The first hurdle Strange Days has to jump is the fact that its version of the future is built around incredibly dated elements. I personally find it fascinating to look at interpretations of the future from different decades, but there will be many who will find the idea that this movie’s plot revolves around technology as antiquated as a MiniDisc. But even if Kathryn Bigelow’s futuristic noir is antiquated in more than its technology – its costumes and soundtrack scream mid-nineties – the movie remains sadly relevant in some of its racial politics. Indeed, Strange Days has a subversive core; one that protests the targeting of black people by police and the militarization of law enforcement, but is frustratingly buried underneath a pretty stupid mystery plot.
So, the movie revolves around a MiniDisc device that can record footage through a person’s eyes. The technology was developed for the police, but has quickly infiltrated the black market thanks to people who are addicted to the thrilling visions these artifacts provide. One of such junkies is Lenny (Ralph Fiennes), who is not only a consumer, but one of the most prominent dealers of these clips, and also an ex-cop. Set in 1999, the movie opens only a few days away from the new millennium. Lenny starts his night trying to make some good deals when he receives a mysterious clip in which he sees his prostitute friend Iris (Brigitte Bako) get murdered. Lenny pretty quickly senses that there is more to this murder than meets the eye, and enlists the help from his limo-driver friend Mace (Angela Bassett) as he tries to protect his ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis) and get to the core of the scary conspiracy that is revealing itself around him.
It’s a familiar film noir set-up, which works as a starting point, but ends up being the movie’s weakest element thanks to a very unsatisfactory explanation of what lies behind the mysterious plot. It doesn’t help that Lenny is a very unoriginal protagonist – he is presented as the sly antihero with a haunted past that has headlined countless action thrillers. The screenplay is also inconsistent about Lenny’s attributes, which I think contributes to what is a very uncomfortable performance from Fiennes, who already had his plate full trying to pull off an American accent.
Thankfully, we have Bigelow’s keen eye for directing to counterbalance the weak script (which by the way was co-written by the director’s husband at the time James Cameron and Jay Cocks). The most memorable visual stylization in the film are the sequences in which we see the illegal MiniDisc recordings. They presented to us in unbroken takes, from a virtual reality-type first-person perspective. The camera work in those sequences is pretty ingenious, especially considering the stunts and fight choreography elements that go into them. But that’s not it, beyond these sequences, Bigelow gives the movie an accelerated, high-adrenaline pacing (perhaps to compensate for the movie’s 145 minute running-time?), and most importantly, does some pretty interesting things with the imagery that goes into the movie’s main subplot.
I would describe Lenny’s whole mystery plot as mediocre. The true intellectual, and subversive, pleasures of Strange Days are to be found in the Mace character. First of all, she is played by Angela Bassett – which is already enough to make her my favorite part of the film – and while Bassett can be a little too earnest in Mace’s most dramatic moments, she is an absolute beast during the action sequences, which she injects with the gravitas only an actor with her absurd levels of screen presence could pull off. Bigelow certainly seems to know this, shooting the hell out of any moment that involves Bassett punching, kicking, shooting, or simply giving someone a verbal piece of reality.
I single Mace out not only because of Bassett’s terrific work, but because her character is the one most closely connected to the movie’s racial politics. With its illegal recording conceit, Strange Days was weirdly foreseeing much of the political debate we would have this and last year. There are elements of police brutality, racial profiling, and the paranoid thread on the part of law enforcement of being secretly recorded while abusing their power. Sadly, the filmmakers seem to have been unwilling to fully go into the more incendiary aspects of this discourse, as much of “the people vs. the police” narrative is undercut by the movie’s stupid explanation of what actually went down behind Lenny’s mysterious recording. But even then, Strange Days is full of insurgent imagery, such as the moment when Bigelow cuts from the police shooting on a crowd of innocents to fireworks going off in the Los Angeles skyline.
There is a great movie somewhere within Strange Days. Who knows what the reason behind the burying of such a radically necessary message behind a generic murder plot was (a product of the time? commercial appeal?), but even then, the movie deserves to be remembered as more than a dated nineties take on the future, even if, in a way, it is also that.