Tomorrow is Yesterday - a Look Back at Strange Days
Directed by: Katheryn Bigelow
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Angela Basset, Jennifer Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott
Strange Days, with its apocalyptic vision of Los Angeles in the last days of the 20th Century, is best viewed today as some sort of alternate reality. At the time of the film’s release (1997), it was meant to be seen as a cautionary tale of the near future (Dec 30th - 31st, 1999).
In the film, LA is a city languishing in a sense of hopelessness. There is a palpable fear of the turn of the century, that it is some portent for the end of time. An excellent early scene, a montage of Lenny Nero’s nefarious wheeling and dealings, shows us a place heavily policed by armoured personnel and tanks, while at the same time a guy wearing a santa claus outfit is mugged on the street by a gang of teen girls, and stores are guarded by guys armed with AK-47s. A cynical radio DJ takes calls from gang members and religious fanatics alike, all talking about the End of Days.
Strange Days opens with a thrilling example of its mcguffin, the Virtual Reality Clip. Using new technology, people can download memories and experiences onto a hard-disc, which can then be accessed using a special head-set, putting you right in that moment, feeling exactly what the original person felt. In the clip, we the viewer have the perspective of a member of a gang on a robbery spree, assaulting a Chinese restaurant, and then trying to evade the police. The entire sequence is filmed to make it look as if it is one long interrupted scene (in reality it is made up of three shots, seamlessly edited together), allowing us to totally immerse ourselves in the experience.
It’s been said that whenever new media technology is introduced, porn is one of the first industries to embrace it. Both VHS and Blu Ray were able to outsell their rivals (betamax and HD-DVD respectively) because of the porn industry embracing those formats. In the film, the SQUID (Super-conducting Quantum Interference Device) technology was originally developed for the police as a form of covert surveillance (so undercover officers wouldn’t need to worry about wearing a wire). Naturally enough, the technology soon found its way onto the black market, with people such as Lenny Nero dealing in “clips”. It’s kind of ironic that the SQUID players and discs are re-utilised from Sony Mini-discs, a media format which failed to catch on. There’s also a silly scene where Lenny and Mace’s client, Mr Fumitsu, compare players – obviously, Mr Fumitsu has a much more compact model...
Lenny used to be a patrol officer, and later a Vice detective, which is where I assume that he first came in contact with the illicit version of SQUID and became hooked himself, leading to his eventual firing by Commissioner Strickland. By the time we meet Lenny, he’s a sleazy purveyor of Clips.
I called Lenny an anti-hero earlier. He certainly doesn’t fit the usual mould of hero. He is amoral, self-centred. He will try to bullshit his way out of any situation, even throw in the odd bribe. He’s all talk and no action (for the most part). He does have some redeeming qualities though, such as when he visits a friend who has no legs, and leaves him a clip that allows him to experience running through the surf on a beach. He also has a few morals left, such as not dealing in “blackjack” clips.
One of the more disturbing aspects of the SQUID technology is that you can experience “death”. The film’s opening sequence ends with us, through the eyes of the robber, falling to our death and experiencing that moment when all becomes nothing but a black void. It would appear that there is a growing market for these morbid moments (possibly in tune with the “end of the world” vibe pervading the city), but Lenny staunchly refuses to be dealing in them.
He also has two close friends looking out for him. Max (Tom Sizemore) is another ex-cop, who was forced to retire after surviving a shot to the head and is now a down-at-heel private detective. Mace (Angela Bassett) is a young single mother who works as a personal protection specialist, a bodyguard for hire for business executives.
The whole exposition of the SQUID technology is given to us in two key scenes. In the first, Lenny is prepping an “actor”, the person who is going to record the experience, and explaining to him how the technology works (the head-set, covered by a wig). This scene is key because it feeds straight into our introduction to Iris, a panic-stricken party girl on the run from two uniform cops. In an intense scene, they chase her into a subway station. Something is definitely up with these two because they tell their dispatcher that they are in pursuit of two black males…
Iris narrowly escapes, but not before the cops realise that she’d been wearing a SQUID receptor, meaning she’d been recording whatever ordeal she’d just survived.
The second key scene gives us some of the background of the SQUID technology (see above) and also gives us a great example of Lenny in his element, massaging a deal with a new client. His patter is excellent and very enticing, and gives an insight into how Lenny perceives himself:
“See... I can get you what you want, I can. I can get you anything, you just have to talk to me, you have to trust me. You can trust me, 'cause I'm your priest, I'm your shrink... I am your main connection to the switchboard of the soul. I'm the magic man... Santa Claus of the subconscious. You say it, you think it, you can have it.”
