Strange Days

With the Academy awards on the horizon, and the fact that both Bigelow and Cameron will be competing for the top directors’ prize, it seems like a perfect time to revisit the two’s  cult science fiction collaboration, Strange Days, from more than decade and a half ago. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, with a story and screenplay written by former husband James Cameron,  Strange Days is another in a line of many science fiction films from the 90’s that capitalized on the popularity of virtual reality and cyber-punk (i.e. Total Recal, The Matrix, Virtuosity, Johnny Mnemonic, Dark City). Opening with an  armed robbery shot in the point of view of the robbers, the film proves right off the bat that Bigelow can direct an adrenaline filled action sequence as good as any male director. Sadly what takes place after is a script marred by poorly written dialogue, recycled ideas from William Gibson and Philip K. Dick, and a celebration of terrible action film cliches. Set on December of 1999, just four years from the film’s initial release year, in what appears to be a futuristic Los Angeles, though more resembles an anarchic wasteland of violence, prostitution and racial indifference (Think a fusion between the sleazy underbelly of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and the futuristic Detroit from Robocop), the film follows an ex-cop turned street hustler named Lenny Nero who is a SQUID recordings dealer. SQUID recordings which are recorded experiences from one’s cerebral cortex and played on a Mini-disc. When Nero (Ralph Fiennes in a fun over-the-top performance)  is given a snuff SQUID recording of a killing of an old friend, our protagonist is then drawn into a mystery that goes as deep as to police corruption to the endangerment of Nero’s ex-girlfriend (played by Juliette Lewis in what may be the actress’ worst performance ever). The story becomes even more convoluted with the death of a rapper, rising sexual tensions between Nero and his bodyguard friend Mace (played by Angela Bassett), and the mass hysteria surrounding Y2K.  The film is juggling far too many subjects while trying to walk the thin line between a serious provocative sci-fi thriller and an entertaining popcorn film; Sadly it achieves neither (it’s 145 minute run-time is far too long for a popcorn film and it’s far to cheesy to work as a serious thriller). A big chunk of the film revolves around the death of a rapper named Jeriko

One who is murdered by the LAPD and the SQUID recording of the event. It’s an interesting allusion to the Rodney King tape and could have made for a very fascinating subject for a sci-fi film, but the script mucks it ups. The first problem is that the slain rapper is regarded as highly respected figure in the black community even though he is partying all night with hookers. Had the character been modeled more after a real life controversial but respected figure, someone like Louis Farrakhan or Huey P. Newton, it might have not been so laughable. Second the cops who murdered rapper aren’t fleshed out at all. The two characters basically just go through the whole film with a very bad mood and curse out racial slurs as if they were lifted from one of Spike Lee’s films. It also doesn’t help that Cameron, along with Woody Allen,  maybe the worst high profile screenwriter to write for African American characters. I was also shocked to see that the film wasn’t based off a novel or a short story from Philip K. dick or William Gibson or any other big cult sci-fi writer from the 70s and 80s because the film borrows so many ideas from them. I don’t think he even mentions them in the credits. This was not the case when David Cronenberg released his own virtual reality sci fi film, his semi sequel to his 83 masterpiece Videodrome, eXistenZ . That film also borrowed many ideas from those authors mentioned before (especially Dick) but Cronenberg never denied it and actually stated the film to have been a homage. I wish Cameron and Bigelow had done that as well, but that doesn’t seem to be the case nor is it really that big of a deal I guess. And finally, one other big problem that is hard to overlook is how futuristic the film is even though its only four years in the future. Cameron did this in Terminator 2 as well (having the film take place in ’97 while coming out in 92) but in that film, technology don’t make such a gigantic leap making that film work and Strange Days fall short.

But the most disappointing thing of all might be the fact that the premise is really cool and the film begins so brilliantly, only to degenerate into a mindless action film with a hammy B movie “whodunit” mystery in the center. It only gets worse when you think about the people involved in making such a disappointment: The three main leads were all coming off oscar performances, Cameron had just made his magnum opus (Terminator 2) , and Bigelow who is nothing if not a shoe-in for this years Best Director Oscar. It’s a film i really tried to like because there are some good ideas as well as good filmmaking but the film just never gets it right.


3 Responses to “Strange Days”

  1. Anu, this is a masterful review of a film that I once admired, but seems to have fallen off the radar at this point. But perhaps the genre has expanded, and other titles like CHILDREN OF MEN, and the ones created by the directors you mention. But it’s true that Cameron didn’t write well for African-American actors, and the film did fizzle. hence it’s quick exit from the memory. Also, as you know this film is a stream of borrowed ideas. I like the idea that you are doing the directing exes collaboration at the time of their battle for the big one, which of course will be won by Ms. Bigelow.

    • I’ll be crossing my fingers for Bigelow because I personally believe that the Hurt Locker is the best made war film since Terrence Malick’s masterpiece Thin Red Line. Though I’m not sure if The Hurt Locker will take home the top prize over Cameron’s Avatar, it will make for one of the most interesting Oscar nights (But anyone who knows me and have visited this site knows I’ll be going for A Serious Man). But I know Strange Days was once considered a great science fiction film (Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars) and even today I know a lot of people still view it as a cult classic; I just can’t view this film that highly especially considering all the great films that Bigelow and Cameron have made. Also, as I think I stated above, Juliette Lewis, was just awful in the film. But thanks for the great comment, like always, Sam and hope to hear from you more this month.

  2. Hey Anu! Thanks for the great response to me. I am almost convinced now that THE HURT LOCKER will capture the Best Picture prize, especially after the Producer’s Guild, Director’s Guild and the BAFTA’s. I know AVATAR (which I love as you probably know) has made tons of money compared to the underachieving HURT LOCKER, but Cameron is seen by many of the voters as a big egotist -which he is-and they will probably fall back on the spectacular critical response to HURT LOCKER, which includes Best Picture prizes from NY and LA. I see a similar scenario developing as that which informed THE DEPARTED a few years ago, and that is THE DIRECTOR CARRYING IN THE FILM. It’s extremely rare, but I see Bigelow’s immense popularity and sure win for Best Director bringing many votes for her film, which in a ten horse race, will carry the war film to glory. By the way, I do agree with you on its excellence, and you may have a point there with the Malick.

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