Strange Days (1995)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #490


Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: October 13, 1995
Sub-Genre: Sci-Fi/Thriller
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $42,000,000
Box Office: $7,900,000 (U.S.)
Running Time: 145 minutes
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Producers: James Cameron, Steven-Charles Jaffe
Screenplay: James Cameron, Jay Cocks
Special Effects: Gene Warren Jr., James S. Trois
Visual Effects: James Lima, Mat Beck,
Cinematography: Matthew F. Leonetti
Score: Graeme Revell
Editing: Howard Smith, James Cameron (uncredited)
Studio: Lightstorm Entertainment
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, Vincent D’Onofrio, William Fichtner, Glenn Plummer, Brigitte Bako, Richard Edson, Josef Sommer, Joe Urla, Nicky Katt, Michael Jace, Louise LeCavalier, David Carrera, Jim Ishida, Todd Graff, Malcolm Norrington, Anais Munoz


Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Lori Carson & Graeme Revell “Fall in The Light”

[2] Skunk Anansie “Selling Jesus”

[3] Juliette Lewis “Rid of Me”

[4] Prong “Strange Days”


It can be a real drag living in somebody else’s shadow, especially when that someone is self-proclaimed “king of the world” James Cameron. That has been precisely the case for Californian-born filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow. Married to Cameron from 1989 to 1991, Bigelow struggled to be recognized on her own merits as opposed to being the king of the world’s wife, despite bringing us Near Dark and Point Break amongst other high-points. That is until 2010, when both were nominated for Best Director gongs at the 82nd Academy Awards, and she stepped out onto the red carpet clutching her gold statue. It was the first time a female director had been honored by Oscar and she deserved her moment after proving that one’s sex need no longer dissuade accolade. Chances are, she’ll be remembered for The Hurt Locker when, the truth is, she had already rocked my world fifteen years prior.


Strange Days was generally well-received by critics although many credited co-screenwriter Cameron for being the real brains of the operation. Despite its warm reception, the public stayed away in their droves, leaving its $42 million budget never likely to be recouped. The exact reason why this didn’t generate with cinephiles isn’t clear although general consensus suggested that many found it a tad too confusing. Consequently, Bigelow’s sci-fi noir vanished from sight and was swiftly forgotten soon afterwards. I always knew it received an unreasonably rough ride but, a few dusks back, wired myself in for another playback and realized just how many tricks the general public missed out on.


Strange Days is a bona fide front-runner and actually wouldn’t look out-of-place sitting in the thick of Cameron’s slick résumé. When you consider that his flush spell consists of such behemoths as The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss, that’s some compliment and I’m ready to back that shit up too. You see, there exists a small window of opportunity at the commencement of any studio blockbuster whereby you can grab yourself an active audience and that is precisely what she does here. Most marathon runners leave it until the penultimate lap to make their final push but she goes all in at the starter’s pistol and sustains that primary rush for a further 145 minutes, rarely surfacing for air the whole time. It is a magnificent achievement and there are many reasons why she makes it all look so effortless.


Firstly, I would like to deal with whole confusion debate. Strange Days couldn’t actually be much more simple and any talk of being overly technical and convoluted is entirely inaccurate. Sure there are sub-plots, themes explored, and hardware introduced but ultimately it all boils up to a simple case of police brutality. It’s all dressed up in hi-tech swag and throws futuristic gadgetry into the mix, but that’s just a smokescreen for what’s really going down. The complexity comes from another source entirely and the screenplay from Cameron and Jay Cocks infuses the blend with numerous flavorsome and effervescent characters. Howard Smith’s dynamic editing (which Cameron also had a hand in) offers us precious little respite from having our receptors made love to by an endless stream of rhythmic optical candy.


“One man’s mundane and desperate existence is another man’s Technicolor.”

