Oh, how I miss the 90's. The music, the styles, the culture, I could go on. Like the 60's, it was the attitude of the generation that truly led an impact on the decade. In 1995, Kathryn Bigelow, best known for directing the action-packed Point Break, created Strange Days, a cutting edge sleeper aimed at the X Generation. Though it wasn't a hit in theaters, and now seems out of date, it's still an excellent exercise in blending film-noir, cyberpunk, giallo, sci-fi and 90's culture to become one of the decade's more unique films.
Taking place in a dystopic Los Angeles, California around New Years Eve, 1999 (whether or not this is supposed to be an alternate reality is never mentioned), Strange Days showcases a complex plot disrupting the already complex lives amongst a group of people existing in a chaotic city. Amidst this daily anarchy, people are going nuts over a new drug that is unlike any other before it. This drug is purely electronic; a wired system that, with a tiara-like device, connects through to a person's brain, recording an individual's personal experience straight through their cerebral cortex and directly into the SQUID deck (the device that records). That means you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel every sensation that takes place within every recorded session. These recorded experiences, also known as "playback" or "wire-tripping" are then copied, bought and sold on the black market and range in all sorts of activities, from sexual encounters, armed robberies/assaults to even sometimes death (the slang for a snuff is "black jack").
I should also mention before I get into explaining the main story that there is a very important subplot involving an event that has taken place in this world prior to where we begin in the narrative; Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), an important rapper figure and activist leading a coalition against police brutality is gunned down on the night before New Years Eve. His death has sparked a violent uproar throughout an already violent-ridden city.
At the center of the story is Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), an easygoing, smooth-talking ex-cop turned playback dealer. The city of angels has decayed into a city of devils, and Lenny's such a likable crook, he seems suitable enough to guide us, the viewer, throughout this decadent world that seems frightfully right around the corner from our own. Lenny sees himself as a serious businessman. The finest scene featuring him is my personal favorite; about twenty minutes into the film, we witness his association at work when trying to sell his product to a new client. We listen to his words and how attractive and lustful they are. Lenny is a salesman; skilled in the art of talking and he knows how to tell people what they want to hear. It just so happens that the product could very well be the forbidden fruit for some, if not most.
Despite his seedy demeanor, Lenny's a charmer, but his way with words causes his face to meet with fists every now and then. Whether it's getting his car towed, or getting ganged up on by thugs, Lenny seems to have a certain type of luck on his side. This Lady Luck comes in the form of Mace (Angela Bassett), a professional service driver who is also a bodyguard skilled in hand-to-hand combat and best friend to Lenny.
So prologue out of the way, the story itself goes into a bit more than one direction, so I'll narrow it down like this;
Scenario A: Two threatening policemen (Vincent D'Onofrio and William Fichtner) are desperately trying to capture and kill a call-girl by the name of Iris (Brigitte Bako) who has witnessed something tragically significant. Whatever Iris has witnessed, she has recorded on a SQUID device, as she is one of Lenny's clients. Iris is unable to inform Lenny, the only person she can trust, of what has happened. Before she can get to him, Iris must again go on the run and before disappearing, secretly hides the playback recording for Lenny to eventually and unknowingly find himself.
Scenario B: Lenny, the charming and smooth rogue goes about his business of dealing to wire-trippers. Business charm aside, Lenny is really a heartbroken soul who can't get over his passionate romance with his ex, Faith (Juliette Lewis). Faith is now the lead singer of her own band and personally involved with Philo Gant (Michael Wincott), the sinister record magnate and associate of Jeriko One. The night before New Years Eve, while out on his daily routine, Lenny comes across a playback recording left for him at one of the clubs he deals at. The recording ends up being a black jack, depicting a brutally sadistic rape/torture and murder of someone close to him. Soon after, Lenny learns he and Faith are both in danger from this killer. Lenny enlists the help of Mace and his P.I. friend Max (Tom Sizemore), but they aren't ready to handle the consequences once Iris's playback shows up, revealing a secret so big, if exposed, it could erupt the entire city into a hellfire.
Strange Days is definitely not a straightforward film, but don't let the thick plot intimidate you. The story does kind of run in two directions, but it doesn't complicate at all and comes together rather well. The payoff isn't necessarily rewarding but is actually far from disappointing and the whole experience is memorably engaging and worth the while.
I personally loved this film altogether. The whole concept behind the SQUID device and the depiction of wire-tripping as if it were a drug as real as heroin is all very plausible. It is a great metaphor into how technology will never cease to benefit us for both good and bad. I found it to be a thoroughly entertaining experience and it really made me wonder what it would be like if something like SQUID really got a hold of the public; it'd be disastrous.
My favorite aspect of the film has to be director Bigelow's technique in displaying what a user goes through while wire-tripping. The whole first-person experience is quite a rush to take in, especially in the scenes' longer takes such as the film's intense opening sequence. The scenes where Lenny is experiencing the playback of the killer committing his deviant deeds on his victims are the film's most disturbing sights. It's mostly due to the fact that you know the character is being forced into enduring all these deviant sensations against their will. The kills scenes, though brief, also remind me of old-school gialli.
The whole idea of SQUID and the dystopic setting makes Strange Days seem very Cyberpunk to me. I believe that that is the best genre you could place it in. It may not be as high tech as Blade Runner, but the punk in Cyberpunk is definitely there. The 90's style of everything is also given such a burlesque feel, almost to balance out the futuristic experience with its attempt at remaining loosely contemporary. It might bother some, but personally, I found it fascinating. Still, the fashion and style aren't the only features that are supposed to remind us of the era; especially not the more cheerful moments. There are times in the film where it feels like we are witnessing a sort of distorted, dreamlike version of the Rodney King incident, jumbled with the aftermath riot.
The soundtrack, by the way, is another perk. Fans of 90's alternative, industrial and trip-hop will be pleased with the bands and artists featured, including The Lords of Acid, Tricky and Juliette Lewis performing two excellent PJ Harvey songs live. The choices of music to play with each scene went together well, though I found that The Lords of Acid song was a bit overplayed (it's a great track, but they play it at least three times on separate occasions throughout the whole movie).
As for the acting, everyone did a wonderful job. Ralph Fiennes is perfect as Lenny, the guy who's so amiable, it's hard to believe his shit is so badly woven together. Angela Bassett as Mace was awesome, as always, and portrayed quite possibly the most badass female character since Sigourney Weaver's Ripley of the Alien franchise. Tom Sizemore and Michael Wincott were also exceptional both in their supporting background roles. Juliette Lewis is always beautiful to watch, though I'm not entirely convinced by her acting. I'm sad to say I think the only roles she's good at playing is the ditzy southern girl like she is Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers. In this role, I just couldn't help but feel like she was lacking emotion. Perhaps it was because her character was like a fireball of energy and as an actress, she just couldn't keep up with that fire.
Overall, I love this film. I think it's incredibly underrated, especially considering it belongs in the same category of films like Blade Runner, The Terminator and The Matrix. It definitely has its flaws and the final cut could have been less messy, but it still doesn't fail to rock my world. While Strange Days may not be appreciated enough to ever be labeled a classic, it's still a fun, engaging story that shines in its intriguing substance, nostalgic 90's feel and unique take on the Tech-Noir/Cyberpunk genre.
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