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Strange Days: Memories, Murder and Mayhem

Updated: Oct 25, 2022


Mace (left) and Lenny (right) offer differ moral perspectives in Strange Days.

WHAT is the impact of new technology on society? How does it change human perception? These are the questions asked by Strange Days - a stylish and violent mixture of sci-fi and film noir made by director Kathryn Bigelow. When I first saw this film as an 18-year-old it made an impact on me, which inevitably faded. Watching it again for a second time, the movie has left a far more lasting impression.


Released by 20th Century Fox in 1995, Strange Days is set on New Year’s Eve 1999 in an LA on the brink of collapse and suffering racial tension, crime and a militarised police force. It’s the brainchild of Terminator director James Cameron, written by Jay Cocks and brought to life in intense, uncompromising fashion by Bigelow.


Revelling in LA’s seedy underbelly is low life with a heart Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), who deals in illegal SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) technology. Innovative and voyeuristic, SQUID records an individual’s experiences onto portable disks, which allow others to relive them when they ‘jack in.’ Lenny wheels and deals through LA’s seedy underbelly, selling illicit sleazy memories on the black market. He’s a man with barely any moral compass but has his limits - he doesn’t deal in ‘playbacks’ showing death. But for all his bravado, he’s a broken-hearted fool seeking refuge in old memories of ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis).


The convoluted plot features a killer and the execution of politically engaged rapper Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) by rogue police officers. SQUID ties together the tangled themes of racism and societal breakdown. Strange Days warns of the damage caused by the public’s obsession with watching others, which has grown exponentially in the 27 years since its release. For the audience, ‘jacking in’ is an experience which is filtered through the perceptions of the original memory’s owner and Lenny, whose visceral reactions add a further layer of commentary. Bigelow’s team developed lightweight cameras and used clever editing to create seamless memories shot in the first-person perspective. The unflinching tone is set from the start in a scene which apes reality TV show Cops, when we see a criminal falling to his death after a botched robbery.


The implications of SQUID tech are raised to unbearable levels when we witness the horrific rape and killing of young a woman from the perspective of the murderer. In a grotesque upping of the ante, the victim sees her torture through the eyes of her murderer. It’s a powerful moment, which provokes a physical and emotional revulsion (I had to take a break before continuing to watch the film). The audience’s abhorrence is reflected in Lenny – whose disgust emphasises the director’s intended impact. In an interview with The Christian Scientist Monitor from 1995, Bigelow explains her reasoning for the scene:


"The answer is not to shield one's vision and cut oneself off from awareness. There's nothing more dangerous than lack of awareness."


Twenty-seven years since its release, Strange Days seems prescient, but its warnings have also been superseded. Sex, misogyny and violence are found easily online. Our hyper-connected world is more terrifying than the film’s makers could have predicted; when tragedies such as the Christchurch Mosque massacre are live streamed to a potential audience of billions instantaneously you know something is deeply wrong with our relationship to tech. The film is a metaphorical slap in the face for modern audiences and allows us to lift our heads out of the digital deluge to see the danger it poses. Hobbs (2020) argues the movie remains important because modern society – like Lenny and his friends – is trying to fix society by “altering our reckless relationship with technology.” By the end, Nero’s SQUID addiction is broken, which is a moment of cathartic relief for those watching now as we cope with the consequences of a digital world running amok.


Nero is rescued by the movie’s only hero and moral core - Lornette ‘Mace’ Mason - played with muscular sincerity by Angela Bassett. Mace was part of a new wave of female action hero who broke through in the 1990s (Mirasol, 2010). Her sense of right and wrong delivers a message of hope. Race plays an important role in Strange Days, with Bigelow influenced by the Rodney King incident in 1991, when LAPD officers were videotaped beating an unarmed black man. The impending new century has generated contrasting emotions. While the white population – embodied by Nero’s friend Max (Tom Sizemore) – assume the end is nigh, the black community see it as a hopeful moment (Hulktrans, 1995).


For all its chutzpah, Strange Days is far from perfect: its message is diluted by stereotypical outdated characters and a nonsensical plot. Made for £42m, it bombed at the box office and earned just £8m worldwide (IMDB). Perhaps audiences were put off because it forced them to ask difficult questions or just found it too shocking. However, if the test of a good sci-fi film is that it becomes more relevant with age, then Bigelow’s movie passes with flying colours. What’s most shocking is that the ills the movie tackled in the 90s are still with us today. This time, I suspect, Strange Days will stay with me for a long time.


References


Hobbs, T. (2020) The Sobering Prescience of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days. Available at: https://lwlies.com/articles/strange-days-kathryn-bigelow-technology/ (Accessed: 30 January 2022).


Hulktrans, A. (1995) Andrew Hulktrans in a 1995 Conversation with Kathryn Bigelow. Available at: https://www.artforum.com/film/andrew-hultkrans-in-a-1995-conversation-with-kathryn-bigelow-25103 (Accessed: 30 January 2022).


Mirasol, M. (2010) Kathryn Bigelow’s uncanny “Strange Days,” by Michael Mirasol of the Philippines. Available at: https://www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/kathryn-bigelows-uncanny-strange-days-by-michael-mirasol-of-the-philippines (Accessed: 1 February 2020).


Sterritt, D. (1995) ‘Strange Days’ Probes the Import of Vicarious Living. Available at: https://www.scribbr.co.uk/referencing/harvard-website-reference/ (Accessed: 7 February 2022).


Further Reading


Wikipedia: Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strange_Days_(film) (Accessed: 30 January 2022).


IMDB: Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114558/. (Accessed: 1 February 2022).


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