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Truly Great Movies – Strange Days

March 9, 2010

All hail Kathryn Bigelow – the first female winner of Best Director in Oscar history. Before The Hurt Locker, she directed an intriguing, thoughtful sci-fi tale – Strange Days.  If you haven’t seen this undiscovered 1995 gem – rent it ASAP before Bigelow’s win makes it unavailable in the Netflix queue.

“I am the magic man. I am your link to the subconscious. I have what you want. I can get you what you can’t have.” – Lenny (Ralph Fiennes) in Strange Days

Strange Days, released in 1995, functions on one level as a deceptively simple action story.  There’s a murderer on the loose, and he must be caught.  In a different director and writer’s hands, this film could have stayed as mundane and pedestrian as just that.  Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer James Cameron, however, know that this murder subplot is merely a springboard to launch the viewer into a near-future world full of complex themes about race relations, the power of addiction, and the slavery of technology.

It is the dawn of the new millenium (several days before 2000 arrives), and Cameron and Bigelow’s Los Angeles of 1999 is corrupt and virtually a military state.  99% of Strange Days’ scenes take place at night, when the underworld is exposed. 

 One of this night world’s biggest profiteers is Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes),  who deals in illegal “playback”, virtual reality recordings that plunge the viewer into someone else’s pre-recorded world.  These are played back (as well as recorded) by wearing a device known as a SQUID, which can be carefully concealed under a wig or hat.   Playback that deals with murder or mutiliation is known as “blackjack”.  Lenny’s one nobility is that he refuses to peddle “blackjack”.  He’s a former LA PD officer, and as a result of the brutality he’s seen, it’s no wonder.

Lenny and Mace

Lenny, in the grand tradition of Tony Montana, is not just a dealer, he’s his own best customer.  He’s obsessed with his ex-girlfriend, the ironically named Faith (Juliette Lewis), who is now under the thumb of a seedy record producer.  She’s a singer hoping for a record deal, but functions as arm candy just out of Lenny’s reach.  Lenny spends most of his free time viewing playback of the days when he and Faith were just an average couple.  His fate will cross with Faith’s again as he tries to uncover a murderer.

Lenny’s best friend is the limo driver Mace (Angela Bassett) , who is a single mother.  She and Lenny met when Lenny arrested her former husband.  Mace has seen Lenny go from upstanding cop to low-life smut peddler (Mace refuses to try playback, calling its afficionados “wireheads” who can’t live in reality).  She sticks by him, but wants him to remember the man he used to be.  She has her own reasons for doing so.

The main plot stems from a piece of “blackjack” Lenny receives from a hooker named Iris, who happens to be a friend of his ex-girlfriend Faith.  This playback shows the brutal murder of a black recording artist and activist, Jeriko One, at the hands of the LA PD.  It’s a timebomb waiting to happen.  Along the way, Lenny and Mace must find a murderer.  What’s even more important however, is the corruption that this playback could uncover.  With LA already distintigrating into chaos, what is more important: doing the “right” thing, or keeping control of  a rapidly fraying community?

Bigelow’s direction and Cameron’s script , as well as the key performances byFiennes and Bassett, make the movie watchable well after  2000 has come and gone.  Strange Days is long, complex and at times uncomfortable to watch.  This is part of what makes it such a truly great movie.  Addiction (even if to the seemingly innocent use of technology) and its power to control and deceive is a potent theme which is perhaps even more relevant today than it was in 1995.

New Year's Eve Finale

Bigelow’s use of first-person shots in showing the playback scenes is vital to the film’s success as a tense and powerful thriller.  Yes, the movie has a message, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it (unlike Cameron’s current box office triumph, Avatar).  It’s a shame Strange Days didn’t connect with audiences in 1995.  Perhaps they just weren’t willing to put in the effort it takes to wrap the brain around all that the movie wants its viewer to uncover.  Are you up to the challenge?

Strange Days Trailer:

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2010 2:02 pm

    Well said Great information, keep up the great work!

  2. March 10, 2010 11:17 am

    Awesome info, do you have a twitter for ur site? I want to follow you so I know when you update.

  3. March 23, 2010 4:10 am

    Come on guys post some comments this is a good article! Where is everybody?

  4. December 25, 2010 3:05 pm

    Sounds very good one. Gotta watch it. Very Neuromancer inspired… 😛

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