Friday, January 9, 2015

Strange Days

Mainstream popular culture’s flirtation with the Cyberpunk genre reached its cinematic zenith in 1995 with Johnny Mnemonic, Judge Dredd, Virtuosity, Hackers, and Strange Days. They all underperformed at the box office for various reasons and with varying degrees of success managed to convey the aesthetics and themes of the genre. The most satisfying film from the class of ’95 was Strange Days, an action thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by James Cameron and Jay Cocks. Bigelow had already dabbled in the Cyberpunk genre by directing an episode of the sci-fi television miniseries Wild Palms in 1993. She was clearly testing the waters for what would be a full-on treatment with Strange Days. Anchored by strong performances from Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett, the film explores some fascinating ideas, addresses topical issues and comes closest of any film at that point since Blade Runner (1982) to translating the ideas of Cyberpunk authors like William Gibson onto film despite a disappointing ending.

Bigelow starts things off audaciously as we experience a restaurant robbery from the point-of-view of one of the assailants, following them as they are subsequently chased by the police. After the sequence ends she reveals that it was all recorded via illegal technology known as SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) that allows the user to experience the sights, sounds and sensations of the subject recorded directly from their cerebral cortex.

Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is a slightly upscale street hustler that deals in these discs, but draws the line at “blackjack clips” (a.k.a. snuff films) because he’s got ethics. James Cameron and Jay Cocks’ tech slang-heavy dialogue in the opening exchange between Lenny and his supplier, a jittery guy named Tick (the always watchable Richard Edson), does a fantastic job of immersing us in the former’s world by the way he speaks and acts. As Lenny drives through the streets of Los Angeles, making deals on his cell phone, Bigelow provides us with glimpses of a city in decline. It’s as if the 1992 L.A. Riots never completely ended as we see burning shells of cars, soldiers patrolling the streets and three women beating on a man dressed as Santa Claus.


Meanwhile, a young woman named Iris (Brigitte Bako) is running for her life from two cops (Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner) whom she witnessed and recorded on a SQUID device killing prominent rapper and outspoken activist Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer). If the recording is made public it will put an already unstable general populace over the edge.

Strange Days features, without a doubt, my favorite performance of Ralph Fiennes’ career. At the time, it was seen as casting against type, but in retrospect it was a stellar example of his impressive range and willingness to immerse himself in a character. Lenny tries to talk his way out of a number of dicey situations and is only sometimes successful. From his expensive yet sleazy-looking wardrobe to his rapid-fire patter, Lenny is a slick operator fast-talking his way through life, but whose whole world changes when he watches a particularly disturbing SQUID clip. Fiennes does an incredible job of portraying a man stuck in a rut of his own making and is eventually forced to take stock of his life.

Lenny also has a tough-love friendship with Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett), a no-nonsense private security contractor. They banter back and forth but when he occasionally tests the limits of their friendship she gives him a reality check about the chaotic mess that is his life. Angela Bassett is a revelation as Lenny’s ass-kicking friend. She exudes a toughness that not only comes with her profession but is also part of her character and a survival instinct. Mace may be hard on Lenny, but it is only because she cares about him. Bassett and Fiennes share a nice scene together where Mace cleans up Lenny after Philo’s goons gave him a tune-up. It’s a touching moment that says so much about their friendship. What I find interesting about Mace is how Bigelow reverses the traditional action stereotype by having her be the tough action star who can handle herself while Lenny consistently gets the crap kicked out of him and has to be rescued. She’s also the voice of reason and helps him finally let go of his attachment to Faith.


The 1990s was a good decade for Tom Sizemore with memorable roles in films like True Romance (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994), Heat (1995), and Saving Private Ryan (1998). He had a bit part in Bigelow’s previous film, Point Break (1991), and is well-cast as Lenny’s other close friend, Max Peltier who humors his continued obsession with Faith. Like Lenny, he’s an ex-cop only he got into the private investigation business. Sizemore brings his customary easygoing charm to the role and gets to say one of the film’s most memorable lines when Max tells Lenny, “The issue isn’t whether you’re paranoid, Lenny … The issue is whether you’re paranoid enough.” There’s a fantastic give-and-take between Fiennes and Sizemore that makes their characters’ long-standing friendship instantly believable. It’s all in the shorthand and the good-natured ball-busting between them that is fun to watch.

