Strange Days (1995) Review

Strange Days has plenty to say about the present day too.

Long before she became the queen of clinically detached but nerve-shreddingly tense true-life docudrama, Kathryn Bigelow directed this vastly underrated, far-sighted techno-thriller. Now finally released on BluRay, it’s time, from the bizarre present day of 2017, to reappraise the Strange Days of 1995.

Lenny Nero, a former cop turned street hustler makes a living dealing in SQUIDs: recordings of the wearer’s memories and physical sensations. But when a friend of his is murdered, Lenny discovers a SQUID recording made by the killer, drawing him into a conspiracy involving the LAPD as the city teeters on the brink of anarchy on the eve of the millennium.

Written and produced by James Cameron, “Strange Days” paints a bleak picture of the end of the 20th century. Filmed almost entirely at night, this Los Angeles of 1999 is a grimy, neon smeared post-industrial nightmare. So far, so cliché, but it’s the conceit of the SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ) that gives the film its edge. A prescient glance into humanity’s future, it’s a dark and brutal satire of the rise of social media and VR, especially those ‘live’ broadcasts through Facebook or Periscope. Although the sharing of personal thoughts and experiences is more visceral than we have the technology to do today, “Strange Days” absolutely nailed the fact that the drug of choice for the 21st century would be narcissistic nostalgia and vicarious voyeurism.

Deliberately dark and violent – the film was directly inspired by the Rodney King tapes – Bigelow expertly blends techno-thriller stylings with noir tropes to produce an edgy and provocative cocktail, powered by some cracking performances. Ralph Fiennes is great as Lenny the sleazy SQUID broker, selling illicit thrills recorded by his network of pimps and dealers within his own warped ethical framework. He’s backed up by Angela Bassett in fierce, ass-kicking mode as bodyguard and limo driver “Mace” Mason.

The film doesn’t shy away from themes such as racism, abuse of power, rape and even touches on gender and sexual fluidity but manages not to make the more explicit scenes gratuitous or exploitative, thanks to Bigelow’s presence behind the camera.

An antecedent of films such as “Memento”, the unfolding of the conspiracy through piecing together the memories of those involved gives “Strange Days” a satisfying mystery at the heart of all the nihilistic pre-dystopian urban decay and there’s enough twists and turns to satiate even the most demanding thriller fan.