Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Movie – Strange Days (1995)

Strange Days is a near-future science fiction movie that didn’t get a lot of notice at the time it was released, even though it was written by James Cameron and starred Ralph Fiennes who was coming off his Oscar nomination for Schindler’s List.  It was directed by Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow.  After her Best Director Oscar win for The Hurt Locker people started re-discovering some of her earlier films, including this one.  In my opinion, Strange Days is the best film Bigelow made prior to The Hurt Locker, although I’d listen to the Near Dark (1987) fans who might disagree with me.

Strange Days is set in the last days of 1999 leading up to the “new millennium”.  The filmmakers made the same mistake the media did a few years after the film came out – the new millennium did not start until 2001.  Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, either in a movie or in the media.  In these final days of 1999 mass hysteria is going on in L.A. as “the end” approaches, and the police can barely maintain order.

Ralph Fiennes stars as Lenny Nero, a former L.A. police officer who now buys and sells illegal SQUID recordings.  Technology exists that allows people to record their experiences – sight, sound, touch, etc. – via a device (the SQUID) they wear on their head.  These recordings can then be played by others wearing a similar device.  The result is that the viewer literally experiences everything the original person did.  It’s supposed to only be for the military, but the tech leaked out.  Even though it’s illegal to use these devices, they are relatively widespread.  Lenny doesn’t lack for customers.

By the way, James Cameron once again took one of his science fiction stories from a prior work, in this case Mick Farren’s 1978 novel The Feelies, which was put back into print in 1990.  Like all the others except for Dark Angel, which is an exact copy of Robert Heinlein’s novel Friday, Cameron changed just enough so that there is no legal need to credit the original author.  In the novel “feelies” were the next evolution in movies – “movies” had motion; “talkies” had sound; and “feelies” had the other senses.  The 1978 novel also has a subplot about a woman who competes in a televised competition designed to degrade the competitors, all for the entertainment of the masses.  Sound familiar?

As you can imagine, dealing in black market SQUID recordings sometimes gets Lenny into situations where things go wrong.  In this case a woman (Bridget Bako) witnesses two police officers (Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner) murder a rapper.  She was wearing a SQUID so there is a recording of what she saw.  She is trying to flee from the cops, and she runs across Lenny.  She leaves the copy of her recording with him, but he cannot retrieve it at first.  He then gets sent a second recording – of this woman being raped and murdered.

Lenny shares this info with two friends – “Mace” (Angela Bassett), who works as a bodyguard, and Max (Tom Sizemore), a private investigator.  They try to figure out what to do with the recording.  Mace is all for turning it over.  She believes in the straight and narrow and doesn’t really like what Lenny does for a living in the first place.  She’s got feelings for him and doesn’t want to see him get hurt.  Lenny, however, is somewhat obsessed with his former girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis), who is a singer.  (fyi – Lewis did all her own singing in the film.) 

Max counsels Lenny to not reveal the recording.  Things are already close to exploding in the city.  If it were to come out that two white cops murdered a black rapper, Max feels that all hell would break loose and many more people would die.  As you might expect, there is far more to the story than just these events, so regardless of what Lenny decides, it’s going to get a lot more complicated and dangerous for him as the movie goes on. 

The movie features a number of POV shots, as you would expect when it deals with a technology that actually allows you to relive the experiences of someone else.  The movie opens with one of these and even though it was over 15 years ago when I first saw it I still remember both my friend and I reacting strongly when a particular thing happened at the end of this first scene. 

The filmmakers literally had to invent a new camera to allow them to shoot the POV footage.  It took upwards of a year to get the camera ready and to plan out the shots.  As I mentioned at the top, the movie seemed to get lost in the shuffle when it first came out, so combined with the production costs it ended up losing quite a bit of money.

Part of the reason it didn’t do as well is that it is science fiction (SF), not sci-fi.  It’s not filled with aliens, spaceships, or lots of special effects.  Like other SF movies it’s actually about something.  The science fiction aspect is there to enhance and progress the story.  Unlike sci-fi movies, it’s not designed to distract you from the fact that there is little to no plot.  (I wrote some thoughts on the difference between SF and sci-fi in my Before Star Wars post.  You can read it here.)

As you would expect, Fiennes and Bassett both do great jobs with their characters.  Sizemore does his patented tough guy.  Lewis gets to rock out and act a little deranged.  It looked like she was having fun.  Bigelow showed that Point Break wasn’t a fluke and that Hollywood was wrong about a woman not being able to direct a film with action sequences in it. 

Trivia #1 – James Cameron actually did quite a bit of editing on this film, but had to go uncredited because he was not in the Editor’s union.

Trivia #2 – Fatboy Slim’s song Right Here Right Now lifted the sample dialogue of those four words from this film.  Angela Bassett speaks them.