When he’s not on the street making deals, Lenny relives key moments of a past relationship with ex-girlfriend Faith Justin (Juliette Lewis), a singer now involved with her manager Philo Gant (Michael Wincott). While the cast is uniformly excellent, the lone exception is Juliette Lewis who simply isn’t convincing as Lenny’s object of obsession. She broods and sulks her way through Strange Days and plays such an unlikeable character that you wonder what Lenny sees in Faith. I don’t find her all that attractive, especially in this role and she comes across as flat in her scenes with Fiennes who is obviously a much superior actor. This film also further emboldened Lewis to continue singing off-camera, joining other actors that fancy themselves rock stars.

Unfortunately, Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner are largely wasted as anonymous rogue cops that make things tough for our heroes. The latter utters one or two sentences the entire film and the former reprises his psychotic grin from Full Metal Jacket (1987) and little else.


At the time, much was made of a particularly disturbing sequence in which Lenny watches a SQUID clip of a man raping and killing a woman. To make matters even worse, the killer wires up his victim so that she experiences him getting off on raping her. Rape is always a tricky thing to depict and Bigelow is clearly not glorifying it, but showing it to be an ugly, horrifying act. I think it is important that she makes a point of showing how upset the clip makes anyone who watches it. In regards to this scene, Cameron said in an interview, “Rather than glorifying violence, it puts you in the driver’s seat of being the killer. That deglamorizes it.” Bigelow said, “My hope is that the violence is understood in its context. The violence is designed to be horrific. It’s designed to make you think it is awful.”

The screenplay is at its best when its dialogue immerses us in this near-future world. For example, we witness Lenny pitching the SQUID experience to a neophyte. He tells the potential client, “This is not like T.V. only better. This is life. It’s a piece of somebody’s life. It’s pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex. I mean, you’re there, you’re doing it, you’re seeing it, you’re hearing it, you’re feeling it.” These words beautifully sum up how the technology works and its allure. It is the ultimate in virtual reality. For thirty minutes you get to be someone else and experience what they went through without any of the potentially messy consequences. It’s the latest in voyeuristic thrills. Fiennes really shines during this scene as he seduces the potential client with his pitch in a riveting performance, telling him at one point, “I’m your priest. I’m your shrink. I’m your main connection to the switchboard of the soul. I’m the magic man, the Santa Claus of the subconscious.”

James Cameron came up with the idea for Strange Days in 1985, but it wasn’t until 1993 that he mapped out the entire film in a 140-page screenplay/treatment hybrid. However, he was beginning work on True Lies (1994) and unable to make it himself. He contacted ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow and asked if she was interested in directing Strange Days. She found herself drawn to its “incredibly clever, great concept,” and how it “operates on many levels.” Bigelow contacted ex-Time magazine film critic Jay Cocks, whom she had worked with previously on an unrealized Joan of Arc film, and asked him to complete Cameron’s partially finished script.


After the L.A. Riots, Bigelow helped with the clean-up effort and this provided a lot of visuals for the film: “You’d be on a street corner with these shells of buildings that once were, with tanks and National Guard cruising by.” Unlike science fiction films like Blade Runner and Total Recall (1990), Bigelow set Strange Days in a “hyperkinetic, darker version of today … It’s a future that we’re almost living in.”

Ralph Fiennes was drawn to the role of Lenny Nero because it wasn’t an “obvious contemporary action hero.” He saw the character as “weak, he’s emotionally screwed-up, he’s a bit of a jerk – but he’s likeable. He’s not particularly brave, and somehow he comes through the shit and is okay.” Cameron identified with Lenny, saying in an interview, “Lenny is me. There is a certain aspect of a filmmaker that is a salesman, who has to be able to sell a studio on a movie.” To research the role, Fiennes met with and drove around with Los Angeles police officers.

