The future is the present, but moreso.
This is has been the guiding principle of futurist science fiction since the genre was invented; take the current status quo and extrapolate logically and presto, you have a plausible future setting for your story. Early British sci-fi is all about the ethics and difficulty of maintaining a vast empire (don’t worry lads, won’t be a problem long term). Star Trek had space hippies and an interstellar Cold War. Eighties sci-fi is really worried about these Japanese guys. Trouble is, the course of history is less an elegant upward line and more like a panicky chihuaha on meth that keeps running off in different directions. For example: The USA and USSR are locked in an inexorable arms race that can only end with nuclear anni…
Well, the Japanese economy is an unstoppable behemoth that will crush its Western rivals and establish a new world order of corporate hegemony…
Awesome, history is over and now America as the world’s lone superpower will rule over an endless long peace…
Ah jeez, America has moved inexorably to the right and the Republicans will maintain dominance for generations, slowly turning America into a paranoid police state…
Racism is over everybody! Peace love and kumbaya for all!
This is why it’s almost impossible to write science fiction that accurately predicts the future, because the present won’t sit long enough to have its picture taken. Even the works that do get props for accurately predicting the future tend to only get certain details right while getting the rest very wrong. William Gibson came damn close to predicting the internet, but he also predicted that the world would be ruled over by several competing mega-corporations when of course in reality it’s only ruled by one.
Which is why, as a good rule of thumb, if you’re writing sci-fi you should set it far into the future so that when you are inevitably proven wrong, you’ll be long dead and no one will be there to laugh at you (unless they use their futuristic magic tech to resurrect you purely so they can laugh at you which would be incredibly petty and, going on current trends, entirely probable).
Strange Days was released in 1995 and sets its tale of sci-fi dystopia in the misty far off time of…December 1999. That’s ballsy.
And yet, it honestly feels more prescient than any science fiction film I can recall seeing.
Yeah, so I realise the movies I’m been reviewing lately have been a little more racy for a blog that rarely reviews fare rated harder than PG. Truth is, this is a review I’ve been trying to find the time to do for almost three years now (it’s one of the Joanna VR requests). This is one my friend Roger Courtney requested because he feels that it’s a ridiculously under-appreciated movie that I should review and everyone should see.
It is, I did and they should.
Let’s take a look.
The movie begins with a caption telling us not only the date and setting (Los Angeles, January 30th 1999) but even the exact time, with the seconds and minutes ticking on to show us that this is the very, very near future.
Suddenly, we’re in the back seat of a car looking through the eyes of a criminal as he and his two buddies don masks and burst into a Chinese restaurant, terrorising the customers and staff and raiding the cash register. Things go south when the cops arrive and our POV runs to the roof, tries to leap to another rooftop and instead ends up as street pizza.
It’s an absolute monster of a scene.
The movie was directed by Kathryn Bigelow but co-written and co-produced by her ex, James Cameron, a man who doesn’t so much make movies as he does advance human technology under the guise of making movies. Seriously, CGI, deep-sea photography, full colour 3D, Cameron has been instrumental in the development of all of them. If we as a species ever want to crack time travel, just put James Cameron in charge of a Back to the Future reboot and he’ll figure it out. For Strange Days, they basically had to invent a new kind of camera that could simulate a first person viewpoint and the opening sequence took a staggering two years to co-ordinate. In the age of GoPro it may not seem all that impressive but in the early nineties this was an absolute technical masterpiece. Also, y’know, Bigelow is still probably one of the best living action directors so that helps.
Anyway, we now see that this whole scene was being experienced by Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), a washed up former cop in Los Angeles, of all things. Lenny is now a black marketeer who sells SQUID recordings; real memories and experiences that are recorded so that they can be experienced by anyone. Lenny was given the robbery clip by Tick, who looks like Ringo Starr if he’d ended up in the seventies porn industry. Lenny is pissed because the clip ends with the guy dying which makes it a snuff film and that’s a hard line for Lenny.
There are two absolutely stand out performances in this movie and Fiennes is one of them. Nero is a character that you often see in crime thrillers but rarely as the main character. He’s the greasy hustler who the cops approach for information and he doesn’t know nothing so they hang him off a roof and he’s all “Okay! Okay! Okay! It was Big Leon!”. You know the guy.
