For decades, audiences have been transported by Sci-Fi futurism, only to be trapped in dystopias. While movies like Total Recall and Blade Runner have jumped decades, others chose to set themselves in near-future nightmares. Strange Days, from director Kathryn Bigelow, captures Y2K anxiety, fears of surveillance, distrust in police, and simmering racism to craft a sadly prescient experience. While deemed a failure on release, it deserves a hard look and reevaluation. In fact, it’s one of the best sci-fi works of the past three decades.
Strange Days follows former cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), who has begun to “deal experiences” known as SQUID. These events are recorded using an illegal device, which allows subsequent users to feel the emotional and physical impulses of the recordee. When Lenny comes into possession of a SQUID depicting intense corruption, he finds himself hunted by unknown forces. With the help of friends Mace (Angela Bassett) and Max (Tom Sizemore), Lenny fights to save his ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis).
Bigelow’s take on the future distresses because she never pulls her punches. Her future depicts a grimy, visceral world. While the narrative came from James Cameron, Bigelow paints this world in much darker tones. Crafted in the aftermath of the LA Riots, Bigelow addresses issues that would rarely find themselves in the mainstream for decades. Police brutality, corruption, and fundamental distrust in police culture become philosophical tentpoles. Beyond that, Bigelow builds the story around an unlikely pair in Nero and Mace. Their relationship toggles between romantic and friendship, building a uniquely complicated look at the racial perspectives of the people and events of Strange Days.
Just as integral, Bigelow imagines surveillance and experiential drug culture in disturbing detail. While Bigelow occasionally shows us how SQUID devices could provide relief to the user, the illegal nature instead inspired creators to push the boundaries of what should be seen. Halfway through the film, Bigelow challenges viewers with one of the most upsetting rapes sequences in cinema history. Certainly drawing from similar scenes in Powell’s Peeping Tom and Clark’s Black Christmas, Bigelow pushes the limit. It also showcases the darkness of our villain in ways that noirs are rarely capable of delivering.
The fully lived-in world of Los Angeles at the turn of the millennium features brilliant design work. Utilizing recognizable landmarks but embracing an expedited drug culture as the potential end of civilization looms helps Strange Days separate itself from reality. There’s enough future technology to help the movie feel timeless, as the tech has yet to be invented in our world. Yet at the same time, the concepts of tech and drug activity feel just out of reach. Considering the rise of live streaming, virtual reality, and augmented reality, the SQUID tech may not be too far away.
Another huge positive for Strange Days comes from Bassett and Fiennes. The two performers shine in every sequence, frankly lifting the screenplay above mediocrity. Fiennes plays scummy exceptionally well. Bassett delivers another brilliant, underrated performance. Add this to the list of many such turns over her outstanding career. Their relationship, and the way each character approaches the noir plotlines, sell Bigelow’s vision. This stands in stark contrast to Sizemore and Lewis, who feel miscast depending on the sequence. Another boost comes from Michael Wincott, who relishes his role as a villain. Wincott certainly has the voice and look of villainy, but only a few directors have so convincingly captured his ambiance on camera.
One might wonder why Strange Days received a review from us now. Frankly, the lack of availability made it too good to pass up. The VHS and early DVD eras made this film available, but it has been seemingly locked away from US audiences since 2002. The first time I watched this film was on VHS at least twenty years ago. While international distribution has occurred, it is still outside the norm to have a region-free blu-ray player. This makes the recent streaming release of the film on HBOMax that much more important. At this moment, Strange Days is more available to audiences than it has been in nearly twenty years.
Strange Days exists as a truly underrated sci-fi experience. It never received its due on release and continues to challenge audiences nearly thirty years after its release. Strange Days is a remarkably dense and outstanding film. To think its failure at the box office nearly prevented the future works of Kathryn Bigelow only adds to its legend. By our estimation, this flick is one of her very best efforts. Hopefully, the world can finally acknowledge it as the subversive, brilliant work of a master.
3 thoughts on “We Miss VHS: ‘Strange Days’ Stuns as the Best Dystopian Nightmare Since ‘Blade Runner’”
Saw Strange Days in the theatre 1995 ? Solid film, great soundtrack.
This film is truly epic. The combination of humanities need for visceral escapism, no matter how depraved, and the social forces that continue to envelop the pseudo civilized America of the 21ist century are all presented with terrifying accuracy. This is a mirror of our society that we desperately refuse to look into, and it costs us greatly. We refuse to learn.