STRANGE DAYS (1995) – Sight and Sound Review

Philip Strick reviews 'Strange Days', the 1995 science fiction thriller film directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Published in 'Sight and Sound', January 1996

by Philip Strick

Los Angeles, December 1999. As the city prepares to celebrate the millennium, ex-cop Lenny Nero hustles the latest illegal attraction: recordings made directly from the brain by the Superconducting Quantum Interference Device (SQUID) which can be worn undetected. On playback, these ‘clips’ provide total involvement in the recorded experience. Intended for police use only, in Lenny’s hands they supply access to any form of vicarious excitement. Lenny’s private collection preserves vivid fragments of his past love affair with Faith, a rising pop-star now attached to ruthless promoter Philo Gant. Lenny keeps an eye on her through his friend Max Peltier, also an ex-cop, who works for Philo as a security guard. Lenny’s only other friend is Mace, tough woman driver of an armoured limousine.
One of Lenny’s contacts, Iris, warns him that Faith is in danger, but has to run from the police before she can explain. At the enormous Retinal Fetish nightclub, Faith tells Lenny to leave her alone and Philo’s thugs throw him out. Meanwhile, news that black activist and major pop star Jeriko One has been murdered by unknown killers, raises tensions in the city to a critical level. Viewing a clip sent to him anonymously, Lenny is horrified to find himself participating in the brutal rape and murder of Iris. Recalling that Iris mentioned a message left in his car, which has since been towed away, Lenny and Mace break into the compound and discover a clip in Lenny’s vehicle. Two cops, Steclder and Engelman, seize the clip and then pursue Lenny and Mace, setting Mace’s limousine on fire. They escape by driving it off a pier.
Having tricked the cops, Lenny plays the recovered clip; it reveals that Iris, wearing a SQUID, was witness to the murder of Jeriko One by Steckler and Engelman. As the massive New Year’s Eve celebrations get under way, Faith tells Mace and Lenny that Philo sent Iris to ‘tape’ an encounter with Jeriko One. Mace persuades Lenny to let her take the clip to the head of the police force, Palmer Strickland. Lenny tracks Philo down only to find him brain-damaged from a SQUID overload administered by Max, who killed Iris to satisfy his own cravings. In a ferocious struggle, Faith helps Lenny to defeat Max while Mace is pursued through the packed streets by the two cops. She manages to handcuff them, but armed soldiers knock her aside; the crowd rushes to her defence and a riot breaks out until Strickland, having checked the clip, orders the arrest of the two killers. Still attempting to destroy Mace, Engelman and Steclder are shot down. As the new century arrives, Lenny realises at last how much Mace really means to him.

While there can be little doubt that SQUID – a delicate electronic web fitting under the hairpiece so much more comfortably than other parasites we have known – will be with us (by popular demand) by the year 2000, we may well question whether it will be more absorbing than Strange Days itself. The breathtaking Kathryn Bigelow style – racing visuals thunderously reinforced by sonic enclosure -may not quite reach the nose or taste-buds but it allows little other opportunity for detachment from the experience on show. Largely repeating with its opening number the chase sequence of Point Break, when bank-robber, cop, cameraman and audience negotiated an uncut succession of walls, doors, dogs and other obstacles with frantic immediacy, Strange Days re-educates us in the share-all process with a subjective burglary, complete with collapsing victims and untimely police arrival, that leaves us plummeting from a rooftop.
Bigelow likes her audiences to plummet along with her protagonists (the least you could say about Point Break, for example, is that it sweeps you off your feet), and this vertiginous preliminary flight, a disorientating topple towards impact with the unknown, readies us for the knife-edge of the century’s final moments when the villain, too, hurtles to his fate. The same aerial vantage-point, high above the spangled city, that seduced (and, in her nightmares, overbalanced) the rookie cop in Bigelow’s Blue Steel is again used to introduce the apocalyptic celebrations of Strange Days, an astonishing vista of seething crowds and spotlights that punch the sky. Grandeur on this scale is the stuff of instant addiction.
At ground level, the floating camera reverts to discreet third-party participation. While never pedestrian, the drama hustles like its central character, the floundering Lenny, from one beating to another, alternating crisis with shock, mystery with pursuit. The formula closely matches other James Cameron scripts such as Aliens or Terminator 2: Judgement Day, setting an urgent, escalating pace towards a decisive battle. Compounding the issue, Lenny’s path is strewn with bad guys, a bewildering array by comparison with, say, Blue Steel, where they were all condensed into Ron Silver, or Point Break where – apart from one isolated cluster of gunmen – they weren’t really bad anyway. Befitting an updated Chandleresque gumshoe thriller, Strange Days sprouts thugs from all sides, a colourful majority to impede Lenny’s dogged progress towards some land of truth.
Part of the fascination of the film’s noirish allegiances is that the streets echo not with the occasional footstep but with blatant warfare, a perpetual carnage of robberies, gunfights, and burning cars, observed as normal by Lenny but staged with an obvious glee by his director who – in one particularly cheerful glimpse – even shows Santa Claus being mugged. That we can hardly take this lowlife inferno any more seriously than Brian De Palma’s vision of an incandescent Bronx in The Bonfire of the Vanities is confirmed by the explanation stutteringly given by the rapist/killer when Lenny at last confronts him. Filmed from several disjointed angles (signs of indecision on Bigelow’s part, or just the visual equivalent of his mental disintegration?), he is all charm and junkie incoherence, confessing to improvisations about death-squads and conspiracies that serve only to exaggerate the chaos. “Cheer up,” he grins, “the world has only ten minutes to go.”
Having shoved us to the brink with this vividly substantiated promise, having shown us a fin-de-siecle bedlam of intolerable dimensions in the form of the Retinal Fetish nightclub, having implicated us in the foulest uses (albeit necessarily and intriguingly self-censored) of the SQUID, and having finally – in the endless Terminator-style duel with killers who refuse to lie down and die – signalled the opening salvoes of a race war that was rehearsed in the Rodney King riots, Bigelow and Cameron stage a tantalising last-minute retreat. The new millennium arrives in a delirium of reconciliation and joy, of relief that the unsolvable can somehow, in this rare dawn, turn out to have been solved by the application of sheer unaccustomed goodwill. Lenny embraces, almost as an afterthought, the woman who has guarded him with muscle and loyalty throughout his erratic quest, and all else miraculously becomes irrelevant. It is the soft centre of the standard Cameron hard sell, a plot twist fashioned from opportunism which hints, as it did in The Abyss, at authentic loss and painful rediscovery. In this context, thanks to the impact of Strange Days as a whole, it is as welcome as it is unconvincing.
The Bigelow touch, growing surer with each film, imparts Cameron’s hit-and-run tactics with an invaluable extra dimension. Her cast may have to tackle some abysmally trite dialogue, but under her guidance they come up with a lexicon of looks and gestures that makes it work. There is little complexity about Lenny (forget about SQUID, think of him as a petty drug-dealer and he becomes the cliche of innumerable straight-to-video quickies), but Ralph Fiennes renders him a clownish romantic – pathetic, stupid, but never dull. As his unnoticed bodyguard, Angela Bassett grabs her chance to play Schwarzenegger with a triumphant display of fistwork, maternalism, and glittering impatience while Juliette Lewis, not yet returned from the wastelands of Natural Bom Killers, more isolated than ever in her private world of unfathomed sensuality, communicates superbly with barely a reference to normal speech. These may not necessarily be the company with which one would wish to greet a new beginning, but a better claim seems unlikely to be staked; as usual, Bigelow and Cameron, in their separate ways, are streets ahead of the competition.

Sight and Sound, January 1996, pp. 53-55


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