Fiennes takes that guy and breathes real life and humanity into him. He’s got the desperation and the flop-sweat and the general scuzziness and seaminess of that kind of character, but underneath it all there’s a desperate puppy-dog innocence and need to be loved that makes him incredibly compelling. Also, Fiennes is one of the most magnetic screen presences of our time so, y’know, that helps.
Nero finally buys the clip off Tick, reasoning that he can cut it before the guy dies. We now follow Nero as he goes about his business in Los Angeles 1999.
This Los Angeles, it turns out, is awful. I mean, obviously, not as bad as the real thing, just awful in a “Mad Max 1, civilization is teetering on the brink of collapse” kind of way. Everywhere there’s riots and police in military gear going all Fallujah and, just to drive the point home, two women mugging Santa Claus in the street.
And in the middle of it all, Lenny Nero, ducking and diving through the carnage, hiring a guy to record his memories from a one night stand here, instructing two strung out strippers how to have sex for the camera there, always hustling.
We now cut to a subway station where a hooker named Iris (Brigitte Bako) is running through the streets being chased by two LAPD officers, Steckler (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Engelman (William Fichtner). Iris just barely escapes by leaping onto the subway train just as the door closes but Steckler grabs her by the hair which comes off in his hand. Steckler and Engelman examine the wig and find a SQUID inside it, meaning Iris was recording everything and they are in big trouble.
Nero returns home just a few minutes too late to get a desperate panicky phonecall from Iris begging him for help. Lenny kicks back with some booze and spends the night rewatching memories of happier times with his girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis). We cut continually between Lenny’s first person view of his own memories, all sunshine and music and naked Juliette Lewis, and the third person view of Lenny, smiling gormlessly alone in his dingy, dark apartment just to drive home how pathetic his life has become.
The next day, Lenny wakes up to hear the news the Jeriko 1, an outspoken and radical rapper, has been gunned down in the street and that the cops are treating it as “gang-related”.
Lenny goes to a bar and has a drink with his best friend Max (Tom Sizemore), a down on his luck sleazy private eye (in LA, of all places). The two get approached by Iris who begs Lenny for help and says that both she and Faith are in trouble. As soon as he hears the word “Faith”, Lenny agrees to go…
As they step outside, she tells him that she put something in his car that she needs to show him but a cop car pulls up and she bails. Lenny then sees his car being repossessed. He tries to reason with the repo man, offering to pay him off, and offers to give him his rolex watch as collateral. The dude takes the watch, and then drives off with the car. Lenny curses this betrayal, and takes another fake rolex out of his suitcase and makes a phonecall.
He goes back to wait in the bar with Max when his ride arrives.
So this is Angela Bassett as Mace and you do not deserve her and neither do I. Mace is a friend of Lenny’s from his days on the force. We later lean in flashback that Mace’s husband was arrested a few years ago and when she came home she found Lenny in her son’s bedroom reading him a story so he wouldn’t be scared. Now Mace works as a limo driver/bodyguard and Lenny’s fall back whenever he fucks up (so, she’s working two full time jobs). The three of them watch the news coverage of Jeriko’s murder and realise that the city is bracing for its biggest riot in history on a night when ever single person is going to be out on the streets celebrating the end of the millenium.
Aw man, if you weren’t around during the turn of the millenium I pity you. It was the greatest night ever. We all thought it was going to be a massive anti-climax but nope. Greatest night in human history. And you’ll never know what it was like. Sorry.
Max opines that this is probably the end of the world because everything’s already been done, governments, hairstyles, chewing gum flavours and asks “What are we supposed to do for another thousand years?”
The news coverage then shows Jeriko’s manager, Philo Grant, who’s played by Michael Wincott, an actor who always seems to be playing a vampire, even when he’s not.
