Strange Days is a disturbing dystopian vision of the near future from 1995. The anarchic 1999 Los Angeles it depicts is an over-the-top depraved riot of leather and goth and Sony MiniDiscs. With hindsight, it’s more dated than some of the films that inspired its aesthetic (e.g. Blade Runner, Escape from New York — well, ok, that one is a bit silly too). These flaws — more on the flaws later — are not what makes the film disturbing.
Kathryn Bigelow was inspired to make Strange Days by the Rodney King riots. A key element of the plot is racial unrest and rioting in the aftermath of the death of a socially outspoken hip-hop artist, and a cover-up of police misconduct. Protagonists Lenny (Ralph Fiennes with not the best American accent), an ex-cop turned black-marketeer, and Mace (Angela Bassett), a chauffeur and mom, have very different reactions to the evidence they uncover, reactions that will be distressingly familiar to people who have watched the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. this summer.
Bigelow is a perceptive director and has gone on to make award-winning films The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, but I didn’t have a great deal of esteem for Strange Days back in the Nineties. The core issues of racial politics and police abuse of power are obscured by so many subplots. On the one hand, Lenny is obsessed with his ex-girlfriend Faith, played by Juliette Lewis singing P.J. Harvey songs while wearing something that doesn’t really qualify as a dress. He’s also trying to manage his business selling illegal, addictive virtual reality minidiscs that people wire onto their heads and experience; the movie audience gets to experience them, too, in first-person perspective (think Bogart in the beginning of Dark Passage, but with more sex and violence; or, a few years after this, Being John Malkovich). His acquaintances are getting killed and Faith has a creepy music-kingpin boyfriend (Michael Wincott, who played a music producer in The Doors and a creepy kingpin in The Crow) and someone has been making VR films of himself horribly raping and murdering people and then sending the tapes to Lenny. And the millennium is coming, so even if Escape from L.A. and the Y2K Bug hadn’t yet sent everyone scurrying for the bunkers, Los Angeles has all sorts of raving and rioting crazies who are looking for a reason to send everything over the edge.
Amidst the chaos, Lenny and Mace have to confront the possibility that there is a horrible, wide-ranging conspiracy in the police force. Lenny has to get beaten up and Mace has to rescue him by totally pwning a dreadlocked Canadian ballet dancer who was probably the inspiration for those annoying characters in Matrix 2. Lenny and Mace have to argue about how to deal with the murders and the conspiracy and the creepy kingpin. Mace has to save Lenny’s hide many more times. The movie would probably have been a lot more memorable if it had ended a lot more horribly, but I won’t spoil it for you.
Despite its failures, Strange Days has a serious resonance today. Sony MiniDiscs, P.J. Harvey and leather pants may seem hopelessly dated. Unfortunately, police misconduct and racial discord sound fresh and timely. Watch this movie and weep for the last twenty years. Why couldn’t we have kept the pants and got rid of the violence?
Cast and Crew: Kathryn Bigelow (Director), James Cameron (Writer); Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Michael Wincott, Tom Sizemore, Vincent D’Onofrio
What It’s About: Prince’s 1982 song “1999” was not the last time someone in the twentieth century would wonder what it would be like to ring in the new millennium. Apparently, it was gonna be like Blade Runner and/or Total Recall.
Why Watch it Today?: The action of the film occurs across the dates December 30-31, 1999 and concludes as the ball drops on the new millennium. Sadly, 2014 has been marred by a great deal of violence involving killings by and of police. This dystopian fantasy inspired by the Rodney King riots that plays out awfully familiarly today.
Yes, the last film review of 2014 is a men in leather pants movie! Ralph Fiennes chooses between a variety of distastefully Nineties print shirts and ties, but apparently never takes off his leather pants. Previously: Hackers (1995).