So what is Strange Days actually about? Good question, as the narrative meanders around for quite some time and it’s on the same level of complexity as films such as The Big Sleep and LA Confidential. It’s mainly about Lenny’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Faith, and a bad situation she’s got caught up in. Faith is a singer in a club called The Retinal Fetish. Films are notoriously bad at depicting anarchic, decadent party scenes, and Strange Days is no exception. Inside The Retinal Fetish we find such delights as: people tied up and pelted with paintballs, neo-nazis burning literature, and Juliet Lewis singing P J Harvey songs. Faith keeps pushing Lenny away, in the hope of keeping him out of trouble, but it just makes him even more dogged each time she does it.
Juliet Lewis is a marmite actress – you either like her or hate her. Here she fits in very well as the scuzzy singer and Lenny’s ex-girlfriend, Faith. We see her in one of Lenny’s memory clips, where she resembles an innocent waif, while we see her in the present, looking all burnt out and twitchy. Her stage performance (she performs two songs in the film) is actually very good.
Faith is now hanging out with Filo Gant (Michael Wincott), who owns a record company. Michael Wincott spent the whole of the 90’s playing bad-guys, it seems. He was Sir Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, he played opposite Eddie Murphy in Metro, he played Rochefort in Disney’s version of the Three Musketeers and was most memorable as Top Dollar in The Crow. Here he is great as the sleazy music mogul. Filo’s biggest act is Jeriko One, a political rap star who has just been discovered murdered at the beginning of the film. Filo hates Lenny because he knows deep down that Faith still has feelings for him, and uses his muscle (a gang of weirdly dressed punks which includes an albino transsexual and Wade Beemer, an ex NFL player) to rough him up.
Strange Days is not without its share of controversy, for two very different reasons. Firstly Iris is subjected to a violent rape before she is murdered by an masked assailant. Lenny is mysteriously sent a memory clip, which he plays in the back of Mace’s limo (much to her annoyance). In it, we play the part of the rapist, making us directly complicit in the act itself. Not only that, but the scene is intercut with Lenny experiencing the rape as well. In the midst of the attack, the assailant places a SQUID receptor on Iris’s head, so she, like Lenny, experiences the rape and her own murder from two perspectives – her own and her killer’s. That’s a pretty messed up concept to get your head around, and seems to have been inspired by Michael Powell’s classic,
. The scene ends with a bravura piece of camera-work, as the killer, using his own eyes as the camera, “zooms in” on Iris’s eye, til it almost takes up the whole POV frame, and we can see the masked killer reflected in Iris’s pupil.
The second big controversy comes at the end, when we get a glimpse of the end of civilisation. Apparently, James Cameron wrote the story of Strange Days in the wake of the Rodney King Riots. You can tell that he was trying to extrapolate the feelings surrounding those dark days and projecting a “worse case scenario” – what if the police force became more and more militarised, and still had violent racists and homophobes amongst its ranks?
We find out that Filo, desperately paranoid that Jeriko One is going to walk away from his record label, sends Iris and another girl to seduce him while wearing a SQUID receptor. Instead of filming some sordid sex tape, Iris ends up witnessing and recording Jeriko One’s murder at the hand of the two patrol officers, Steckler and Engelman.
How incendiary would that tape prove to be, if released? This is something that Lenny, Max and Mace have a tense discussion about. Should they release the tape to the media? Would their sense of righteousness outweigh the guilt of knowing they were about to set off a race war? Could they trust the police?
These ideas culminate in the tense showdown between Mace and the two patrol cops who kicked things off. As they chase her through the thronging crowds of street-party goers, Mace is able to turn the tables on the two officers and hand-cuff them to a scaffold. But then some riot police turn up, and all they see is a black person attacking two of their own. Mace is subjected to a brutal beating by the police which is witnessed by thousands of people – who of course, only see police beating an unarmed, defenceless black woman. What happens next is kind of inevitable, but also incredibly cathartic – for the viewer and the crowd. Just for a moment or two, it looks like we’re witnessing the beginning of the end.
There is some excellent cinematography in this film, and this is best exemplified by the final scenes, as Steckler tries to take revenge. Still handcuffed to his partner, he slowly aims his gun at Mace. We’re seconds away from midnight, New Years Eve 1999, and the air is full of large flecks of multicoloured confetti, which makes the whole scene a brilliant promo for blu ray and Hi Def screens. Or at least it would be, if Strange Days was actually available in that format!!!
There is a lot more to discover in this film. You just have to be able to see past the film’s own millennium bug. Strange Days is a rich, world-building movie full of memorable characters. Highly recommended.
9 out of 10 (MikeOutWest)
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