Max tells Mace that Philo is the guy who stole Faith away from Lenny. He doesn’t say that he stole her away to his crumbling castle on a bat-infested cliff to be his immortal bride in darkness, but the implication is clear. Mace gives Lenny a lift to the hotel where she’s picking up a client. She doesn’t approve of his line of work, calling him a pornographer, but Lenny counters that people will always want to experience risks and thrills and that he offers them a safe way to do it and has probably saved many lives. Of course, SQUIDing requires real people to actually take those risks in real life and Lenny profits off that so it’s not exactly a victimless crime, either. At the hotel, Lenny bumps into Commissioner Strickland, his old boss who fired him from the force and the two exchange insults. Lenny then sweet-talks Mace’s client, a Japanese businessman, by posing as Mace’s boss and then proceeds to sell him SQUID in the back of Mace’s limo. Mace finally has enough and throws Lenny out of the car. Mace chews Lenny out for always being broke and for taking advantage of their friendship and Lenny just stands there and takes it, looking like a five year old who’s been caught with his hand in the jam jar. She finally relents and lets him back in the car, saying she’ll drop him halfway to where he needs to go, only for her client to ask to go to the club that Lenny was trying to get to anyway, because Lenny has been talking it up so much. And Lenny just smiles sheepishly at Mace in the rearview mirror.
At the club, Lenny tries to talk to Faith, who’s lounging around the club with Philo who has his shirt open because of course he does.
Lenny tries to warn Faith, saying that Iris visited him and that he thinks she’s in danger and begs him to come with her. But for Faith, Rich Dirtbag Boyfriend trumps Broke-Ass Dirtbag Boyfriend and she tells him to screw off. Philo has Lenny booted from the club. Of course, Lenny is back inside in moments and he bumps into Max, who sheepishly admits to Lenny that he’s working for Philo, monitoring Faith’s every move. He rationalises this to Lenny by saying he’s keeping an eye on her for his best friend (and better him than someone else, right) and Lenny brushes it off. Seeing as this is a club and Lenny is a dirtbag, he naturally goes to work selling SQUID clips to the patrons, until one of his usual contacts gives him a clip that he says was left for Lenny. Mace picks up Lenny and gives him a lift back and he tells her about how Iris gave him the bum’s rush. Mace muses how, despite working as a cop in vice now working as small time hustler, Lenny is still so innocent. Then, Lenny takes a look at the clip he was given in the club.
What he sees horrifies him to his very core.
He watches through the eyes of a man breaking into an apartment in the dead of night. He sees a woman. It’s Iris. She sees him. She screams, she runs. He catches her and drags her into the bathroom. He ties her to the towel rack. She begs him, pleads with him, tells him she hasn’t seen his face and he doesn’t have to do this.
He rapes her and then he kills her.
And that’s not the worst part.
He hooks her up to a SQUID, forcing her to experience everything he’s doing to her through his eyes.
So, to recap:
A female film-maker made a movie where a man forces a woman to experience her own rape and murder through the perspective of her rapist and murderer.
Call me crazy guys, but I think there may be some kind of commentary going on here.
Lenny collapses out of the car puking and trembling. Because Mace is right. Despite everything he’s seen, Lenny Nero is still an innocent. They take the clip to Max who watches it and throws his Chinese away saying “Well, that’s my appetite gone. For about a year.” Mace wants to take the clip to the cops but Lenny says he can’t because he’ll almost certainly be fingered as the perp, since he knew Iris and nobody knows more about SQUID tech than him. Max agrees, and says that he’ll contact his friends in homocide to see what they know and tells Lenny to go home and get some sleep.
Lenny stops by Philo’s home to tell Faith that Iris is dead and begs her to come with him. Philo shows up and they actually do the “Come to the one you love” thing on Faith like she’s a frickin’ labradoodle. She decides to stay with Philo (who must have had bacon in his pockets) but after he leaves, Philo beats her because he knows she’s only staying with him to protect Lenny.
Meanwhile, Lenny gets jumped by three of Philo’s goons and only gets saved when Mace shows up and beats the snot out of them.
So here’s something about Angela Bassett in this movie that I realised: She’s playing the white guy.
