Kathryn Bigelow was ahead of her time
The films of director Kathryn Bigelow are interesting to track. She begins her career with a series of films that function both as an exploration of the relationship between gender and violence as well as genre-deconstructions (biker films with The Loveless, westerns and horror with Near Dark, cop-drama with the under-appreciated Blue Steel) before breaking wide with the surfer action classic Point Break. After a string of under performing financial flops that nearly derailed her career as a filmmaker, she returns to the forefront with Hurt Locker, which in turn earns her the honor of becoming the first woman to win the Academy Award for directing. She follows that up with the spiritual successor Zero Dark Thirty and the controversial Detroit.
With all respect to the Academy and Hurt Locker however, the first and most high-profile of those financial flops may also be her best film. 1995’s Strange Days is a neo-noir cyberpunk thriller that started life as a pitch from Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron, but what started as an intimate near-future crime story sprawled out into an epic portrait of late 20th century Los Angeles, examining tough subjects such as sexual violence, police brutality and drug addiction. In the two and a half decades that have passed since its initial release, Strange Days has become distressingly more relevant than ever.
The entire story of the film is contained over two days, casting a gaze forward into the final days of 1999. The center of the film is Ralph Fiennes in an off-beat performance as Lenny Nero, an ex-cop who has become a pusher for the drug of the future: memories. With a device called a SQUID (which was based on actual military technology, but given a shove forward by Cameron and Bigelow), people are able to live through taped experiences recorded by paid performers. These tapes run the gamut of human experiences, but seem to fall primarily into two camps: pornography and criminal activity. And while Nero is selling other people’s memories to desperate people looking for the next stage in escapism, he himself is addicted to reliving previous memories with his now ex-girlfriend, Faith (Juliette Lewis).
The plot of the film thrusts forward when Nero is sent a mysterious tape that documents the gruesome rape and murder of one of his SQUID-tape performers, clearly enticing and challenging him to investigate. Along with help from his friends Mace and Max (Angela Bassett and Tom Sizemore, in two career highlights), he attempts to solve who sent him the tape and why. What unravels is him getting involved in a much wider conspiracy, which includes the cover-up of a damning piece of evidence that depicts Los Angeles police officers killing influential rapper and activist Jeriko One.
What elevates Strange Days from a potboiler, scummy crime drama to an underappreciated masterpiece is the moves that Bigelow makes throughout; the film is long for its genre, nearly two and a half hours, and she uses that time to establish many different threads and tones. The first act establishes Nero’s world of selling illicit memory tapes to hungry clients, and doesn’t shy away from sexual-charged iconography. Bigelow is a master semiotician, framing scenes for maximum effect to communicate to the best of her ability the experience of living these tapes; the famed opening sequence presents an extended POV scene of a robbery gone wrong, without context or warning, and immediately dives into precisely why these tapes would be popular and addictive.
But then the other tapes start popping up. Intrusions into real-world violence that don’t shy or cut away. The rape sequence is unflinchingly graphic and horrifying, unaffected by any sort of glamour; similarly, the sequence of Jeriko One being executed by the police is all too familiar to the 21st century viewers, the sinking realization of where this is going before it’s even begun.
This perspective is what allows Strange Days to retain its hold on the current imagination and consciousness. The same way the Paddy Chayefsky’s Network depicts a bastardization of news coverage that barely feels like parody now, the weight that a video of police brutality holds in the final act of this film is sickeningly familiar. When Bassett’s Mace sees the execution tape, she convulses and silently cries. When she finally speaks, all she can say “I see the world opening up and swallowing us all.” The context makes it very clear that even as she is speaking to Nero, he is not part of that “us”.
Bigelow has stated that she found her angle for this film after helping with recovery following the 1992 Los Angeles riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict; the film itself was made in the midst of the OJ Simpson trial. Police violence within black communities was an explosive topic that had rippled throughout the country, and has not slowed down in the years sense. And at the center of the whole conversation is the importance of video of these incidents, evidence that shock the sensibilities. Strange Days understands this in its bones; this is a lived experience of Black communities who are crying out for justice, but only when seen, when felt by others can any change begin.
If any critique can be laid at the film’s feet, it is the neatness with which it ties up the circumstances; upon witnessing the murder, the police officers are immediately arrested and proceed to meet gruesome ends. Justice is served and we ring in 2000 with a sense of things changing for the better. 25 years on, we are still waiting for the fabled “2K” of the film’s mythology, when the scales of justice are corrected, both in issues of sexual violence and racial inequality.
What rings true about the film, however, is the importance of connecting with other people. Only by seeing, or in the case of the film practically living, through other people’s lives and experiences is change truly possible. It can be painful to witness realities that call our own comforts into question, but the shared human experience demands that we meet each other’s truths. That is what the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements have in common: they demand empathy.
Strange Days taps into that in a visceral way. When we first meet Nero, his perspective is selfish and shallow. When exposed to the harsh realities of sexual and racially-motivated violence just outside his narrow view, his sense of greater responsibility widens and his role as a hero is realized. He discovers empathy, and as a response, changes. By proxy the audience is forced to experience it too, but the movie can’t control their response.
The most frustrating thing about Strange Days is its current lack of availability to viewers. A domestic DVD was released, but it is long out of print and the only Blu-rays ever released were European, region-locked and made five years ago. I hope that it becomes more available as its cultural significance has never been higher.