Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores the paranoid, sci-fi thriller ‘Strange Days.‘
This bonus Essential is our final entry of the year, and it will also be our last for a while. But don’t worry loyal readers! Starting in January I’m shifting gears with this column to focus on movies that have either been unfairly forgotten over time or that have found something of an undeserved negative reputation. Basically I’ll be trying to convince you to seek out something you’ve never heard of, or I’ll be passionately defending something you’ve been led to believe is garbage. Good times! But for now, please enjoy this New Year’s-themed Essential.
We’re going to blame James Cameron for Strange Days’ biggest flaw.
The story is his idea after all, and as co-writer he had ample opportunity to address the issue, so yeah, we’re blaming Cameron for the film’s insistence that the year 2000 marked the beginning of the new millennium. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, everyone knows there’s no year zero meaning the 21st century began at 12:01 am on New Year’s Day of 2001.
That travesty aside, Kathryn Bigelow’s highly entertaining and often brutal mash-up of sci-fi, action, and national reflection is every bit as effective today as it was over two decades ago when it first arrived in theaters. Sure it died a very fast death, but the judgement of everyday audiences has never been one of America’s strong-suits.
The film opens on December 30th, 1999, and the world is just two days away from the new millennium. [cough] Racial tensions, discomfort with the coming calendar change, and the recent murder of a popular rapper has the population on edge, and in Los Angeles that means pockets of chaos in the city’s streets. It’s basically the present, but the sci-fi element quickly makes itself known ‐ SQUIDs (superconducting quantum interference device) are thin head-pieces that allow the wearer to record whatever they see and then be played back later like a camcorder video. Essentially the ultimate in virtual reality, an end user gets to experience all manner of activities from the comfort of their living room ‐ skydiving, racing, and other such extreme sports would be the typical, but a black market has built up around radical sex tapes, robberies, and other illicit behaviors. They’re “a piece of somebody’s life, pure and uncut,” and it surprises no one that there’s even an audience for POV snuff tapes featuring a piece of somebody’s death, both accidental and otherwise.
Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is a dealer all manner of SQUID tapes, but he draws the line at the snuff. “When they die it just brings down your whole day”, he tells one of his suppliers before heading home to watch a tape he made himself years ago with his ex-girlfriend, Faith (Juliette Lewis). She’s still alive, but she may as well be gone for all the contact he has with her these days. She’s moved on to a slimy record executive (redundant?) named Philo (Michael Wincott) who keeps her occupied with cash, drugs, and glamour. The last two friends Lenny has in this world are Mace (Angela Bassett) and Max (Tom Sizemore). The former is a driver/security expert who’s long harbored an affection for Lenny, and the latter is a private eye.
Plot enters the picture when an old friend of Faith’s drops a video disc into Lenny’s possession ‐ a video of the rapper, Jeriko One, being murdered by two police officers (Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner!) after a traffic stop. She was the only one to get away, and now the dirty cops are after her and the disc. Lenny enlists the aid of his two friends in trying to reach Faith, and while it results in him getting a beat-down or two it also adds new wrinkles to the story.
Philo was Jeriko’s manager, there are rumors of a police death squad roaming the streets and dishing out violent revenge against a citizenry that’s been speaking out against law enforcement abuses, and a new disc has arrived. It’s a POV video of someone breaking into a hotel room, tasering the woman who made the earlier video, raping her, and killing her.
It’s a rough watch, as intended, and made more dramatically brutal by the realization that the killer put a SQUID on her head during the assault and played his POV into her vision. She’s forced to see her own attack as it happens.
The scene isn’t graphic on the visual front, and the assault is only a minor beat in the film, but it’s clear Bigelow wants it to leave a mark. A similar attack occurs later with differing results, but the emotions felt by the audience hit almost as hard. Wide release movies rarely aim for this kind of brutality, especially ones billed as entertainment, and Bigelow keeps it from leaning towards exploitation (unlike say, Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man) by making the horribleness of it unavoidable.
The mystery of who the rapist/killer is doesn’t last long thanks in part to Roger Ebert’s Economy of Characters, but the image below should have also been a clue.
Everything comes to a head as the clock ticks down to midnight on New Year’s Eve. Faith lands in real trouble, and Lenny is convinced that the only hope is to trade the video for her life. Mace disagrees ‐ she knows the video and the truth it represents are important and deserve to be revealed to the populace at large. It’s guaranteed to ignite a long-overdue fuse in the city, but together they decide it’s necessary.
Bigelow isn’t interested in crafting slick, attractive violence here ‐ as with the assaults she instead aims for conflict that’s every bit as ugly and vicious in its impact. Mace shows off her combat training and kicks plenty of ass, but she’s overwhelmed by the boys in blue who mistakenly come to the aid of the corrupt twosome who she’s managed to subdue. She’s knocked to the ground, beaten from all sides by billy clubs and boots, and the scene is intentionally meant to resemble the kinds of real-life imagery that was familiar even in 1995.
The celebratory crowd grows unruly, initially through their joy but eventually at the site of an unarmed black woman being beaten by half a dozen white cops. The crowd takes down the officers as a riot erupts, but for Mace it’s far from ideal ‐ the look on her face reveals a woman whose hope for the future is continually knee-capped by the present reality.
Strange Days leaves us with a pocket of joy among the violent discontent. It’s brief, and it’s a small thing against the chaos and pain surrounding them, but as Lenny and Mace finally come together we can’t help but feel a little bit of their optimism.
Will next year be better? Maybe, maybe not, but only one thing is certain. Much like the start of 2000, 2017 is not the beginning of the new millennium.
“You know one of the ways movies are still better than playback? Cause the music comes up, there’s credits, and you always know when it’s over. It’s over!”