it was part of their divorce settlement, she's generally more interested in fleshing out the characters. The screenplay by Cameron and Martin Scorsese collaborator Jay Cocks (The Age of Innocence & Gangs of New York) gives her plenty of opportunity. The film gives us a solid hour of the world and the key characters that inhabit it before the plot truly starts. It would be way worse without this hour, but the last 1:15 could essentially stand alone as a movie that lacks a soul. As a whole, it's a completely engrossing visionary film. It's one that should even work for the less patient viewers because there's constant motion and something is always going on even though it takes a long time to get into the traditional narrative.

I liked the possible millennium mayhem that was always brooding in the background. This was made before everyone selling a product decided to cash in on the silly Y2K craze, but it still presents an effective look at the chaos, paranoia, and warped thinking The Rapture can cause (although obviously not to the extent of the highly underrated uncompromising and extremely thought provoking Michael Tolkin film of that name, and trust me I'm the last person that would look to brag about a religious movie). I loved the part where the talk radio host asks "Is that midnight L.A. time or, or Eastern Standard Time, or what? I mean, what timezone is God in anyway?"

All the acting is at least solid. Lewis & Sizemore are less effective than normal, but they can be "off" and still be good. Lewis brings a lot of energy as usual, excelling in the taped and stage scenes, but she doesn't get the dialogue to round out her character. Angela Bassett brings a level headed toughness to her role and Vincent D'Onofrio can always be counted on to deliver a few deranged facials.

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Fiennes really shines, and he's essentially in every scene. Fiennes has taken some criticism for being the good looking guy in a love story/tragedy too often, but since he does it so well and makes the characters different I have no problem with it. It's not as bad as complaining Jennifer Jason Leigh has portrayed too many sex professionals since you'd be hard pressed to find two more different characters than her Tralala (Last Exit to Brooklyn) and Susie Waggoner (Miami Blues), but anyway Fiennes has taken some chances. This is the guy who starred in Peter Greenaway's The Baby of Macon which is still banned technically or essentially in many countries, gave one of the most chilling performances as an almost inhuman violent nazi that is conflicted by his inexplicable love for his Jewish housekeeper in overrated Steven Spielberg's supposedly great Schindler's List, played three generations of Sonnenschein boys, one of which is strung up naked and sprayed with a hose until he freezes to death, in the revolution epic Sunshine, and is now working for David Cronenberg as an acute schizophrenic who has an increasingly fragile grip on reality in Spider. He's always given at least good performances (with the possible exception of Avengers which I'm not watching unless I find someone who will pay me to). Here Fiennes gives us a character with a bold and slick exterior, but an empty and vulnerable interior. He's the kind of character you enjoy because he's charming and so quick on his toes, but he's not a true hero because he's selfish and kinda like a used car salesman except his stuff is all functional. Also, it's hard to root too much for an ex-cop that for most of the movie is too scared to defend himself. He's a very entertaining wise cracker, particularly when he picks on his former boss, Commisioner Strickland (Josef Sommer) whose "ass is so tight, when he farts only dogs can hear it."  His facial acting is very important as well because the camera focuses on this aspect when he's viewing the VR clips. He shows a happiness, but also a longing and addiction when watching clips of Faith and eerie anticipation and great fear when watching the later horrors. It's definitely one of his best performances.

Technically, the film is excellent, even better than anything Bigelow had done in the past. This is one of those films that uses so many techniques you have to take better notes tan I do to be able to run them down. The one constant is it's all filmed at night to bring out that the whole city has become an underworld. The look is so effective that even makes "violations of the rules" totally work for it like 180 degree point of view switches (the kind of thing Ed Wood did without noticing it) that show the anarchic war zone known as Los Angeles and jump cuts that contribute to our uneasiness. Various formats, stocks, and lightings are used to differentiate real time, the trip, the huge television sets, and so on. It's just a relentless look at a city and life spiraling out of control. It can be beautiful at the same time, like the amazing New Years 2000 party in the streets at the end with many treats including 2,000 balloons, half a ton of confetti, and hundreds of fireworks. That said, these things go on through a small riot (there are some particularly good birds eye view shots of rioting). Another great scene near the end is when one character cutting ties with another results in quite a fall. The film doesn't have the special effects of Cameron's own, but it doesn't rely on effects and shows no less expertise or creativity in what it does set out to do. Of course, that means it essentially got no awards nominations even though Cameron's own get a bunch since he has Arnold and millions of advertising dollars behind him. The city is obviously no match for the noirish one Alex Proyas created in Dark City, but the cinematography of Matthew F. Leonetti and sets are certainly excellent.

A few things kept the movie down. The action scenes rely too much on unbelievability and coincidence. In particular, there's a scene where a car is burning due to gasoline being poured all around and the doors are conveniently stuck, so they drive off a bridge (or some type of ledge) into a lake. Of course, once they are at the bottom and water is getting in, they obviously find a way to get out and are now safe because the bad guys give up waiting for them to surface. The ending was too convenient and too happy. In a movie about a world that's gone to hell, how can everything fall into place so tidily? Still, watching the movie today, even after six years, the millennium, and better virtual reality movies it still plays just as well and hasn't aged a bit.  



* Copyright 2001 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *