Rooted in a police surveillance technology that has become an underground means of democratizing every aspect of the human experience, 1995’s Strange Days is all too conscious of police militarization, institutionalized racism and the dumb shit people do for people they think they still love. Here the anxieties of Rodney King-era America are extrapolated just a little bit down the road, where the internet hasn’t quite happened and footage of police committing murder actually changes society.
LEnny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is yet another point on director Kathryn Bigelow’s continuum of vulnerable male protagonists, coming just after she created Keanu Reeves, Action Star in Point Break. Lenny is somehow both squirrelly and lovestruck like a Tennessee Williams heroine as he pines for the unattainable Faith (Juliette Lewis channeling Polly Jean Harvey). He’s a glorious beta serving full Peter Lorre realness who understands that Mace (Angela Bassett, along with her exceptional arms and force of will) is running things just fine.
There is an obscene horror at play in this film’s most infamous scene, wherein we witness the blackjack tape that documents the rape and murder of Iris (Brigitte Bako) via the memories and experience of the rapist channeled back into the victim’s consciousness. It’s about as horrifying a confrontation with sexual violence as mainstream cinema gets, and it — and the film — served as a veritable fragmentation grenade at its opening-night appearance as the 1995 New York Film Festival’s Centerpiece. Bigelow does not gloss over any of the implications that the film raises, and it is precisely too much.
This is a loud sci-fi/action film (from a treatment by Bigelow’s ex James Cameron) that pulls no punches and maintains the kinesis of a playful apocalypse — gritty and sweaty like sweltering LA nights but mentholated and smoove like its occasional Deep Forest soundtrack . Always the semiotician, Bigelow stokes the film’s soundtrack with a synecdoche for itself, with the fierce Deborah Anne “Skin” Dyer, lead singer and songwriter of Skunk Anansie, seizing the apparatus of rawk and serving it up better than one would get from a similar band fronted by some dude.
Strange Days was a box-office flop, released on the same day as the messy-but-interesting Jade and a whut-now remake of The Scarlet Letter. The intervening 27 years have bolstered the film’s reputation as a singular vision of the not-too-distant future. Part of the Lightstorm library, it’s been in streaming and home-video limbo for ages now, making it to a non-anamorphic DVD and no further. And honestly, after the 2010 Oscars (which intermittently became a relitigation of the Bigelow/Cameron divorce), it is safe to say that Strange Days is not a high priority for proper remastering. So chances to experience this seminal text in speculative cyberfetish fiction aren’t exactly numerous. But seeing Kathryn Bigelow at the top of her game with a peerless cast, with a guest scientist and on 35mm, is not to be missed.