(Dir: Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)
"The question is not whether you're paranoid... it's whether you're paranoid enough".
This quote feels like the credence of Strange Days, a film perpetually overlooked as a mid-nineties classic. It was released at a time of impending technological wonder and freak-out, alongside the likes of Hackers, The Net and Virtuosity, but whereas that trio of films veered towards trashy entertainment and a caution that the internet could not just ruin your life but unleash a digital serial-killing Russell Crowe, Strange Days has always felt like it's imbued with something more. A fear of something big impending. A fear of how our history is inescapable.
Forward looking by only five years, but still enough to earn the tag of near future sci-fi, it's primary plot driver concerns a technology capable of recording and fully playing back human experience. The SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) is worn on a users head, usually concealed under a wig or hat, recording onto mini-disc like "clips" all the sensory elements of that moment's experience ready for playback. Be it running along a beach or committing an armed robbery, everything is experienced in full first person perspective, as if the viewer is living it.
The idea behind this tech is fascinating. Surely we all live in a world where we'd love to experience things as other people do, not just for the alternative viewpoint but to live vicariously; to do things you never could or never would. Imagine if memories were not a hazy thought when you close your eyes but something you can relive over and over. How would that mean you approach life? Does everything you record thus need to be special or would you feel like you don't need to create new memories because you can live forever in the ones you already have? At the very least this seems to be what's afflicting lead character Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) who can only hope to lose himself in these recorded memories of Faith (Juliette Lewis) as every attempt of winning her back from sleazily controlling Philo Grant (Michael Wincott) becomes increasingly detrimental to his health. Inevitably in this world the film has created, this tech is illegal.
From a societal standpoint, the setting of the film is critical. Set in the final days of the millenium as the clock is ready to tick over, there's a sense of fear and pending jubilation. The Los Angeles we see on film is ready to implode, with chaos seeming to rule on the streets, where violence eventually bleeds into ecstatic celebration. It's as if society can't believe it's actually survived this far and is still going, but the crossing of this threshold is the perfect time to reset the clock and wash away past transgressions. As it builds and eventually happens there's hope that it could be a genuine turning point, and the celebration we see on screen imbues this in us.
But can we really buy into the hope that things will change? The allusions to the Rodney King killing and the riotous incension of the public towards such tragic racism suggest that in this one city alone, there's a lot more to change than can be perpetuated by this one event. Everybody feels like they're on the edge and it could go either way. Technologically speaking there was always a fear of what 2K meant (the Millenium bug for example), but in Strange Days it's more in the vein of what are the implications of everything potentially being recorded in a way that's relivable? How does this technology empower a serial killer, or cause the police to react when they find out they've just been filmed crossing so far over the line that there's no way back? Sometimes technology is just a new way to make things worse. And yet eighteen years later we're now at a point where police are wearing cameras to put evidence beyond doubt, whilst people wear them for life logging. And what about Google Glass? It's taken time but this vision of the future is getting close, sensory recreation aside.
Fiennes holds everything together. Nero is an antihero, a black market dealer of clips, the magic man, the Santa Claus of the subconscious. He's a chancer who gets by abusing the good grace of his friend Mace (Angela Bassett) and forever living on the the edge of a beating or repossession of his life. Why should we care? His pathetic obsession with Faith, who clearly doesn't want him anymore, suggests this is probably the only true connection he's had with someone. Somewhere along the way he became damaged and his vivid reliving of memories show a world far away from the combustion that surrounds him. The well-weaved story by James Cameron throws him into a situation where it appears his world may crumble and we can but root for him as in reality he's just a misguided fool. Typical of Cameron, Mace is a strong female character who begrudgingly puts up with Nero's shit because she feels she owes him, whilst Lewis plays Faith in her usual manner of unrestrained intensity and sexuality. It's almost difficult to see why Nero's so ensnared by her. Philo by comparison just seems to care about power and so that means she is his, as Wincott's mellifluous purr make it difficult not to be entranced.
In recent years Kathryn Bigelow has been lauded for The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, but by Strange Days she was coming off the fantastic run of Near Dark, Blue Steel and Point Break, with this fitting neatly into the slightly edgy but always superbly executed and visualised style she had set out before her. The breathless first person perspective scenes are testament to that for instance. It's difficult to imagine how a different director might've handled this story because she provides the necessary balance between social commentary, thriller, darkness and dystopian cyberpunk. I don't think Cameron himself would've done a better job. Strange Days may not be a revolutionary film, but it offers a thrilling and intelligent incision into a society raw from it's recent history and a fear of a new technology that could possibly set them free. This sets Strange Days apart as a piece of high quality filmmaking that incredibly remains a truly under-appreciated nineties classic.