Strange Days Film Retrospective: Party Like It’s ’99

Written by James Cameron, and directed by his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, Strange Days is a bizarre grungy steel punk vision of a dystopian world.

Set on New Year’s Eve 1999, there’s the promise of a cataclysmic social shift as the time counts down towards zero. The streets of LA are full of violence, gang bangers, and militarised police, and people are hooked on an illegal technology.

This technology allows them to tap into another person’s cerebral cortex, and live their lives briefly, sharing their emotions and actions viscerally. Users tap into sexual encounters, bank robberies, and general thrill rides that they otherwise would never experience.

A Kathryn Bigelow Film

Bigelow’s distinctive film making style is all over this sprawling sci-fi epic. From the gun battles, to the nineties cool of Ralph Fiennes’ lead character, this dated movie belongs to its uneasy social and political contexts.

Cameron, too, is inextricably tied to the story, with his imaginative narrative touches, and his by the book screenwriting that ensures that nothing is wasted. Strange Days is full of visual motifs, and call backs to dialogue from earlier in the film. It’s thoroughly enjoyable to watch, and there’s a certain cinematic language in the movie itself that’s missing from the realism of contemporary film.

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“Have you ever wire tripped?” Ralph Fiennes in Strange Days.

Fiennes plays Lenny Nero, ex-vice cop now deemed ‘the Santa Claus of the subconscious.’ He deals in cerebral experiences delivered via mini discs, giving users the reality that they crave. There’s definite nods to Philip K. Dick’s writing, and the films his work influenced. Fiennes seems to channel Harrison Ford from Blade Runner, via the paranoia of Linklater’s more recent film, A Scanner Darkly.

But the best part about Strange Days is its nineties style. The narrative is overly concerned with where technology is taking us, considering the dangers of living a meta real life. The digital world promises greater illusion and spectacle than the real one, but at what cost?

Nineties Paranoia and Optimism

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Juliette Lewis as Faith Justin, a grunge singer and Nero’s ex-girlfriend.

There’s some basic moralising and some uneasily written moments, but over all Strange Days is a forgotten ode to nineties paranoia and conversely its idealism too. With a grunge soundtrack, a great performance from Fiennes, supported by Juliette Lewis, and Tom Sizemore, Bigelow’s Strange Days reflects the best of her big budget brash film making style.

There’s more than a hint of Point Break, and Near Dark, but Strange Days stands out for its strong scripting, its focussed direction, and its excellent cinematography. It might not be the best example of nineties blockbuster action (Heat certainly vies for that title), but Bigelow’s film does manage to capture some of the decades existential angst within its lead character.

Police Corruption

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William Fichtner as a gun toting corrupt police officer in Strange Days.

The dominant story involves two corrupt police officers, and a shooting of an African American hip hop star (seemingly modelled on Tupac). Nero has access to a tape that could shed light on the incident, but he has to find it first. Meanwhile the police officers are on his tail, and they’re prone to extreme violence – something that Nero is woefully under equipped to handle.

There’s a secondary story, too. Fiennes’ black market, fast talking Lenny Nero, discovers that a murderer is jacking into people’s subconscious, before killing them. After the murderer threatens him, Nero is forced to fight for his life. His ex girlfriend, Faith Justin, is also a target, providing Nero with ample motivation to succeed.

But motivation may not be enough. In both of Nero’s quests, there’s a strong feeling that success is hopeless, and his survival improbable. He has no direction, no apparent skill set (he’s terrible at fighting), and he’s frequently saved by the women in his life. His journey is a deadly one, and it’ll take a lot for him to reach its conclusion intact.

Strange Days is a big budget action film, yet our hero isn’t indestructible. He’s flawed, seemingly destined to fail, but he fights on anyway. His motives are simple: self preservation, and the desire to save a girl. In many ways he’s a traditional hero, but there’s a darker side to his journey too. He’s corrupted by violence, forcing him to fight back however improbable his chances of success are.

Existential Hero

Perhaps this is a contextual thing. The nineties were boom years for Western society, and there were no clearly drawn external battle lines. So we had to look inwards for conflict. Both Nero and society at large in Strange Days are torn apart, destined for violence, depression, and paranoia.

Now our action films once more reflect our strength. Our heroes are indestructible, and they always win out. This makes Strange Days worth revisiting. It was a different time, and a different sort of cinema, that existed right in between the buddy cop/yuppie narratives of the eighties, and the bigger budget cynical realism of the early noughties.

Strange Days is a product of its time. There’s flashes of Tarantino in its editing and its reliance on monologue. Fiennes’ hero reminds me of Eric Stolz’s Zed from Roger Avery’s Killing Zoe,  thanks in part to his hapless and violent journey towards a sexy girl in distress. But that’s not to say that Bigelow’s film reflects masculine values, or old fashioned fairy tale motivations.

Saved By a Girl

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Angela Basset plays Mace Mason, Nero’s guardian angel.

Nero always runs in to trouble, and it’s the female characters that have to save him. Strange Days is still a man’s story, and the women mostly support Nero’s quest. But there’s the sense that times are changing, and Bigelow’s film never suggests that Nero will win out simply because of his gender.

Perhaps Strange Days follows on from Blue Steel, at least culturally, as Bigelow once more places women in the centre of her narrative. Of course, Strange Days isn’t a feminist film, and there’s a lot of traditional tropes and genre conventions at play. But it does seem to reflect a shift in the male gaze, something that has come full circle –  the latest Star Wars film passed the Bechedel test.

Strange Days isn’t a perfect film. It’s fun, and it reflects some of the best aspects of nineties blockbuster cinema. But it’s frequently cheesy, often absurd, and its value is best described as a great film to watch late at night. It isn’t a festive film but its setting, and its focus on New Year, make for a great seasonal addition.

Dystopian, Dark, and Lonely

Photographed with a distinctive nineties colouring, with dark late night scenes lit by bold vibrant neon lights, cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti lends the film a digital hue. Which is fitting. The composition reflects the narrative of the film, with its reliance on technology to craft experiences that surpass reality. Leonetti, a professional DOP who has worked on big budget film before and since, provides Bigelow with the aesthetic needed to place her narrative within a dystopian end of days context.

From bold party scenes full of colour, to bastardised dark alleyways lit by muzzle flashes; from sun drenched happy memories, to an insomniac’s dim late night apartment, Strange Days uses Leonetti’s composition to add to our understanding of Nero. He exists in the shadows, in a ‘no place’, constantly craving the light from the visceral escapism that his mini disc library provides.

Sick of Home Alone, The Santa Clause, and Elf? Put Strange Days on. Revisit the halcyon days. Reacquaint yourself with the atomised heroes lost amongst the paranoia and optimism of the mid nineties. Avoid the remake of Point Break, and watch Strange Days instead. This isn’t Bigelow’s finest work, but it is a fitting ode to her distinctive film making style.

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