Strange Days ★★★

Obsessive Viewer: 20 Director Challenge - Round 1 - 3/20

I was pretty much completely unaware of this movie before I started making my 20 Director Challenge list. It's a sci-fi action/thriller from 1995 involving Y2K (in the movie it's just referred to as 2K), conspiracy, and a black market that deals in discs of POV footage and feelings recorded through a neural headset. Co-written by James Cameron (that was a surprise) and, of course, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Strange Days is a solid sci-fi thriller with some intriguing concepts and interesting social commentary in the wake of the Rodney King verdict and LA riots that followed.

This film is grimy. Let me just say that upfront. It's funny to me that the movie was released in 1995, presumably shot in '94, yet the 1999 world it depicts is almost a dystopia. The underworld we're thrown into in Strange Days is one where a chief product in the underworld is the experience of living a piece of someone else's life through the "clips" on the data discs. It's a world where any experience imaginable can be procured for the right price.

It's this escapism angle of the story that I found particularly interesting. Our protagonist, a smooth talking black market clip dealer named Lenny (Ralph Fiennes), refuses to deal snuff clips but isn't a really ethical person aside from that. He peddles the clips for people, he talks his way into exclusive clubs, tries (fairly unsuccessfully) to pass off cheap fake rolexes to get his way. But at his core, Lenny is a man who misses his ex and gets roped into a conspiracy that ultimately brings out the good in him.

The conspiracy involves policy corruption and brutality. I won't give away the context, but this is a movie that was clearly made with the LA riots very fresh in the filmmakers' minds. It's discomforting to see Strange Days in the context of 2019 and the current political and social climate regarding race relations and police brutality/misconduct. It's disheartening to think that this movie could be remade today, almost 25 years after its release, and the social commentary wouldn't have to be updated hardly at all.

Ralph Fiennes steals the show here. His performance is surprising fun. Fiennes does a great job showing the sleaziest side of Lenny while simultaneously being pulled toward a more noble characterization. Angela Bassett is fantastic as well as a limo driver Lenny is friends with. When the action breaks out in the movie, it's Bassett's Mace character who is a complete bad ass instead of Lenny. I loved seeing her kick ass.

There is a romantic subplot between Lenny and Mace that I had a really hard time buying. When I realized the script was partly written by James Cameron (he also has a Story By credit on the film), I wasn't surprised. Romances in Cameron's script very rarely work for me and Strange Days is no exception.

However, the technology of the headsets and minidisc was really compelling. It reminds me of the segment of Black Mirror's Black Museum that Penn Jillette has a story credit on (Pain Addict). I wonder if Jillette was influenced by Strange Days because the technology is very similar. Nevertheless, the way Strange Days handles the technology in the film is really compelling. There's a moment where Ralph Fiennes wakes up, finds a disc addressed to him, and plays it. The contents of the disc are unsettling and used to great effect.

The central conspiracy was fine, in the end, and I liked the resolution of it well enough. There's a really thrilling fight sequence toward the end that really shows how great Kathryn Bigelow is at capturing chaos on screen and making it track smoothly.

The best part of Strange Days, however, was the POV shots from the discs. The film opens with a lengthy POV scene (designed to appear like a single take, but there are multiple disguised cuts). Even now, after enduring years of the found footage craze in movies, Strange Days' opening sequence is incredibly impressive, thrilling, and propulsive. It's a fantastic way to bring us into the world and into the movie. I really liked it.

Overall, I enjoyed Strange Days. It's got this grimy Blade Runner cyberpunk aesthetic that works in its favor more than it hinders it. I wish the romantic undertones between Bassett and Fiennes were fleshed out better. And while we're at it, I wish the resolution of the conspiracy was handled cleaner. Though, I did appreciate the somewhat cheeky way the dialogue was handled at the end between hero and villain.