What I mean is, Mace plays the part in this story that would, in a movie of this era, have typically gone to Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson. She’s the serious, straight-laced defender. She’s a limo driver who’s nonetheless trained in hand to hand combat and gunplay. She’s the white everyman badass in the Die Hard mold, with two notable differences. Lenny, on the other hand, is a mixture of the Girl With A Secret Who Has To Be Protected and The Wacky Ethnic Sidekick. It’s a really good example of how old tropes can be reinvigorated with just a little mixing and matching. I don’t mean to be reductive, both Mace and Lenny are far more than just “types”, which is the benefit that comes from hiring actors of the caliber of Bassett and Fiennes, and one of the real joys of this movie is how real and fleshed out both these characters feel.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a perfect movie. There’s a lot of weird coincidences and narrative leaps. Plus, Cameron’s always been a little hit and miss with dialogue and here’s no different. And some of the performances seem to be taking place in a different movie from everyone else, or even different genres like Sizemore (broad comedy) or Lewis (Porn. But. Y’know. The high-end Vivid studios stuff. Seriously though, she’s quite poor). But it doesn’t matter, because the movie builds itself on Mace and Lenny and that is one damn solid foundation.
They take the clip of the murder to Tick who analyses it and notices that the footage has a weird, washed out colour aesthetic.
Tick says that this most likely means that the killer was colourblind.
Lenny remembers that Iris said she left something for him in his car so they break into the car impound lot in the dead of night.They find a SQUID disc but get ambushed by Steckler and Engelman and only barely escape by driving Lenny’s car into the harbour and swimming away. They head back to Mace’s house to grab her son, and from there they go to Mace’s sister’s to hide out. Lenny finally watches Iris’ clip.
He sees Iris and another girl driving down the freeway beside Jeriko 1 (played by Glenn “Man, everyone got AIDS and shit!” Plummer) and another member of his band. One quibble I have with this movie. Jeriko 1 is supposed to be basically Tupac Shakur, a fiery and eloquent rapper whose lyrics represent a real threat to the status quo. Unfortunately, Jeriko kind of comes off as a preening dumbass which makes his death lack some of the impact it needs to have. The car gets pulled over by some cops into an abandoned quarry. Then Steckler and Engelman force Jeriko to kneel on the ground and they shoot him and his bandmate and the other girl while Iris runs for her life.
Still processing what they’ve seen, Lenny and Mace get a call from Max who tells them to meet him at Tick’s place. Driving over, Lenny tells Mace that he doesn’t think the cops killed Iris, but rather that whoever she was wearing the wire for did so that the trail wouldn’t lead back to him. At Tick’s place they find Max already there and Tick comatose. It seems that Iris’ killer hooked him up to a SQUID and fed him an amplified signal that overloaded his brain. He’s not dead but he might as well be. Mace and Lenny tell Max what they found on Iris’ clip and he tells them that he’s heard rumours of a secret LAPD hit squad. See, apparently some LAPD officers have gone rogue and just started executing black people for no reason which is a terrifying concept that could only come from the visionary mind that gave us the Terminator.
Mace says they need to get the clip to the authorities but Max points out that if the 11 o’clock news shows a prominent and outspoken rapper being executed by the LAPD on the night of the biggest party of the millennium “They’ll see the smoke from Canada”. Nevertheless Lenny agrees that they need to make the clip public, and says that the only person they can trust to do it is his old boss, Commissioner Strickland. Strickland is a by the book, straight down the line officer who doesn’t tolerate dirty cops and Lenny knows this because he’s the guy who fired him.
They go to the Millenium party where Strickland, Philo and Faith are all in attendance. Funny story, this final scene has thousands of extras which the film-makers got by actually throwing a real rave and booking acts like Aphex Twin and Dee Lite. The party lasted from 9 pm to four in the morning and several people were hospitalised after taking ecstasy because this movie is the most nineties movies that has ever nineties movied. Lenny points Strickland out to Mace and she follows him into the men’s room and tells him he needs to go into one of the stalls and watch the SQUID clip. And he has her escorted from the building. Which might seem harsh, but remember that SQUID is illegal contraband so she basically just went up to the chief of police and said “Sir, you need to go into that stall and do this heroin right now.” I mean, I don’t wanna manwhitesplain, Mace, but if the clip shows evidence of his officers engaging in illegal activity, maybe open with that rather than keeping everything spoiler-free.
