Tom Jolliffe revisits the cult classic Strange Days, a great New Year-set film that was way ahead of its time…
A number of films throughout the 90’s dealt with the idea of virtual reality. For better and worse, this became a popular sci-fi trend through the decade. The Lawnmower Man really kick-started the trend, which paved the way for other films like Arcade, Grid Runners and Cybertech P.D on the dusty Blockbuster lower shelves, as well as big screen entries like Johnny Mnemonic. The most iconic though would come later, with The Matrix. Within this gamut of VR themed ideas there were many variations on the subject, and an array of different technologies portrayed on screen. In 1995 there was another, and one which didn’t quite take off initially.
Strange Days came with the hefty weight of James Cameron backing it. Cameron produced and co-wrote a near future (set at the end of the millennium, culminating with turn of the millennia new year) sci-fi film dealing in the macabre underbelly of new wave VR tech. To top it off, Cameron protégé (and ex-wife) Kathryn Bigelow came with an impressive CV already accrued to provide her very Cameron-esque (with her own unique gaze on top) direction to helm the film.
Throw in Ralph Fiennes in a role sandwiched between Schindler’s List and The English Patient, to provide some charismatic British star power, Angela Bassett still riding the success of her Tina Turner biopic and Juliette Lewis at the height of her fame. The core cast was blessed with three recent Oscar nominees. Maybe there wasn’t superstardom connected with the project, but with an engaging premise and the kind of glossy visuals Bigelow was already well known for, this was destined to be a surefire success. Or was it?
Despite such weight attached, the film has often had some misconception about being a larger scale blockbuster. In actuality, it came with a fairly modest budget (around 42 million), and a focus on grimier back alleys and organised crime/corruption, connected to the main plot. It was a more intimate character study. An insular film with a gaze out onto societal shifts in hedonistic tastes. Reality TV on the rise and violence in TV and cinema were more prevalent, but certainly long before an even further shift a decade later when the internet was in full swing. This brought about a murky world of increasingly grim fascination. Streaming sites capturing all manner of explicit, occasionally snuff content, and people were(are) watching.
In 2021 we watch in fascination at viral videos of influencers performing death defying acts. We’ve all scrolled past extreme climbers dangling from high rise buildings or construction equipment, hundreds of feet high. It’s grimly easy to come across disturbing videos on social media channels alone, never mind in darker corners of the web. Sometimes we’re supposed to be horrified, but for some, perhaps there’s a deep seeded curiosity and appeal to seeing (real)death on screen.
In Strange Days, Bigelow looks ahead, but not too far to a VR trend where you can experience a memory through the eyes of someone else. Where acts of sexual gratification, right up to rape, death, murder could conceivably become marketable memories. Fiennes plays Lenny, a peddler in ‘experience’ recordings, and inevitably there becomes a supply and demand in snuff.
Strange Days opens very strikingly in first person. It’s a stunningly visceral chase placing the audience directly into a memory/experience of someone being chased to their untimely demise. The film also portrays a time all too prescient then, and still now, of racial tension and division. A running war between the law and activist groups, both infiltrated with corrupt forces. Lenny finds himself drawn into a web of intrigue and cover ups revolving around the recent murder of a famous rapper. As the peddler of recorded memories, and this new infiltration of snuff, it’s natural that Lenny finds himself inescapably central.
The film was greeted with mixed reviews and some controversy given some of the racial themes. The film was one of several which was directly influenced by Rodney King and more. That racial profiling and police brutality is still so prevalent is unfortunate, and Strange Days retains a very powerful prescience beneath the Science Fiction and pot boiler aspects of the plotting. The box office results however, were a disaster, with the film unable to pick up a wide audience on its theatrical run. Whether it needed an assured pull like Tom Cruise, or the concept didn’t quite connect, who knows. On video however, it began to find some appreciation.
Bigelow’s stylistic assurance delivers a film often steeped in gloss, atmospheric lighting and largely set during night time. It looks stunning, most definitely benefiting from the high def era. It looks brand spanking new when seen on Blu-ray. Whilst similar films were more lithe and simplistic, this came with a bulky run-time. It’s true to say that Strange Days, as well as thematically weighty, is also bulky in delivery. It needed 30 minutes lopping off to make the pace and storytelling more efficient.
In saying that though, the principal cast of Oscar nominated actors, all shine and add plenty of gravitas, while the perennially underrated Michael Wincott (who had a great run of antagonist roles around that period) is also on fine form. As a commercially viable product it’s easy to see why it didn’t quite click, but indeed also clear why its legacy has slowly grown over the decades since its release.
Like so many sci-fi bombs, Strange Days was ahead of its time. Its commentary on society and its view on near future content and delivery, also proved to have a degree of accuracy, even if our delivery systems aren’t so direct as VR sets (though in gaming, VR sets are popular again). Additionally, it was sometimes criticised for glorifying violence or not offering enough of a commentary on its depictions of racial tension, violence and rioting. Though, bulky in its current form, it couldn’t afford to delve much deeper, and ultimately this is more of a Dystopian fantasy, with shades of cyberpunk and neo-noir. It’s not supposed to be Malcolm X. It has certainly found more appreciation in recent times for having that undercurrent running through though.
Furthermore, as you might expect, Bigelow’s gift for the set piece is on display here. She crafts enthralling action, and not just in the first person sequences. The core power of the film rests on making Lenny engaging (because he could have been deemed far more unsympathetic) as well as Lorne (Bassett).
Angela Bassett steals the film in fairness. Strong, vulnerable and empathetic, she’s conflicted by loyalty, adoration and her own ethnicity. This makes the action have stakes, something Cameron was always good at, and indeed Bigelow too. On top of everything, the film has a killer soundtrack fortified by British acts like PJ Harvey (as sung by Juliette Lewis) and Skunk Anansie (remember them?) and well served by Graeme Revell’s excellent score.
Strange Days continues to build a legacy, even if it’s a little unfairly forgotten during that period where good sci-fi was at a premium. It might not be a Matrix level film, but it certainly stands up well to repeat viewings and the New Year setting makes it perfect fare as we turn another year ourselves.
What are your thoughts on Strange Days? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022/2023, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy, and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.