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.