Cinefantastique, Volume 27, Number 9, May 1996

Strange Days

Bigelow puts the viewer uncomfortably on the spot. 

"Two thousand zero zero/ party over /whoops/ out of time," sang the artist currently known as a dumb symbol in his 1982 hit "1999." In a kindred apocalyptic vision of the millennial terminus, Kathryn Bigelow's STRANGE DAYS sets itself on the last day of the 20th century during a New Year's Rockin' Eve that would eat Dick Clark alive. Flipping a few pages ahead in the calendar rather than traveling long distance through time, the film is not so much futuristic fantasy as a peek around the corner. Ambitious, provocative, and stylish, it sank like a stone at the boxoffice. Strange days, truly. The film hits video shelves for a second chance, this April. 

An uncharacteristically seedy Ralph Fiennes plays Lenny Nero, a down-on-his-luck ex-cop who peddles black market video implants called SQUIDS to yuppies and other lowlifes in fin de millennium Los Angeles. The commercial appeal of the device is that the visual spectacle is jacked directly into the imbiber's brainstem: you feel, not just see, the adrenaline rush of an armed robbery, a sexual hit-andrun, or, because we humans are such sick puppies, a rapemurder. Overdose on SQUID, however, and you wind up pretty vacant: a mental vegetable, wires crossed and synapses shot. Fiddling while the populace burns their neurons, Nero recites a line of pimppatter confident that his product is presold by an entire culture dedicated to shameless consumerism and instant gratification. "You know you want it," he purrs seductively. 

Also, Lenny has a backlog of memories of his own to contend with featuring the love of his life, the rollerblading Faith Justin (Juliette Lewis), a slutty rock singer who spells bad news even for this bad-luck dude. Back in his (also seedy) apartment, he squirrels away SQUIDS, recording his misty watercolored memories for compulsive lovesick replays, thus defying the first rule of the professional drug pusher: never sample the merchandise. Waiting in the wings as Lenny's guardian angel is limo driver "Mace" Mason (Angela Bassett), whose rough exterior never hides her moonstruck longing for Lenny. As pop star Tina Turner in WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT, Bassett looked too pumped up for the role of an abused wife (one expected her to haul off and deck Ike every time he slapped her upside the face) but as Lenny's de facto bodyguard and unrequited love, she's splendid- lithe, agile and buffed. 

Though the plot concerns an incriminating SQUID CD everyone seems to be looking for, a hightech McGuffin recording the brutal murder of the famous rap star Jeriko One (Glenn Plumber), the real business of STRANGE DAYS is visual, not narrative. Almost painterly in its texture, director Kathryn Bigelow's cameronian camera splashes a purple-black tech noir color scheme across a horizontal L.A. landscape at night, sort of CNN meets Ridley Scott. Like Nero, Bigelow and producerscreenwriter James Cameron know they're peddling their own brand of SQUID, know that you, the moviegoer, want "it." They deliver the antecedent in a double dose of visual flash and burn: a portrait of an American metropolis as a multiethnic, ultraviolent, and cacophonous netherworld and (the better portion of their stash) a series of mini-movies within the movie that offer up a taste of the visceral thrills, erotic sparks, and sadistic stimulation of the on-screen SQUID trip. 

Adopting the classic camera angle for pornography, Bigelow's first person point-of-view shots lock the spectator into the eyeline vantage of the implant addict. No doubt about it, Bigelow soars in these sequencesthe highball jolt of the restaurant robbery that opens the film, the mushy romantic interludes with Faith, and the sexplay that puts the spectator right in the saddle. But the film's most wrenching and controversial sequence is the vicious rape-murder of a hapless hooker named Iris (Brigitte Bako), rendered (and hence experienced) from the perspective of the killer and victim. As sadistic screen violence goes, it doesn't get any more hardcore or perverse than this. Speaking for the artistic defense, Bigelow has mouthed a familiar mantra that the I-am-a-camera thrill kill should be seen as rueful commentary on the escalating intensity and cruelty of computerage horror shows catering to the ever more exotic appetites of jaded spectators. The film signals the correct moral response when Lenny and later Mace jack into the snuff SQUID and react with appalled revulsion. Still, Bigelow works too hard to orchestrate too many slick cinematic tricks not to be implicated in the unholy rush of the experience she allegedly condemns. 

As in a lot of Internet-age science fiction (JOHNNY MNEMONIC, LAWNMOWER MAN 2) STRANGE DAYS assumes the collapse in perceptible distinctions between actual reality and computcrgenerated reality. In good Mcl.uhan fashion, the new media are configured as true "extensions of man," total environmental depth experiences that change the nature of the human relationship to the physical world. More and more, the science fiction genre seems a union of two mindbending authors: Philip K. Dick (time and memory) and William Gibson (the computer-age body and mind). Once a mapped territory inhabited by bug-eyed monsters and killer androids,'the science fiction realm is now as dizzyingly complex and disorienting as a graduate course in Hegelian metaphysics. Faithful to Dick-Gibson ethos, the troubled climax of STRANGE DAYS refuses to posit a patented conspiratorial solution to its plot complications. Conspiracy would be much too ordered and reassuring to explain a world in the grip of chaos theory. 

A dense and disturbing meditation on time, mind, and ultimately love, STRANGE DAYS has at least as much style and smarts as SEVEN and 12 MONKEYS, last year's other choice science-fictionhorror releases. Though a bigger financial disaster than WATERWORLD, the film should enjoy a long shelf life in repertory and video. To Bigelow, Cameron, anti co-screenwriter Jay Cocks it may be small solace and less compensation that STRANGE DAYS is the kind of film that needs to be looked back on- say from 1999- to have its virtues appreciated. 

Thomas Doherty