Ralph Fiennes as Lenny Nero in Strange Days (1995) (IMDB)

Jacking-in to Kathryn Bigelow’s Lost Classic ‘Strange Days’

Cyberthriller Strange Days is the Kathryn Bigelow version of a Brian De Palma film: interrogating the male gaze of the immoral.

Strange Days
Kathryn Bigelow
20th Century Fox / Universal Pictures

When Strange Days released in the US in the fall of 1995, the internet and the idea of digital connectivity was new enough that forward-thinking philosophers and artists had begun speculating on its potential, and in often alarmist ways. The “cyberthriller” was as prominent a fixture that year as films about being unable to trust your nanny (Curtis Hanson’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), your cop friend (Jonathan Kaplan’s Unlawful Entry), your roommate (Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female), or your good son (Joseph Ruben‘s The Good Son) were earlier that decade, or as stories of kids saving their suburb through deep understanding of pop culture ephemera were in Reagan’s ’80s. Lost amid the 1995 superhighway exhaustion of Irwin Winkler‘s The Net, Brett Leonard‘s Virtuosity, Iain Softley‘s Hackers, and Robert Longo‘s Johnny Mnemonic, Kathryn Bigelow‘s Strange Days was a box office disaster.

That it’s since attained a small but devoted fanbase has little to do with its accuracies (or inaccuracies) about cyber technology, or, as this movie calls it, “jacking in”. In light of how the internet would completely restructure human life, 25-year-old cinematic predictions can seem naïve. Yet, Strange Days endures because it’s at once efficient pulp (soulful but not at the expense of sensationalistic thrills) and because its bleak portrait of social unrest is more relevant in 2020 than it was back in the ’90s.

When Strange Days initially released, I convinced my father to take me to see it on the last day of its meagre two week run, a school night. Maybe half a dozen people were in the audience, which spoke to the odd positioning of the film. Budgeted at $42-million (it grossed less than a fifth of that in North America), Strange Days is at once a huge movie and an intimate one. The Entertainment Weekly 1995 Fall Movie Preview remarked with cautious interest that an action thriller co-written by James Cameron (with The Age of Innocence scribe Jay Cocks) had debuted at the arty New York Film Festival. Indeed, Strange Days has an indeterminate shape. As a 16-year-old, it struck me as a revelation.

Bigelow’s previous action films, Blue Steel (1990) and Point Break (1991), are slick explorations of masculine rites—a focus that earned her little cred in either the arthouse quarters of ’90s women directors, nor placed her within conversations around tech fetishists like Cameron or Tony Scott. Yet Bigelow’s penchant for kineticism, untouched by gender divide or prejudice, is just as legit. Meanwhile, her probing of the price of trauma and addiction on the human spirit, both individual and collective, lifts Strange Days to genre greatness.

The Los Angeles of Strange Days is a nocturnal one. It’s the dark, less-trodden flip-side of the most exhaustively filmed US city, where, over the vaguely-futuristic final days 1999, a man in a Santa outfit is attacked on Hollywood Boulevard. Increased police presence decorates the streets in war zone motif, and mounting disaffection builds among the underclasses. If this LA more resembles the oppressive technocratic Tokyo of a lot of anime, that’s partly due to how the film draws heavily from authors William Gibson‘s and Bruce Sterling‘s forays into cyberpunk—a variant of ’40s noir urbanity where hi-tech gadgetry meets low-life heroes.

Its social drama grounds the film and is key to its now-startling prescience. Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is a former-cop-turned-junkie/dealer, though his drug of choice, Playback, is a piece of state-of-the-art hardware. Like many addictions, it’s a social substitute for another kind of need.

Playback users place a wire structure called a “squid” on their head and through a device that plays antiquated-looking mini discs can experience the recorded memories of others (here called “clips”). Lenny’s best friend Mace (Angela Bassett), an armored limo driver, hates what he’s become under this high-tech influence, but it’s hard for her to let go of him. Our memories both make us and imprison us.

This vicarious addiction overtakes Lenny, both in his need to relive happier times with his troubled rock singer ex, Faith (Juliette Lewis), and the thrill he gets in testing product, often sexual in nature. Lenny draws the line at “blackjack” clips, where the first-person subject or someone else within the clip is killed. On one level, this is an opportunity for Bigelow to explore the subjective and empathic potential of movies. In unbroken first-person shots, we “participate” in the armed robbery of a restaurant, we enjoy lesbian sex, and later take on the perspective of a rapist-murderer.

Indeed, Strange Days is the Bigelow version of a Brian De Palma film—interrogating the male gaze of the immoral. Like De Palma, she doesn’t deny or condemn the lure of sleaze. What Mace calls “the dark end of the street” is, after all, what brought us here. But the seductive quality of sensationalism reaches, like any narcotic, a point of reckoning.

At one point, a wheelchair-bound man imagines himself running on a beach. (Cameron would explore this technological-ableism thread again with his paraplegic hero in 2009’s Avatar). In a scene that’s shot like a Baywatch outtake, he catches a beautiful woman’s eye before snapping back to cold reality.

It’s all too much; sensory over-stimulation becomes personal decay. It’s not that technology is flawed so much as that we are. It might seem strange, for instance, how before the internet, people could know all the things they want to know. They’d have to go to the library, hope to find a book on their subject of interest, and then maybe it would answer their questions. Now those with internet access have seemingly a world of information at their fingertips. But humans today are no smarter than in pre-internet times — they’ve just developed more specific porn addictions.

Filmmakers decide what we’re seeing very explicitly. Films are about — as Nicolas Cage’s paramedic describes in Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999) — “bearing witness”. Strange Days turns film’s innate capacity to take us outside of our own brains–or at least to take our brains outside of ourselves—into explicit text.

