Strange Days Presents a Nightmarish Future That Feels All Too Real
By Nick Nadel
Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 sci-fi noir demonstrates both how far we’ve come and (sadly) how far we’ve regressed.
A grimy urban hellscape brought to a boiling point by police brutality and racial tensions. A population that would rather plug into a device than face the impending apocalypse. The pre-millennial tension of Strange Days, filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow’s noir-tinged sci-fi thriller, may have seemed bleak when the film hit theaters in October 1995. But viewed today, the vision it presents of a culture obsessed with virtual reality and capturing every moment in digital playback feels (pardon the pun) strangely forward-thinking.
Set on New Year’s Eve, 1999, Strange Days follows Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), an ex-cop who deals in SQUID technology — discs that allow users to experience recorded moments (everything from running on the beach to armed robbery) through a virtual reality device attached to their head. (Adding to the film’s retro future vibe, the discs are played on Sony Minidisc players.) After a disc depicting a graphic murder falls into Lenny’s hands, he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy involving dirty cops, a slain hip-hop artist and his grunge rocker ex-girlfriend (Juliette Lewis). Luckily Angela Bassett as Lenny’s badass, gun-toting limo driver pal Mace is along for the thrilling ride.
Working from a script co-written by her ex-husband James Cameron, Bigelow drew from her experience helping with the clean-up effort after the Rodney King riots to infuse Strange Days’ scenes of police brutality and racial unrest with the same bracing immediacy she would later incorporate into the 2017 period drama Detroit. The SQUID sequences, filmed with cameras that were state-of-the-art at the time, possess an intense “you are there” quality. The opening scene of a violent raid filmed from a criminal’s POV hints to the rise of first-person shooter video games, and viral footage shot from body cams and cellphone cameras.
Critics were polarized on Strange Days at the time of its release, with many deriding the film’s failure to comment on its graphic scenes of sexual violence. But viewed through the lens of Bigelow’s Oscar-winning work on The Hurt Locker — not to mention her ahead-of-their-time genre gems Blue Steel, Point Break and Near Dark — Strange Days is another of the filmmaker’s sharp dissections of male violence towards women and an indictment of our culture’s voyeuristic tendencies.
A box office failure that halted Bigelow’s big screen career for several years, Strange Days proved to be too raw for moviegoers still reeling from the L.A. riots and the O.J. Simpson trial. (The infamous verdict was reached a mere three days before Strange Days crept into theaters.) But 23 years later, Strange Days demonstrates both how far we’ve come and (sadly) how far we’ve regressed. While the techno thrash soundtrack might harken back to the ‘90s, the film’s racial and sexual politics remain freshly relevant.