Takes us on a ride is what it does and that’s exactly what a movie should do. For 145 minutes, I want to be able to ignore the humongous arachnid flanking me from the left, pay no mind to the blazing drapes suggesting that it’s time to empty the ashtray, leave my cock and balls to recharge. Strange Days does precisely that and a bag of microchips. It introduces us to S.Q.U.I.D. (Superconductive QUantum Interference Device) technology and that’s more than enough reason to drop my firewall. Squidheads are a group of lost souls, searching for meaning in all the wrong places and I’m pretty sure I fit that particular bill. This bad boy is at the very summit of my Christmas list and Santa can poke his mince pies if one doesn’t arrive down my chimney come the festivities.


Imagine a device that allows you to replay any memory you see fit. It matters not if it isn’t your own as our voyeuristic curiosity, coupled with a simple Sony MiniDisc, makes for new-age dynamite. By jacking in, we afford ourselves another persona for a few pleasure-filled minutes, engaging in acts that ordinarily we wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. If your wish is to rob a bank then head on down to Lenny Nero and he’ll hook that shit up pronto. This guy is your ticket, your mommy, your daddy, your very own personal Jesus. He’s your pusherman! You want to fondle some titties and not have to explain the milky mustache to your wife, then step right up as Lenny will abide.


“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 you 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.”

The role of Lenny is pivotal to this film attaining classic status. Initially, many other leads were considered for this prestigious part. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, John Travolta, Kurt Russell, and other tasty morsels were in the melting pot but distinguished Brit Ralph Fiennes swooped in like a scraggly kestrel and stated his case for being Nero. It’s an unusual choice for sure and, what’s more, I like it. Fiennes has his work cut out making Lenny likeable as this dude takes self-obsession to a whole new level and can’t see the truth in his predicament as he’s too busy wiring in himself. Like any narcotic, S.Q.U.I.D. comes at a cost. The comedown is harsh as the last thing you want is to deal with reality when the virtual kind refrains from the nagging and told you so’s.


This is where any addicts amongst us will wire into Lenny’s nodes and I’m guilty as charged as being little more than a technological base head when any new buzz is proposed. Juliette Lewis fresh out the shower? Hook that shit up and, if that makes me a squidhead, then carve me into cubes and sell me at the Hong Kong markets. I’m fucking in. Moreover, I love you Lenny. I won’t by the time the buzz killers arrive but, right now, you’re my Jehovah. Fiennes is plutonium, fusing foolishness with smarts and blunder with intellect, he is impossible not to buy into.


“Friendship is more than one person constantly doing favors for another.”

Another strong presence comes in the form of Nubian princess Angela Bassett whose Mace is the kind of ballsy female character we would expect to find in Cameron’s best work. You want empowerment? Got it! Lornette ‘Mace’ Mason is nobody’s bitch but she’s got a soft spot for Lenny and it sits in her sodden haunch. This is too much heat for one man alone, especially when said alpha is lost and delirious, but Mace is on-hand to bail Lenny out whenever he gets in shoulders deep. Without her, Strange Days would lack a certain soul and her dazzling turn brings the very best out of her beloved Lenny and creates a euphoric synergy. Of course, as his only bankable voice of reason, she has to administer the occasional reality check and Cameron & Cocks are up to the challenge as her dialogue cuts straight to the core and does so unapologetically. A strong black woman like Bassett will eat that shit up until the bowl’s licked clean. She does and Mace proves an invaluable component.


It isn’t long before we meet Faith Justin (Lewis) without the S.Q.U.I.D. headset being necessitated and we can’t blame Lenny for still carrying a torch for this bolshy brunette bad girl. It’s just over six inches long and riddled with blue veins. That’s right, Lenny is soundly pussy whipped despite the fact that Faith persistently reminds him it is “o-ver”. The problem is that she is implicated in something untoward that compromises her security. No matter how much water has run beneath the bridge, you still feel obliged to offer shelter to those you love during a storm. Lenny can’t be blamed for not letting go as that would leave him facing up to grim reality again. What’s the point in that? I’d boot in to the S.Q.U.I.D. just like him and, if the free world came to an unforeseen end as a result, then we’d fuck like minks until the mushroom cloud loomed. That’s what the baby batter does to your brain. It fries your circuitry, leaving you well and truly poached but still grinning like an imbecile.


“The issue’s not whether you’re paranoid, Lenny, I mean look at this shit, the issue is whether you’re paranoid enough.”