The exciting foot chase between Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze in Point Break gave Bigelow the confidence to do the point-of-view chases in Strange Days. To film the first person SQUID clips, the director and her team had to build a stripped-down Steadicam that was light and versatile. She constructed and even choreographed the opening restaurant robbery sequence to be continuous and unbroken even though the final version has cuts. To create the massive New Year’s Eve celebration at the climax of the film, the production staged a rave with 10,000 people in downtown L.A. with performances by Deee-Lite and Aphex Twin. Over the course of filming that night, five people were hospitalized from overdosing on the hallucinogenic drug Ecstasy.


Strange Days received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “It creates a convincing future landscape; it populates it with a hero who comes out of the noir tradition and is flawed and complex rather than simply heroic, and it provides a vocabulary.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Fiennes gleefully captures Lenny’s sleaziness while also showing there is something about this schlockmeister that is worth saving, despite much evidence to the contrary. As for Ms. Bassett, she looks great and radiates inner strength even without the bone-crunching physical feats to which she is often assigned.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers described it as Bigelow’s “magnum opus,” and “a visionary triumph.”

However, Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Bigelow, a poet of cheap thrills, turns the audience into eager voyeurs. I only wish she’d stayed with her premise. Strange Days has a dazzling atmosphere of grunge futurism, but beneath its dark satire of audiovisual decadence lurks a naggingly conventional underworld thriller.” Newsweek magazine’s Jack Kroll wrote, “As the New Century approaches in an eruption of racial conflict, murderous cops and battered heroes, the movie screeches into reverse and love conquers all. It’s not that a happy ending is bad, it’s that it comes from nowhere but a failure of nerve.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Strange Days does have a superior cast, but only Bassett manages to survive the numskull script, and that just barely.”

Even though Strange Days is set in the near future, it is very much a film of its time. The killing of Jeriko One and the subsequent cover-up eerily anticipates the deaths of real-life rappers Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. even though I’m sure Cameron and Cocks were inspired by the beating of Rodney King, which led to the subsequent L.A. Riots in 1992. It appears that Bigelow’s film is heading towards a riot of similar if not bigger proportions, but during the third act Cameron and Cocks lose the courage of their convictions and opt for a love conquers all cliché ending when a Rome is burning finale would have been a more fitting conclusion. It robs Strange Days of its power so that it’s merely a good film instead of a great one.



SOURCES

Heath, Chris. “Are You Feeling Lucky, Cyberpunk?” Empire. April 1996.

Hochman, Steve. “Rave Party Extras Are Deee-Lited.” Los Angeles Times. September 19, 1994.

McGavin, Patrick Z. “One Director’s Reality Check.” Chicago Tribune. October 15, 1995.

Smith, Gavin. “Momentum and Design.” Film Comment. September-October 1995.

Spelling, Ian. “Strange Genesis.” Starlog. January 1996.


Yakir, Dan. “Strange Days.” Starlog. November 1995.

6 comments:

  1. I actually managed to get a copy of Strange Days a few weeks ago, though I haven't got to watching it yet. I'm a big Kathryn Bigelow fan and did an article on her work for which I watched Point Break (it was okay), K-19: The Widowmaker, The Hurt Locker (probably her best), and Zero Dark Thirty (also really good). Hopefully I'll get to see this one soon. It sounds interesting.

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    1. I hope you get a chance to watch it soon. It is definitely one of her stronger films and while THE HURT LOCKER is right up there, I've always had a strong affinity for NEAR DARK.

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  2. I really think this is one of the most underrated films of the past 25 years. It has this amazing look and it's always gripping. Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett were great together as they had this unlikely chemistry that made them so enjoyable to watch. I think it's one of Kathryn Bigelow's best works.

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    1. I agree on all counts! The film shouldn't work but it does right up until the climax where it falls apart.

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  3. I love this cyberpunkish sci-fi, that opening sequence with the POV, so awesome, no doubts an impressive opening sequence, I don't think that type of shot was popular back in those days, so it was even more impressive seeing it on its original release. The whole concept is awesome, it also reminded me of a similar film called Brainstorm, which starred Christopher Walken, ever seen that one? Highly recommend it J.D. It's also about virtual reality, but it goes more into the concept of being able to record what happens after we die, with the virtual reality device, a part of the concept that isn't touched upon in Strange Days, which focuses more on solving a crime through the use of virtual reality.

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    1. Good call on BRAINSTORM! I have seen it but not in years. There is definitely some overlap there.

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