If you have never seen Strange Days, then I recommend that you give it a try.  It is an entertaining film and has a good mystery/thriller plot to it, with science fiction elements.  The POV cinematography is quite something to see, as well.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars



  1. I thought this was an underrated film. It was exciting, entertaining, and had lots of badass moments.

  2. I was hoping this would be your choice for this word. I like this film quite a bit and think it's sadly underrated. Once I started to understand film, I started calling this film "noir punk," a designation I still think fits it.

    When you say at the start that this is Bigelow's best pre-Hurt Locker film, my thought immediately went to Near Dark, so I appreciate your concession there. You might still be right on this, but I love the vampire movie just for what it is.

    Another connection to make here is that there's a lot in this movie that ties back to Peeping Tom, but it's the sort of thing best kept under a spoiler tag. If you've seen both films, you'll know what I mean.

  3. @thevoid99 - I agree. Thanks for sharing.

    @SJHoneywell - I'm glad you were looking for this. When you said some choices might be obvious I thought you thought I was going to do Dr. Strangelove. By the way, if you're thinking "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" for the next one, you're going to be disappointed.

    "Noir punk" fits. Some SF fans consider it "cyberpunk".

    Near Dark was the very first film I ever saw from Bigelow, almost 25 years ago now. Rumor has it that its attitude influenced Joss Whedon when he was creating the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show. I like Near Dark almost as much as Strange Days. I've picked up a copy of Near Dark, but have not gotten around to watching it again.

    I have not seen Peeping Tom yet, so I appreciate you not giving any spoilers.

  4. I agree with Steve. This movie had some moments that kicked so much ass and I think it's one of Bigelow's best flicks, even though that may not be saying so much considering she hasn't really done anything else worth noting other than The Hurt Locker. Still, awesome sci-fi flick that deserved more love than it got. Nice review over here Chip.

  5. This is one of those films that sit in my DVR queue waiting to be watched. Will have to check it out soon.

  6. @Dan O. - Thanks.

    @Kim Wilson - There is a scene in the film that some people find disturbing, but that is the point of the scene - to show how disturbed the person is. Please let me know what you thought of the film when you get a chance to see it.

  7. I really adore this movie. I love the idea around which the script revolves, the lovely ending and the fantastic sountrack. I was shocked Fiennes was so conviencing playing such a laid back character.

  8. @Sati. - Good point on Fiennes. I agree with you, especially when you compare it to the monster he played in Schindler's List.

  9. I used to love this movie, but once we passed the year 2000 it kind of lost it's luster for me.

  10. @msmariah - that's the problem with near future movies. Inevitably, we will reach the year they are set in and find that things are nothing like that. We've only got 3 more years before we're going to have flying cars, at least according to Back to the Future. I'm really looking forward to them. :-)

  11. Hmm, I never saw Strange Days, with comments saying it's underrated , I think I better check the trailer right away, I wasn't aware James Cameron wrote the screenplay.

    Exactly right, Hollywood was wrong about a woman not being able to direct a film with action sequences.
    Are you not a fan of Point Break, Chip? You say Strange Days is the best film Bigelow made prior to The Hurt Locker (but you only gave Strange Days 3/5)

  12. @Chris - I tend to be a little tough with my ratings. It takes a lot for a film to get five out of five from me, and three is still pretty good. When I am caught between ratings I round down, under the theory that it didn't earn the higher rating. Some of my "3"s might be "3 1/2"s and some of my "4"s might be "4 1/2"s. I use only 3, 4, and 5 because I wanted to keep the ratings simple enough to be quickly understood.

    My ratings should be interpreted like this:

    3 stars - recommended, especially if it sounds interesting to you.
    4 stars - highly recommended; unless there is something specific about the film that bothers you, you should see it.
    5 stars - highest recommendation, a must see for everyone.

    Anything below 3 stars would not be a film I'd recommend to others, and that includes anything where I felt the film was just okay. I didn't dislike it, but I didn't think it was great either. Point Break would fall into that grey area. If I gave half star ratings it would come in at a 2 1/2 from me.

    My ratings derive from how I did them on Netflix where 3 stars means "liked it", 4 stars means "really liked it", and 5 stars means "loved it". (2 stars means "disliked it" and 1 star means "hated it".) Netflix has no rating for "it was okay" because they don't do half stars either.

    fyi - I checked all my ratings on Netflix for Bigelow's films. Here they are, in the order I would rank them:

    1. The Hurt Locker - 4 stars
    2. Strange Days - 3 stars
    3. Near Dark - 3 stars
    4. K-19: The Widowmaker - 3 stars (I reviewed this last fall.)
    5. Point Break - 2 stars (2 1/2 if I could)
    6. Blue Steel - 2 stars