What Lenny really needs is a guy to shoot the shit with and affable grease ball Max Peltier (Tom Sizemore) fits the description to the letter. Like Mace, Max is always on-hand when trouble comes knocking and offers free advice to Lenny simply because that’s what buddies do in a jam. Max is a private investigator and can help his friend stay one step ahead of the game by making a simple phone call. He is also both calm and collected which are two qualities Lenny is sorely lacking, especially now that Faith is in clear and present danger of being snuffed out. Problem is that Max is also on the payroll for big shot music producer Philo (a superb as always Michael Wincott).


“Paranoia is just reality on a finer scale.”

Philo is Lenny’s nemesis and the piece of shit responsible for stealing his beloved Faith away from him. He also manages controversial rapper and voice of the people Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), who has been mercilessly gunned down in what would appear to be a gangland crime, leaving public tensions at breaking point as the millennium festivities draw close. All of this drama has left Philo hampered by paranoia and this isn’t helped by his own addiction to jacking in. Meanwhile, corrupt cops Steckler (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Engelman (William Fichtner) are busy tying up any loose ends to Jeriko’s murder in an attempt to keep a lid on their own involvement and all threads lead directly back to Faith.


“Memories are meant to fade. They’re designed that way for a reason.”

If it is sounding a little perplexing by this point then allow me to set your racing minds at ease. Strange Days isn’t rocket science, it’s just that Cameron and Cocks write characters so goddamn well that everyone has their place and purpose. Strip them away and you’ll find a surprisingly straightforward crime thriller that also pays mind to the process of letting go. Lenny knows deep down that he has lost Faith but can still access her every time he boots in to S.Q.U.I.D. This makes it impossible for him to bid her adieu, even though every attempt to warn her of incoming peril ends in severely bruised ribs and another donated Rolex. Fiennes manages to command our sympathy, despite seemingly possessing all the scruples of a used-car salesman, and does so to such a degree that it’s hard imagining anybody else playing his part.


There are many reasons why Bigelow’s film gets it bang on the Washingtons. The setting is ideal, highlighting the turmoil of the last days of the twentieth century, while ensuring that her toxic sandbox remains recognizable and relatable, albeit in an advanced state of disarray. Technically it is spot-on and she grabs our attention from the very first taste, revealing a botched robbery and consequent evasion from our own perspective, thus placing us in the hot seat. We then remained jacked in as she pummels our senses with all manner of fluid frenzy. Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti supports her vision brilliantly, whipping up the chaos of Los Angeles at fever pitch as his lens plays the part of gorilla in our mist. Special mention must be made of Lewis too who sings all of her own songs and simply scintillates behind her mic stand like a thrusting fire hazard.


At 145 minutes, it may feel as though Strange Days is in danger of outstaying its welcome but not once in that time did I so much as glance at my own Rolex. While this is partially because Lenny sold me a dud, it is also indebted to the fact that, from the moment we boot in, our pleasure receptors are positively blazing. By the time we reach the big countdown, and 1999 is about to become a thing of the past, the celebrations are too intense to even contemplate leaving the party early. Which poses the question: is this perhaps the most overlooked science fiction movie in existence? Others may argue the toss but I would prefer to award this the perfect score it downright deserves and return to the millennium festivities.


“Cheer up. The world’s about to end in ten minutes anyway.”

My rationale behind awarding Bigelow’s film 10/10 is this: I spent the final hour of the last millennia laid up in bed alone while the fun and games continued downstairs. My knee conveniently popped out of joint at the least convenient moment, leaving me in agony as the century drew to a close and unable to celebrate the change over. Thanks to S.Q.U.I.D. technology, I am now able to replay this pivotal night and fill that shit with someone else’s recollections. Said memories come courtesy of Strange Days and I will always be grateful to Bigelow (and Cameron it needs to be said) for supplying us with one of the nineties’ true leading lights. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to boot straight back in. Lenny has hooked me up with a three-way.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10

Read Near Dark Appraisal

Read The Terminator Appraisal

Read Aliens Appraisal

Read A Scanner Darkly Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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