1995 was a great year for movies. The Usual Suspects was blowing everyone away, as were 12 Monkeys and Seven.
It was a particularly good year for cyberpunk movies, Ghost in the Shell was setting the bar for both animation and story. Screamers was Philip K Dick done on a low budget but elevated by having Peter Weller star. Hackers was a trashy, guilty pleasure as was the desert punk mash-up Tank Girl… on the other end of the scale there was the disappointing Judge Dredd… but the less said about that the better.
Also a pre-Matrix Keanu Reeves starred in one of my favourite movies, Johnny Mnemonic. Here’s my copy of the movie that William Gibson very kindly signed for me.
One film that I completely missed at the time though was Strange Days. It’s a dark, ‘5 minutes into the future’ take on the Rodney King incident. Set against the backdrop of the millenium-eve celebrations. Here’s the trailer:
Like most trailers of that era, it doesn’t really capture the tone of the film. Plus, looking back, the ‘man who would be Voldemort’ Ralph Fiennes bears a striking resemblance to Bradley Cooper. Also, there’s Tom Sizemores hair. There’s no ignoring it, that hair looks soooo 90’s it’ll be presenting a nostalgic music show on VH1 next month.
Anyway, after hearing good things about this film for years, I finally decided to give it a watch recently. 20 years have passed since this film was made and similar concepts have been presented in different ways since then. I was reminded a couple of times of the film eXistenZ whilst watching Strange Days but not in a bad way.
Obviously, the concept of the world changing as the year 2000 is ushered in has dated this movie a little. Although the futuristic Rodney King style police murder of an innocent black man is just as painfully relevant now as it was then.
Here’s a spoiler-y review of Strange Days
So it’s a film directed by Kathryn Bigelow who also directed Near Dark, a personal favourite of mine. The script was written by James Cameron which automatically puts it above most of the low budget dreck that was being churned out of Hollywood with the cyberpunk label attached at that time (I’m looking at you Cyborg 3!)
The protagonist, Lenny, is an (anti) hero ex cop, on the wrong side of the law and in a downward spiral. He illegally traffics in peoples memories / experiences. By slipping on a hairnet and loading up a minidisc player, you can experience anything from committing an armed robbery to indulging in a guilt-free threesome. He’s played as a sleazy screw up, the experiences that he sells allow people to vicariously live someone else’s life and experience the things that they either daren’t do or are physically unable to do in their own life, and he alternates between playing a drug dealer and a pimp.
He has redeeming traits, like when he commissions a memory of someone running along a beach, looking down at their legs, as a gift for a double amputee in a wheelchair. There’s also his lost, puppy-dog devotion to his ex girlfriend Faith, played by Juliette Lewis, and his softer side that comes out around his only real friend Mace.
Mace, played by Angela Bassett, is actually in love with Lenny but has resigned herself to the friend zone, although what she sees in this brooding, parasitic part-time friend isn’t immediately apparent. Even with the benefit of a flashback showing how they met. It isn’t until the final act that Lenny grows a pair and starts making sane decisions that show a glimpse of the cop that he used to be.
Faith left Lenny a while back, in a throwback to the Human League hit song ‘Don’t you want me?’ she moved on once she graduated from crack whore to successful singer. He torments himself by replaying his memories of their intimate moments together and stalking her in a misguided attempt to play the white knight. Juliette Lewis gets to sing a couple of songs in this film as well as strip off a couple of times…. both of these things are absolutely fine by me but your mileage may vary.
Max, played by Tom Sizemore, is a cop friend of Lenny’s from back in the day. Equally sleazy…. and then there’s that hair.
Anyway, the main threads of the plot are:
An old friend of Faith’s is being hunted down by crooked cops, Lenny believes that Faiths life is also in danger and tries to ‘save’ her. Despite the fact that she obviously doesn’t want to be saved and is in deep with seedy music producer Philo, played by Michael Wincott who growls and barks orders from his nightclub in a similar fashion to his role in The Crow.
A Tupac / Malcolm X style rapper named Jeriko One has recently been murdered, causing tension on the streets. The LAPD is responding with violent measures and there is a palpable sense of a riot brewing just beneath the surface.
Someone has sent Lenny a ‘blackjack’, a snuff movie (something that he has always distanced himself from) showing a very disturbing murder. Remember that when you watch these memories, you also experience the emotions of the person that recorded them. In this case, those are very twisted emotions and Lenny wants to know why he was chosen and if he can stop this killer striking again.
All of these threads are woven together as the film progresses, some more successfully than others. There are crosses and double crosses and, in the best tradition of the genre, the main character is buffeted around by forces beyond his control until the full story is revealed.
This film does a lot of things well, the characters aren’t black and white even though they may be painted with broad strokes. They have real motivations and interactions with each other, the dialogue really crackles at times (side note, one of Mace’s lines was immortalised by Fatboy Slim when he sampled her yelling “Right here, right now”) and there are some laugh out loud funny lines amongst the tension and drama.
The look of the movie is suitable grim and dark, taking place mostly at night or in nightclubs. The memories played on the SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) decks also have a raw look to them, predating the whole ‘found footage’ genre by a few years.
The new years eve 1999 ending has convincing crowd scenes, something that not a lot of movies pull off successfully. This was apparently done by the filmmakers throwing a cheap gig and booking Aphex Twin! Around 14,000 people turned up. It all adds to the oppressive feeling of a busy city building towards a riot.
The soundtrack features some great 90’s music, with Skunk Anansie making an appearance at one point and the action is real edge of your seat stuff. There are no rent-a-goons firing their guns with all the accuracy of a Star Wars stormtrooper, whilst our bulletproof hero leaps around in John Woo slow motion. There are scenes where the characters are in real peril and it’s not always a foregone conclusion who will survive or how.
There are some issues with the film. At one point there’s a rape / murder that, to its credit, unlike in most films isn’t there just as motivation for the good guy to get justice. It’s presented as straight up horrific. Not just the camera angle that films it unflinchingly from the perpetrators point of view, becoming our point of view, but also the added detail that the rapist / murderer has set up a feedback loop that causes his victim to feel everything that he feels as he kills her. It feels a little too ‘meta’ and self-conscious, you can literally hear the director whispering “and then this part will freak the audience out. But then they’ll be like ‘hey, maybe watching a violent film for entertainment is no better than experiencing someones violent memories for entertainment like they are in the film’ and that’ll be like, really profound… or something”
The last 15 minutes or so of the film similarly hits you over the head with a big ‘Moral Outrage’ hammer, which is a shame as Strange Days is a genuinely good movie that’s aged pretty well. Even with the heavy handed, misjudged ending I can count this as one of the best films with a cyberpunk theme that I’ve seen in years.
Chances are, if I’d seen this when it was first released, I would be blindly devoted to this movie. Happily ignoring its faults and defending it against detractors with a passion.
As it is, in a post-Matrix world with the benefit of a little distance I can appreciate this film for what it is. A flawed gem, definitely of its era but well worth rewatching at some point.