‘Strange Days’ Turns 25, and Kathryn Bigelow’s Thriller Was Years Ahead of Its Time

     October 7, 2020

“You watch us take it all, and then you’ll understand our pain.
We think you’re the rat that crawled through the cracks,
because you love that red, white and blue,
but you hate that black, black, black.
And you try to make me think I did this to myself, when the drugs I smoke, and the guns I tote, both came from your shelf!
But I never had a dream ’cause, my life is a nightmare.
America’s been my boogeyman for 400 years!” – Jeriko One

Kathryn Bigelow‘s 1995 sci-fi thriller Strange Days celebrates its 25th anniversary today and the oft-overlooked film remains as timely as ever, sadly, given how its plot hinges on footage of two white cops killing an innocent Black man — something we see all too often on the news these days.

Strange Days takes place over the last two days of 1999 and the film was clearly way ahead of its time, predicting a chaotic future in which Los Angeles is practically a war zone and crooked cops are only held accountable due to personal recording devices. Of course, people weren’t carrying iPhones back then, and the cell phones they did have certainly weren’t equipped with cameras, but in the strange days of Strange Days, people wear illegal devices that capture life as the user experiences it through their cerebral cortex. Press record and the SQUID device will preserve everything you see, hear, taste, smell and touch so that you — or someone else — can relive or “playback” that particular moment (i.e. clip) anytime you want with the push of a button.

You know, like social media on steroids.

The technology offers endless possibilities, but as with any real narcotic, if you do too much playback, you could overdose. And just like real narcotics, clips are typically trafficked. Ralph Fiennes stars as Lenny Nero a black market dealer who sells titillating clips, but draws the line when it comes to snuff. After all, “this is not like ‘TV-only-better.’ This is life… a piece of someone’s actual life.” So Lenny has a code of sorts, but In the technologically-advanced world of Strange Days, as in our own, there’s a thin line between reality and entertainment. But I’ll let Lenny describe his profession in his own words:

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Image via 20th Century Fox

“I can get you anything, you just have to talk to me, you have to trust me. You can trust me, ’cause I’m your priest, I’m your shrink… I am your main connection to the switchboard of the soul. I’m the magic man… Santa Claus of the subconscious. You say it, you think it, you can have it.”

Lenny wants to relive his relationship with singer Faith (Juliette Lewis), conjuring up fragments of their time together like a drug he just can’t quit. He has the classic “white knight” syndrome, but Faith is given actual agency in this film, insisting that she’s a grown woman who can fend for herself and doesn’t need to be saved. The broken-hearted Lenny is totally that guy who can’t move on because he chooses not to, preferring to watch clips of his former life, intoxicated by the power of nostalgia. The modern comparison is obvious. Who among us hasn’t checked an ex-lover’s social media feed, torturing ourselves in the process?

The actual plot of Strange Days kicks in when Lenny receives a disturbing clip from an anonymous source that depicts an escort named Iris (Brigitte Bako) being raped and murdered from the point of view of the perpetrator. But this is no ordinary snuff clip. The sadistic killer has linked his own SQUID device to hers, forcing Iris to watch herself being murdered as he experiences her growing fear. Though Iris is killed by a masked man, she says she’s worried “if they get me,” hinting that there’s some kind of a larger conspiracy at work.

Indeed there is, as Iris had been looking for Lenny because she was the only living witness to the police shooting of rapper Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) the night before, having captured it all in one explosive clip. Jeriko’s message of inequality still reverberates today, and when Lenny comes into possession of this clip, he begins to realize it has the power to bring down the entire system, or at the very least root some bad apples out of the LAPD. Lenny used to be a cop himself, and years later, he still holds the current commissioner responsible for “shit-canning” his career. At the same time, however, he has no choice but to trust him to do the right thing. It echoes our own relationship with the police these days, in that there’s still a lot of distrust there, but when there’s trouble, we’re still calling 911.

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Image via 20th Century Fox

Angela Bassett co-stars as Mace, a limo driver and personal bodyguard who has always had unrequited feelings for Lenny. She’s also an absolute badass of the highest order. Mace is one of the toughest female characters I’ve ever seen on the big screen, a list that includes Foxy Brown, Ellen Ripley, Clarice Starling, Beatrix Kiddo and Furiosa. Long before female-fronted action movies became popularized, Bassett was kicking all kinds of ass on the big screen at a time when there weren’t a lot of studio movies that allowed a Black woman to save the white male lead time and time again — and use her fists to do so rather than her sexuality. And for a director known for making macho movies like The Hurt Locker and Point Break, it’s funny how the most brutal fight scenes in Strange Days are between Mace and Vita (Louise LeCavalier), a mean-looking woman who serves as an enforcer for music mogul Philo Gantt (Michael Wincott), who manages Faith.

Mace is more than just muscle, of course, as she and Lenny share a special connection. She may not approve of his job, but she respects him as a man and trusts him around her young son. That Lenny is white and Mace is Black is important given the larger story at play here, and yet the movie never calls attention to their interracial romance, which evolves naturally and culminates in a powerful payoff. Lenny’s relationship with Mace almost plays like the inverse of The Bodyguard, and it’s yet another example of this movie being ahead of its time, as no one raises an eyebrow about that kind of things these days, and rightfully so.

Strange Days also encourages its audience to question authority, with Tom Sizemore‘s private investigator Max warning Lenny, “the issue’s not whether you’re paranoid. I mean, look at this shit. The issue is whether you’re paranoid enough.” Max is a fatalist, the kind of person who doesn’t care about anyone or anything because he looks out the window and sees the world ending in front of his eyes. There are people out there today who feel the same way, and there probably always will be. That’s simply human nature. But Lenny is the opposite of Max — he’s the kind of guy who prefers to live in the past because he doesn’t like who he’s become, and by the end, he effectively becomes the man he has long wanted to be for Mace. With a new lease on life and a fresh outlook on love, he becomes “woke,” so to speak.

Strange Days is based on a story by none other than James Cameron, who wrote the script with Jay Cocks, the former film critic who would go on to do an uncredited rewrite of Titanic and work with Martin Scorsese on both Gangs of New York and Silence. From The Terminator movies to Avatar, Cameron has been a proud futurist, someone who has long been enamored with and curious about both the power and the danger of technology. With the SQUID device, he and Cocks seems to have accurately predicted the rise of first-person video, and if Facebook could perfect this kind of technology, it would.

The great Roget Ebert loved Strange Days, giving it four stars out of four stars. He seemed to appreciate the fundamental truths of the movie and what it says about humanity with regards to race, power and technology. As Lenny says, “Look… everyone needs to take a walk to the dark end of the street sometimes, it’s what we are.” 25 years later, that’s still true, and that’s the scary part. The film’s tagline is “You know you want it,” and these days, with technology tracking our every move, they know what “it” is is even before we do. Somewhere, someone is figuring out a better way to give it to us. Just be careful what you wish for, because if we don’t learn from our past, our future could be as terrifying as it was back in 1995.

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