Weekend Film Recommendation: Strange Days

Before Kathryn Bigelow became one of Hollywood’s hot tickets for films like The Hurt Locker (2008), and before her public spat with James Cameron, she turned out some fairly unknown but enjoyable films like Point Break (1991) and this week’s movie recommendation, Strange Days (1995).

Screen shot 2014-01-03 at 15.52.20The film is set in a deteriorating L.A., in the final moments of the last millennium. Racial tensions are ablaze, everyone is paranoid, and no one is safe (the Rodney King riots from four years before the film’s release loomed large). Against that backdrop, the conceit of the film revolves around a technological device intended for leisure, which transmits signals directly into its user’s brain and allows them to experience a pre-recorded memory – either their own or that of another person – as though it is in the present. An amputee missing both legs can know the sensation of running barefoot along a sandy beach, and an embittered lover can re-live his favorite memories from a long-ago relationship. Except our protagonist Lenny Nero, an ex-cop played by Ralph Fiennes who now deals in the market exchanging these memories, is mysteriously being sent recordings of rapes and brutal murders, and he needs to solve the whodunit before the killer strikes again.

Bigelow has a real talent for constructing engrossing and visually sensational set pieces. Los Angeles has never looked as meretricious as it does here, with the 90s rave aesthetic spilling out onto the cityscape: there’s no shortage of neon, sequins, strobes, and billows of steam. The visual experience is all the more intense when accompanied by prevailing violence and jarring camerawork, especially during the memory scenes. Like most good sci-fi dystopias, there’s more than a hint of film noir to feast on. L.A. is a city in decay after having been used up by people trying to ‘get theirs’ no matter the cost, and the main characters wear an understandable look of exhaustion and resignation on their faces.

Screen shot 2014-01-03 at 15.56.51Unfortunately, Bigelow’s talent for visual extravaganza isn’t quite matched when she tries her hand at symbolism. Lenny’s ex-girlfriend Faith, played by Juliette Lewis, won’t take him back (D’ya get it? It’s like he’s lost Faith!); his best friend Max, played by Tom Sizemore, delights in the coming apocalypse (Hmm… I wonder how Lenny will end up if he abandons all hope and faith entirely?); and his guardian angel Mace, played by Angela Bassett, rescues him from just about every scrape in which he finds himself (redemption through the resolution of race tensions. That’s, like, so deep).

Nonetheless, I happen to enjoy that the central conceit is about the desire for escapism from the present life, and a failure to face up to current problems. It isn’t new, and while it’s been done better elsewhere (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind stands out as one example), this is a good effort with impressive acting from a great cast, and a passable script by James Cameron.

If you can stomach the visceral opening scene of Strange Days, you’ll manage the rest. Enjoy this New Year’s film, but don’t expect it be a calm start to 2014!

Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    I have a soft spot for Strange Days, because they had a big rave in Downtown LA that I attended that formed the backdrop for the rave party scenes. So I’m in it.

    But the rest of the movie– meh.

  2. J. Michael Neal says

    I’m going to strip out most of Johann’s hedging. Strange Days is just plain awesome. Is the symbolism of some of the names hokey? Sure, but to be honest, I didn’t even notice that until reading this review. Is the use of Mace as Lenny’s guardian angel so deep</i? Absolutely, but I was to busy watching a deep, meaningful relationship between a man and a woman with absolutely no sexual tension to it at all.

    I love Eternal Spotlight of the Sunshine Mind, too, but I’m not sure I would say that it’s better. There are certainly some things about it that I like more but others go the other way. Jim Carrey’s character in Eternal Sunshine is pathetic in a far more fundamental way than is Lenny. With Lenny we can see why other people like him so much and defend him even if he is currently drowning in self pity, something I didn’t really get from Eternal Sunshine. I love the portrayal of Lenny as a deeply pacifist cop who takes care of his gun just as well as Columbo did.

    The acting in Strange Days is fabulous. I’m a huge fanboy of Ralph Fiennes, the greatest Laurence Olivier impersonator in the world, but it goes beyond that. Angela Basset is terrific and dangerous. Tom Sizemore is good as someone even more burned out on the system than Lenny is. And Vincent D’Onofrio is extremely creepy in a small role.

    SPOILER ALERT. CONTINUE READING AT YOUR OWN PERIL

    The first time I watched it I was disappointed because the racial angle of the villains’ plot seemed hokey and weak. It wasn’t until I watched it again that I realized that the racial angle is a complete fraud. It’s a combination of an incidental distraction and cover up of a burst of sporadic, evil violence. The “plot” turns out to be so much smaller than the protagonists have thought and it works because it drives home that the movie is about the personalities.

  3. Rob says

    I liked it a lot and think Bigelow is a great director. It has problems definitely, but I’d rather have a flawed Bigelow movie than any of the well-executed hack stuff out there. Hurt Locker is a great movie, but had the same central issue I had with Strange Days — the story isn’t tight and there’s material that doesn’t necessarily add much. But what’s good is really good. I have to say, my biggest complaint about Strange Days is Fiennes character being all mooney over Juliette Lewis when Bassett was all hot for him. Nothing against Lewis, but Bassett’s character was ten times sexier and much more interesting. At least they end up together in the end.