“Strange Days” says more about 2020 than it did about 1999

Ralph Fiennes & Angela Bassett in Strange Days (20th Century Fox)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. In November we’re celebrating Kathryn Bigelow, the first female winner of a Best Director Academy Award, and her fascinating journey from indie genre films to blockbuster political dramas. Read the rest of our coverage here.

NOW STREAMING:

Strange Days should have been a big deal. Director Kathryn Bigelow was coming off her breakthrough Point Break, executive producer and co-writer James Cameron was a hit machine, and co-stars Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett were both featured in high profile Oscar nominated films like Schindler’s List, Quiz Show, and What’s Love Got to Do with It. In addition to all that talent was the simple fact that it was a fucking great movie. Strange Days was (and remains) a tense thriller that, like the best science fiction, managed to use a story that imagined where we were going to talk about where we were. It looked amazing, was anchored by great performances, and featured cutting edge filmmaking, including several stunning, long take scenes simulating a character’s POV as they ran and shot and bounced through action sequences in a noir-ish near-future LA. Instead, it came and went without leaving much of a mark, a failure with both critics (Roger Ebert a notable exception) and audiences. 

It’s December 30th, 1999, and Los Angeles is on the brink of disaster. Crime is rampant, the police are cracking heads, racial tensions are at the boiling point, and there’s a new addiction tearing up the community. Developed for law enforcement as a form of wiretapping, SQUID (Super-conducting Quantum Interference Device) technology records the wearers’ experiences and sensations directly from their cerebral cortex into a little disc that can be fed back out and experienced by anyone who has a SQUID rig of their own. But the tech has hit the black market, and it turns out jacking into someone else’s mind is a better high than just about anything else you can find on the streets. 

Then there’s Lenny Nero (Fiennes). Lenny used to have a life. He was an LA cop with a beautiful girlfriend, an up-and-coming singer named Faith Justin (Juliette Lewis) he rescued from a life of degradation, and whom he loved more than anything. But that’s all gone now. Now he’s a hustler, dealing counterfeit goods and SQUID videos of people fighting and fucking to other losers and junkies, and spends his off time stalking Faith and reliving his own recorded happier memories with her. What few friends he has left, like chauffeur/bad-ass Lornette “Mace” Mason (Bassett), and greasy PI Max Peltier (Tom Sizemore at perhaps his most Tom Sizemore-iest), have just about given up on him. However, when Lenny comes into possession of a SQUID recording of the murder of outspoken rapper Jeriko One, his life, and the lives of all the people around him, are suddenly at risk.

Strange Days is a movie about how technology and art can make the political personal, how seeing the world through someone else’s eyes can give us new, vital perspectives and how those disparate points of view could shake us out of our solipsistic navel gazing if we could just look away from the mirrors and explosions and porn for one goddamn second.  And no one cared.

Strange Days is a movie about how technology and art can make the political personal

It might just have been a question of timing, Strange Days opened in October 1995 and was set in the last few days of 1999, but in some ways it felt (at the time) like it was a relic of the recent past. The nineties were weird; the first third or so of the decade was really more of a hangover from the decadent, coked-up, eighties. There was a very potent strain of that hangover that was dour and pessimistic, characterized by gangster rap, grunge, and paranoid anti-government film and television like JFK and The X-Files. There was a sense that America’s best days were behind it and the institutions in place to protect its citizens were rife with corruption. It was that disaffected audience that Strange Days wanted to capture.   

But by 1995 the larger culture had started to turn the corner from the bleak nihilism towards the bright shiny pop that would eventually dominate the last third of the decade. There a few authentic remnants of Gen-X bleakness in The Usual Suspects (sorry, who knew?) and Seven, but more and more the conversation was dominated by the neon pop sensibilities of the excellent Clueless and less excellent Batman Forever. Nirvana was gone, replaced by Bush, and Tupac was cosplaying as Mad Max in “California Love.” No more troubling American history lessons, please, no more Goodfellas, no more JFK (Casino and Nixon both came out within months of Strange Days and suffered the same bee-there-done-that fate), it’s time for Forrest Gump and Apollo 13. No more lectures from musicians about racism and white supremacy, hip hop was in the suburbs now, white kids were buying it. No more “Fight the Power,” it’s time for “Fantastic Voyage” and “Gin and Juice.”

The cold war was over, racism was solved, the economy was roaring again and the Democrats were back in the White House. The only threats America faced were extraterrestrials that wanted to blow up our tourist attractions and the odd twister, volcano and asteroid/comet. So set the VCR for Friends, crank up the No Doubt and let the good times roll! 

Yeah, it’s stupid. We were stupid. And it didn’t last long.  Just a few years later, Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. would both be dead, possibly with the assistance of officers of the law, and Millennial Anxiety about the surveillance state would roar back to life in movies like Enemy of the State and The Matrix. Then, of course, things got much worse. Bush, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina, the rise of the Tea Party and Trump, it’s like the last twenty years have been one long repudiation of that brief moment when American Culture was arrogant enough to think it had somehow “won” reality like it was some kind of video game.  

But that’s sort of the thing, isn’t it? We weren’t all stupid. Even while the culture was patting itself on the back for finding existence’s cheat codes, there were movies like Strange Days reminding us that all those problems we thought we’d solved were still with us. That while we were focusing on the fighting and fucking, the more important shit was still happening just out of our field of vision, and that all we had to do was look around and it would all come into focus. Strange Days was a movie that came out in 1995, that was set in 1999 but that felt at the time like it was about 1992, but it was really just about now. Whenever now is, that’s what it’s about. Because these problems are never going to go away, as much as we might want to look away, there will always be works of art inviting us to slip into someone else’s skin for a minute, see things through their eyes and feel what they feel. Who knows what we might see if we do?

Strange Days Trailer:

Liked it? Take a second to support The Spool on Patreon!