Meanwhile, Lenny goes looking for Faith because he’s worried that whoever killed Iris will come after her next. He finds another SQUID clip waiting for him. Lenny watches the clip in horror as he sees through the killer’s eyes as he grabs Faith, pushes her on the bed, chains her up and blindfolds her…
Unable to watch any more, Lenny runs into the bedroom and sees a body lying under the sheets. He pulls the sheet off but it’s not Faith, it’s…
Lenny puts the SQUID back on to understand what happened and sees the killer and Faith…have perfectly consensual sex . He then watches as Philo discovers them and the killer beats him to a pulp and then forces him to watch an amplified signal of he and Faith fucking until it scrambles his brain. Lenny takes off the Squid, and looks up to see Max standing over him with a gun.
Lenny: Never knew you were colour blind, Max.
Max: Only way I could stand your ties.
Yeah, I know right? Tom Sizemore was the scumbag rapist. What a twist.
Max gives the standard villain monologue. Philo had used Iris to secretly record Jeriko to get leverage over him. But when Iris accidentally recorded Jeriko’s murder, Philo ordered Max to kill both Iris and Faith (who knew about everything). Problem was, Max had fallen in love with Faith, but he knew that if he refused the job Philo would get somebody else to do it. So he killed Iris (and scrambled Tick’s brain to cover his tracks) and now he’s going to kill Philo, and then shoot Lenny. He’ll pin the blame for everything on Lenny (which, seeing as he knew Iris, was Faith’s jealous ex and generally kind of a scumbag should be plenty plausible) and then he and Faith can be together. Then Faith comes in to join her lover boy in the mwah ha has but she has a change of heart when Max tries to shoot Lenny and she pushes Max so the shot goes wide. There’s a pretty damn brutal fight where Lenny gets stabbed but he finally manages to push Max over the balcony.
Realising that this Faith chick is kinda bad for him, Lenny staggers out of the hotel room, richer in wisdom and poorer by around two pints of blood and a couple of ribs.
Outside, Mace gets attacked by Steckler and Engelman but manages to overpower both of them and handcuff them on the ground. More police arrive and find her standing over two officers with a gun pointed at them, but once she calmly explains the situation to them they’re perfectly reasonable…
The crowd watches as the cops brutally beat Mace and a riot breaks out. But at the last minute Strickland arrive and saves Mace. He tells her that he watched her clip. He orders Steckler and Engelman arrested for murder and the two racist police officers are carried off to face the full weight of the law.
Look guys, it’s science fiction. Little suspension of disbelief, all I’m asking here.
Mace and Lenny are put in ambulances to be taken to hospital for their injuries. But Lenny gets out of his and finds Mace, and as the last seconds of the millennium tick down, they kiss.
Strange Days is not a perfect film, but it’s a gutsy, pitch-black, excellently performed (mostly) film that’s stunning innovative, well written and has plenty of smart, cogent things to say about race, gender and technology.
So naturally, it was a complete bomb at the box office. Oh hang on, let me just check what vacuous piece of eye candy was the number 1 movie instead.
Well what was the biggest box office movie of the year overall? What celluloid effluent did the great unwashed mouth breathers choose to see over Strange Days?
Alright, sidenote, 1995 was actually a banner year for intelligent, well made blockbusters and audiences are often a lot more discerning than critics give them credit for my point is…
Strange Days was not a big hit on release but it has been undergoing a pretty serious re-appraisal since then, with many calling it Bigelow’s magnus opus and a devoted cult following having sprung up. Let me be clear; you should join that cult. You don’t even have to bring your own goat. This is a fantastic film. It depicts a world where police rule over minority communities like an occupying force, where women are used as commodities and then disposed of, where lonely people cannibalize their own nostalgia for a better time, and use technology to vicariously live through the lives of others. It was made twenty years ago, but it feels like right now, streamed straight into your cerebral cortex.
The future is the present, only moreso.
So I’m going to be reviewing a lot more movies that aren’t cartoons and aren’t superhero fare which means devising a whole new rating system from scratch. I’ve spent months on this, trying and failing to come up with the perfect system. Then it hit me: Who acts in movies? STARS. As in, movie stars. But what if, stay with me, I used ACTUAL STARS to rate the movies I review? I know, sometimes I just strike myself dumb with my own brilliance. So, on the new, groundbreaking, never before seen Unshaved Mouse Stars-But-Not-Movie-Stars-Actual-Stars-Instead Rating Scale (Patent Pending), Strange Days gets:
Next Update: 01 March 2018
Next Time: You ready, bub?