What: On the cusp of the year 2000, the city of Los Angeles is rampant with crime and the racial tension on the streets is about to explode. Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is a former cop turned peddler of a new drug that has hit the streets, a virtual reality device taken from a SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) recording and played back to the user by way of a Walkman-type “deck.” The user experiences the recording, taken from the real experiences of other people, and witnesses what’s going on first hand, as though it’s happening to them. When an incriminating “tape” falls into Lenny’s hands with the potential of bringing down the social structures tenuously holding the city in place, he and professional bodyguard Mase (Angela Basset) face gunfire and an ethical dilemma while the city threatens to tear itself apart.
Who: Future Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow directs this just barely science fiction premise based on a story by mega-director James Cameron (her ex-husband, even at the time of this film’s release). Co-written by James Cameron and Jay Cocks (who worked on Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York). The film stars Ralph Fiennes (Quiz Show, In Bruges, The English Patient, the Harry Potter films), Angele Basset, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, and other mainstays of 90s cult movies, like Michael Wincott (The Crow) and Glenn Plummer (Showgirls)
When: Strange Days was released in the fall of 1995. Despite the name recognition of both Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break) and James Cameron (just coming off the successes of Terminator 2 and True Lies), the film failed to make back a fraction of its budget, taking in $7 million at the domestic box office against its $42 million production cost.
The film was given a mixed reception, too, with many reviewers praising its ambition but disappointed by its reliance on pyrotechnics. However, Roger Ebert gave it a glowing four-star review at the time of its release.
The Saturn Awards took notice to the tune of two wins from five nominations. Kathryn Bigelow won for Best Director and Angela Basset took home Best Actress for her work as Mase. Ralph Fiennes was nominated for Best Actor (losing to George Clooney in From Dusk Till Dawn), James Cameron & Jay Cocks were nominated for Best Screenplay (losing to Andrew Kevin Walker for Seven) and the film as a whole was nominated for Best Science Fiction Film (losing to 12 Monkeys).
Why You Should Check It Out: Most times, when you say a film is incredibly dated, that spells certain doom when doling out a recommendation to watch it. With Strange Days, however, it’s what makes the whole thing interesting. The disgustingly 90s techno-pop awfulness that is the soundtrack (with the exception of a fantastic Deep Forest and Peter Gabriel song at the end credits) marries perfectly with the film’s intent to show us the demilitarized zone that is Los Angeles in the year 1999 if something like the Rodney King riots hadn’t eased up. This tension looms large over the film as the whole mystery of the plot, which at one moment is hinged on this overarching sense of Y2K paranoia, is revealed to be an issue of the social institutions our country is founded upon. The problems we face are not so big as we make them out to be, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t overwhelmingly complex. It’s a film that’s so thoroughly centralized on the fears of a certain point in time yet surprisingly still relevant in that it attempts to cover the very same problems we are still dealing with as a nation to this day.
Why You Should Maybe Skip It: If you’re a believer that a film should just get to the point, then Strange Days might infuriate you. Its bloated running time, at 145 minutes, could have been pared down. The numerous instances of prolonged exposition into the film’s “new” drug technology, which isn’t so different than something along the lines of Virtual Reality, could have been taken out entirely in lieu of just showing what the drug does and how it affects the user. Also, some of the characters that add to the film’s bloat, like Juliette Lewis as Faith, the ex-lover our main character still pines for, do nothing but bog the film down in melodrama at certain points.
In a Nutshell: Strange Days is a suspenseful action-thriller that delivers, even if it spends too much time explaining itself.
Check out the film’s teaser trailer.
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