“Okay. Ready? Boot it.”
And so begins Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, which proceeds in the form of a dizzying and glitchy POV shot that plunges you head-first into a high-wire robbery sequence before dropping you off the top of a building. Mixing Blade Runner-esque futurism with screenwriter James Cameron’s penchant for tech-noir and the cinematic language of video games, this underrated 90s cyberpunk thriller is nothing less than a masterclass in futuristic world-building.
For all the great movies under Cameron’s belt, I’d definitely wager that this is his best screenplay. Maybe the fact it was co-written by Jay Cocks has something to do with it – the only film Cocks hasn’t written for Martin Scorsese – but I suspect Cameron was freed of any worries of directing it himself and felt liberated to create something more subversive with a harder edge than the kind of film his position as a mainstream, colossal-budget filmmaker would usually allow for.
The central concept of a SQUID device – a program that allows users to record, share and feel memories – is fully explored. Despite the endless potential of the idea, Bigelow and Cameron somehow seem to cover all the bases. The exhilarating thrill is displayed in that first shot, the sexual side is repeatedly addressed and the dark and depraved dangers aren’t shied away from. One of the many elements of the chaotic plot features a serial killer who forces his victims to experience their own sexual assault and death through his eyes by making them wear a SQUID headset synced up to his cerebral cortex. Now that is an incredibly fucked up and vivid idea, executed by Bigelow with suitably visceral nastiness and that stuff really stays with you. This is a film full of ideas – cluttered with them in fact – that are both thrilling and unnerving.
The plot is definitely the least interesting thing about Strange Days and once the murder mystery and political undertones (the police brutality subplot feels like a direct response to the Rodney King incident) give way to a disappointingly formulaic third act, you learn to enjoy the movie for its immersive elements alone; the performances, the production design and the cinematography. Remember when Ralph Fiennes was briefly courted as an action movie star? As Lenny Nero he gets a hell of a lot of mileage out of a shit-eating grin and punching-bag charm. There’s also Juliette Lewis slap-bang in the middle of her fierce 90s mode, channelling not only her gifts as a spiky hellcat but as a future rock star. And if you thought the cast couldn’t get any more 90s, remember this thing also stars Tom Sizemore (that fucking wig), Angela Bassett, Vincent D’Onofrio and Michael Wincott. Oh and you know the central refrain of Fatboy Slim’s “Right Here, Right Now”? Sampled from this movie!
Made in 1995 but set in a then-futuristic 1999, Strange Days works as a fascinating time capsule of pre-Millennium paranoia about technology. The lovely fetishisation of analogue technologies like Mini Discs brings a lot of nostalgia, though with VR tech getting more advanced by the day, the film’s themes feel, strangely, more relevant and vital now than it probably did in 1995. Technically this is a period piece set in a 1999 that never was in the same way that Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales squinted into 2008 from the vantage point of 2006 and created an alternate reality in the process. Bigelow has never made another film this ambitious or fantastic and her exit from contemporary, big-budget genre cinema in favour of gritty, political documents is a massive loss. I also admire Cameron for to turning over the best thing he’s ever written to a female director he knew could do it better than he ever could (and I’m a JC fanboy). This movie rules.
Watched on blu-ray