The centerpiece comes as Lenny discovers a clip documenting the police’s point blank killing of Jeriko One, a controversial rap star played by Glenn Plummer and voiced lyrically by rapper Me Phi Me. Lenny realizes this footage he possesses could change the landscape—ignite riots and urban warfare in a city already on the precipice of civic collapse.

He’s startled by the clip, but he’s still a white man (and ex-cop) who hasn’t first-hand experience in being the class of American that’s racially profiled, frequently harassed by police, and had his human value degraded. One of the great things about films (and one of Strange Days‘ meta-texts) is that they’re tools for empathy. They can bring us outside of our own perception and experience of the world to deeper understandings. The same is true of Playback. While Lenny is deeply affected by witnessing Jeriko One’s murder, he realizes there’s a limitation to his lens on this social reality. It’s an issue Bigelow addresses here, despite falling into its very trap in her 2017 film, Detroit.

Mace, Lenny insists, has to see the killing for herself. The film’s need for her to witness this is an aspect that’s never really explained, and seems rather cruel, but it serves as a remarkable moment where a film is deepened by reframing an event through a character’s unique vantage. She removes the rig in tears, shaken.

By this point during the film’s original release mainstream America should remember motorist Rodney King’s vicious beating by cops in 1991. The cops were not convicted, and the white establishment moved on. Today, the scene also recalls the police killings of George Floyd, Walter Wallace Jr.,Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and so many others captured on video, often brought to the public through social media. For Strange Days’ Mace, it’s personal. But Bigelow only allows this tragedy its weight once it’s seen through Mace’s black perspective.

“Do you know what this tape could do if it got out?” Mace asks Lenny.

“Yeah, I got a pretty good idea.”

“People finding out that the LAPD just flat out executed Jeriko One. Maybe they ought to see.”

“Maybe. But tonight’s probably not the best night.”

This is where Strange Days directly engages one of the main functions of narrative fiction to place viewers in someone’s else’s mind. In so doing,it unlocks its socio-political potential. That’s also what Playback promises. The HBO series Watchmen got a lot of attention for a similar moment when an historic racial trauma is deepened when centered through a black woman’s gaze, but it should be noted: Strange Days did it first.

It’s here that I must wade slightly into spoiler territory, but there’s no way to adequately discuss this film without addressing its contentious ending. It’s likely the reason Strange Days‘ popularity, despite steadily growing, has been pretty limited this quarter century.

At a downtown New Year’s Eve celebration, Lenny and Mace make their way through revelers and ravers, some of whom anticipate the world will end with the coming 2K (the more common term “Y2K” to designate the year 2000 wasn’t in popular use at the time Strange Days was made, but in 1995 even “2K” sounded like future lingo). Bible-wielding doomers are dressed in Grim Reaper costumes. Brawls break out. Aggressive police barricades herd the masses. The British alt-rock band Skunk Anansie perform live as rainbow confetti falls on the unruly crowd.

This is a stage set for chaos, yet Mace and Lenny wield a clip exposing the LAPD’s killing of a black celebrity activist. And that can’t wait. When Lenny asks Mace to deliver the clip to police commissioner Strickland, her immediate response is, “You want me to trust a cop?” “No, trust me,” Lenny answers.

She finds Strickland at a urinal. He hesitantly agrees to take the disc, but the men’s room has a dangerous vibe. Mace is overheard by Jeriko One’s killers, and moments later she’s being hunted through the New Year’s Eve crowd by his executioners (Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner). One of them viciously batters at civilians with his nightstick, even openly shooting some. Mace finally subdues him, bashing him on the head with a gun, kneeing him in the balls, and then hitting him with his own nightstick. As the other cop aims to kill her, she tazers and handcuffs him.

This opens a swarm of police on Mace who viciously beat her in what plays as an evocation of the Rodney King video. A massive riot breaks out in the crowd, only to be quelled when the police commissioner steps forward. He’s just viewed the clip of Jeriko’s murder, and has the assailant cops arrested. And suddenly 1995’s bleakest movie (the year that brought Terry Gilliam‘s 12 Monkeys, David Fincher‘s Se7en and Larry Clark‘s Kids) gets optimistic.

Roger Ebert—one of the only mainstream critics upon its initial release to recognize the film’s ambitions—felt this ending let it down. The ease with which police violence is brought to justice is, as anyone with cursory knowledge of world events knows, baloney. In Strange Days, civic unrest ends — just like that. The new millennium is saved just like that. It’s worth noting that taken solely as a portrait of social uprising, Strange Days is frustratingly incomplete, never really touching on how corporate powers have helped maintain this class system. And so Ebert is correct, but only regarding the film’s realism.

In that last moment, Mace and Lenny finally kiss, and the digital clock reappears on screen continuing into the early seconds of the 21st century. Strange Days is less about reality than outlook. This positive shift may seem inauthentic, but it’s genuine because it’s felt.

Plus, how unsatisfying would Strange Days be if it really thought it’s story could resolve systemic racism? (Answer: It would be Paul HaggisCrash, and win a bunch of Oscars, but integrity always beats awards.) The true impact of its ending is its romantic assertion that broken institutions, just like vicarious existence and fading memories of exes, won’t save us. The fight for structural change goes on. But let’s also recognize this moment. We’re all we really have.

To add outrage to insult, Strange Days is currently unavailable in North America on any streaming or digital rental service. Whether this is a decision lying with James Cameron (who also has a producer credit on Strange Days, and whose films The Abyss and True Lies have likewise become scarce in recent years) or is related to Disney’s annexing of Fox is uncertain.

Audiences weren’t ready for Bigelow’s collision of genre tropes and social understanding in 1995, and maybe they still aren’t. Yet with its end-times struggles even more relevant after 25 years, it’s reason to rediscover this lost classic.

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