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Strange Days (1995)

by on 2010/12/30

1995 . . . The Matrix didn’t exist yet.  Nor did the Blade movies, Dark City, or eXistenZ.

How about a cyberpunk In the Line of Fire?

In Strange Days, Kathryn Bigelow — the wunderkind of last year’s Oscars for The Hurt Locker — delivers the dark, gritty tale of a future that never was.  Better known to geeks and goths as the driving force behind Point Break and Near Dark respectively, this piece involves substantial input from her former husband, James Cameron.

Of course, his interest in speculative fiction is hardly a surprise given his body of work.  Here his contributions to the story and script demonstrate a continued proficiency in pretty much anything, including film noir.  Oh yes, this film is very noir, so much so I can barely believe I’d seen it before, never noticing the shadows for the dark.  If only Cameron had explored it all some more.

Beginning December 30, 1999, both appropriately and literally in media res, we are introduced to Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes, a decade before Voldemort) and the basic ideas of virtual reality.  A washout of the Los Angeles vice squad, Lenny the User has since become Lenny the Dealer.  He’s characterized as a slick, scheming scam artist, always strung out on replay, looking for the next score.

As Hollywood tears itself apart on the verge of the next millennium, he’s pulled into a complex web of intrigue by his less-virtual connections.  Lenny acquires a recording in which two LAPD officers (Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner) kill civil rights activist, rapper Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer).   Lenny and his ragtag tangle of cronies (Brigitte Bako, Angela Bassett, Richard Edson, Juliette Lewis, and Tom Sizemore) are all dragged down the spiral of conspiracy and corruption.

Strange Days takes an especially Nineties view of the future, counterintuitively advanced and dystopic for an era so near its time of production.

(Take a deep breath now…)

At the dawn of 2K — the term “Y2K” being conspicuously absent — slipping on the ‘trodes of a SQUID (Superconducting QUantum Interference Device) is an illicit novelty of questionable legality.  Using technology intended to replace body wire surveillance, users jack in to a deck, and wire-trip on clips.  Lenny warns others about the dangers of blackjack and getting cooked off (a brain-damaging overdose) but what does he know?  He does so much playback, he’s probably just paranoid, right?

Well, if it weren’t already obvious, the technobabble runs rampant.  The script suffers somewhat for having to explain concepts as quaint now as they were pedantic even back then.  When you get right down to it, Cameron is retrofitting the solid, standard tale of a drug dealer with the trappings of a promised technology.

The closest we get to exploring the deeper themes of technology — say the social implications of virtual reality — are semantic debates about whether Lenny’s “experiences” are in fact “sleaze”.  Rival Philo Gant (Michael Wincott) maintains that Lenny “doesn’t have a life; he’s peddling pieces of other lives, and the broken parts of his own.”

Other ideas are woven throughout, notably — and perhaps most significantly — a subplot which evokes the Rodney King affair of the early Nineties.  Still, whatever its MacGuffin, Strange Days is, at its core, less about evolution or revolution than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, of wrongdoers hunting down a witness and the evidence that could implicate them.

The film hits many noir markers through the course of its running.  In the crime-infested underbelly of the big city, the clubs never close, the players are tough and tragic, and the good guys are only slightly less corrupt than the baddies.  And to drive the point home, the DJ at one club surrounds himself with screens, all running classic crime pics.

But this slice of noir is decidedly not your grandpa’s.  This city has a cool flow in its streets, where ambient, trip hop, and techno score Lenny’s voyeuristic rush.  The music of Deep Forest, Tricky, and Graeme Revell echo hauntingly throughout.

Inside the clubs, the hot jazz of old has been updated with furious hard rock, alternately growling and screaming.  Juliette Lewis herself performs two PJ Harvey covers, “I Can Hardly Wait” and “Rid of Me”.  Compelling new takes on The Doors’ “Strange Days” are everywhere.  This future knows its roots.

Overall, it’s a terrific experience, and I could easily fill pages deconstructing, studying, and celebrating its schematics.  I don’t, however, want to commit the same single greatest flaw of the effort overall:  it’s just too damn long.  I can’t recall for certain when it crossed that hazy line between luxurious and laborious but, fortunately, the atmosphere was salvaged by its propulsive denouement.

Long story short:  I’ll take Strange Days over a dozen Avatars, any day.

* * * *

Rated R for adult situations, disturbing scenes, language, nudity, and violence

145 minutes

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