Strange Days May 21, 2016
Strange Days is the all too rare futuristic sci-fi thriller that seems to be about something. Not that I’m keeping score — it’s just that I often find myself in the presence of genre pictures who use a tumultuous setting as basis for neat sequences of action, as a sleek place for sleek characters to do sleek things. More important is the plot, curiosities touched upon but never felt through.
So while plot is important in Strange Days, different is the way the world it’s set in is fascinating enough to cause one to thirst for a quasi-documentary covering how things came to be. It takes place in 1999, in an apparent alternate universe that sees Earth on the brink of anarchy. We’re transported to inner city Los Angeles, where the streets are everlastingly dangerous and where the police seem to be more compelled to save their own skins than to protect those of others.
Such attributes are engrossing provocations to begin with, and pleasing is Strange Days’s way of never getting too absorbed in its style. It’s not trying to create a new world per se; it’s more content seeing how the world might look if all of its flaws became too prominent to escape. Some might consider it depressing, especially since the film, even in its most optimistic of moments, has a pertinent atmosphere of misery. But as it’s directed by Kathryn Bigelow, a filmmaker whose works frequently jump to the more venturesome side of things (Point Break, The Hurt Locker), and as it’s co-written by sci-fi extraordinaire James Cameron (the man behind The Terminator and Avatar), one can expect that we’re not going to be presented with a conventional piece. Instead brought to our screen is an epic of steampunk bedazzlement, as in-your-face and thrilling as it is cerebral. It all seems very plausible, and that’s what makes it such a visceral experience.
Ralph Fiennes stars as Lenny Nero, a cop turned hustler making a living off dealing America’s new favorite drug, SQUID. SQUID, however, isn’t typical in that it isn’t a powder you snort, a substance you inject. SQUID, in actuality, is short for “Superconducting Quantum Interference Device”; they’re illegal electronic gadgets able to bring someone the experience of another. Place one on your head (they take the shape of a robotic claw), insert a pre-recorded disc in, and you’re living a few minutes of someone else’s life, feeling everything that they felt in those moments. As it turns out, getting addicted to seeing the world through someone else’s eyes is easy and treacherous.
Most use SQUIDs to undergo trivial things like imaginary sex, or for more dangerous highs like a robbery. But rising is the number of “blackjack” exploits, which, in addition to giving the wearer the experience they crave, also show the death of the person they’re living vicariously through. Lenny only comes across these sinful depictions once in a blue moon, and, when he does, he does everything he can to keep himself and his clients far away from their effects.
But one SQUID proves to be much more disturbing than what he usually might see in an average blackjack. He, unflinchingly, witnesses the brutal rape and murder of a prostitute he casually knew. We are put in the shoes of the predator with horrifying realism. But the most disconcerting feature of the recording is the added detail that the killer placed his very own SQUID onto the head of his victim, thus letting her see her own death from the eyes of her murderer. The event shakes Lenny up with great force, and after he begins receiving even more anonymous snuff clips, he teams up with old coworker, Mace Mason (a stupendous Angela Bassett), in hopes of tracking down the responsible fiend.
This storyline, however, is only a fragment of the triumph of Strange Days. Being almost two-and-a-half hours in length, its multiple, intertwining plots, along with its intricate character relationships, make it much more credible than the formulaic mainstream thriller. Also pivotal is Lenny’s own addiction to SQUID (he uses the device to recount his past relationship with Faith [Juliette Lewis], a trashy would-be punk rocker), and his affiliation with Mace, which is perhaps the only sanguine part of the film.
The central plot is exciting enough as is (the murder that kicks off the action is supremely effective and supremely terrifying), so the added fixtures of social commentary is what makes Strange Days so spectacular. Cameron and Jay Cocks tap into society’s obsessions with pleasure, pushing a need for escapism to bewildering extremes (a characteristic more relevant than ever), and question the strength of governmental power in the face of civil unrest.
But the most disquieting thing about the film is how persuasively it portrays a world where most of the law has lost control, where culture has become so enamored with dopamine release that Earth has become a gigantic survival of the fittest. Anarchy is on the verge of becoming a reality. Such a setting is nothing new in the movies, but because Bigelow so sure-handedly transforms us into voyeurs, the film’s stimulations hit close to home. I hesitate to call Strange Days sci-fi because so much of it doesn’t feel so far off.
It’s a work that gives you whiplash, from its Ghost in the Shell meets film noir visual style to its abrasive performances — Bassett, emulating a prime Pam Grier, and Lewis, believable as a rock ’n’ roll star, are standouts. Strange Days, simultaneously eerie and searing, is science fiction at its most piquant. A-