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Strange Days is one of those films more people have heard about than seen. “That cyberpunk film with Ralph Fiennes” is how I usually hear it summed up. Though this 1995 movie has quite a pedigree – written by James Cameron, directed by Kathryn Bigelow – it did not do well in the theater. When I saw it recently, I could see why; Strange Days is a mostly-courageous, mostly-creative film that mostly ignored popular trends.
Seen now, one can see the audacity, and though there are flaws of the “mostly” variety, there’s much to take away.
The Hollow Man
In 1999, right before the end of the millennium, ex-cop Lenny is busy selling the ultimate high – people’s recorded memories. A recording technology called SQUID, once meant for police work, now serves as a way to relive people’s experiences. A bustling underground in other’s lives emerged, and the sleazy-but charming Lenny is ready to make a buck.
When we meet Lenny (Ralph Finnes), he’s reliving the memories of a crime someone else committed – another high on a portable disk. We soon realize his entire life is trading memories, some contracted for, some sold, all with a market. He relishes his role as a merchant of dreams, even if a little bit of con and trickery is needed.
But Lenny’s life and joy are as false as his fake designer watches. When not trading for experiences, he keeps reliving his life with his former girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis). She’s moved on to live with eccentric but powerful music producer Philo (Michael Wincott), while Lenny keeps reliving the same days off of a disk. His life is just a loop of other people’s memories and his recorded ones.
The film explores Lenny slowly and has a rare quality – the courage to explore a concept. The SQUID is the only difference between our worlds, and our gateway to Lenny’s world is Lenny. By seeing his life – and his addiction – we get a natural feel for the impact of technology on people.
Of course, Lenny, is missing a lot of what’s going on.
A Small Man In The Big Picture
Lenny’s world is a small one of recordings, sales, and his two friends. Detective Max (Tom Sizemore, as charmingly sleazy as Fiennes) helps him with cons and provides information. Bodyguard and driver Mace (an incredible Angela Bassett) provides transport and muscle, as well as common sense. They also help him navigate the larger world – and his problems because Lenny is a damaged man.
The Los Angeles of the film is damaged as well and all too believable. Police brutality is a constant, and communities conflict. The murder of a famous Rapper on Philo’s label threatens to set the city aflame. One can almost understand why Lenny finds customers – who wouldn’t want to escape? Lenny’s own withdrawal and delusions seem entirely sensible.
Lenny may be trying to escape himself, but he can’t escape after consuming a random memory disk someone dropped in his car.
Hell Is Other People
The memories Lenny finds are of a brutal rape and murder of a prostitute in his circle – from the killer’s view. These scenes are disturbing, raw, and ugly – and pumped straight into Lenny’s mind.
Though these vicious memories are horrible on screen, they’re made more horrible by seeing Lenny’s reaction. We jump-cut between the POV murder and Lenny’s horrified expression as he cries and tries to make sense of what he’s living. We do not just see what is going on, Fiennes makes us feel what is going on and what he is experiencing.
Despite the disturbing nature of this sequence, the courage of the film is on display here. First, the film extrapolates how a sick mind might use the technology. We’ve seen Lenny’s customers buy sex or POV robberies, but now we’re forced to reckon with how far people may go. It’s not hard to look at this scene and say, “Yes, people would do this. Yes, they would pay for it.”
But just as – or more – courageous is the scene comes off as a critique of POV Slasher movies. Often these films put people in the shoes of the killer as they go about their gruesome business. Through Lenny – and Fiennes’s performance – he experiences the killer’s mind and how disgusting it is.
Lenny, the dealer of a modern-day electronic drug, has just had the ultimate bad trip.
An Erratic Path
The film follows Lenny, Max, Mace, and the others as they deal with the city on edge, the question of the murder, and their own problems. At this point, summing up the film is both difficult but would also spoil too much.
It would spoil too much because, at heart, this is a kind of murder-mystery film. It is the kind of movie – like a human memory – you have to experience to see the winding path and where it goes. Without spoiling, let us say it is like life – some things are dramatic when small, and some dramatic things turn out to be illusions. Strange Days isn’t afraid to be messy or disappoint you appropriately.
Unfortunately, the difficulty in explaining the film is that sometimes the film overexplains. The film’s courage gives out in parts, where you don’t have slow revelations but large infodumps. These are not as satisfying, and I could easily give away huge parts in a few sentences – because that’s how the film does it.
The ending ends up both exciting and disappointing. There are believable ugly and beautiful plot twists, next to feel-good tropes and violence out of an opera. For all it’s courage, too many parts near the end seem contrived to be audience-pleasers. These parts are in stark contrast to the film’s, gritty, messy mood – Lenny’s world isn’t clean, and neither should the end of his tale be.
Seventy-Five Percent Courageous
Though I am critical of parts of the film, I have to applaud the sheer commitment to its core ideas for most of the movie. The film is willing to extrapolate on technology. The story is messy in most of the right splots because life is messy. There are elements that I cannot see people being brave enough to include today.
I may critique the film, but that’s because it only falters when it loses that courage that infuses so much of it. The film feels easy in so many ways, sprinting forward with its ideas horrible and wonderful, so when it trips, you feel the jolt. I’ll take courage most of the time over cowardice predominating.
None of my critiques are directed at the cast, who are uniformly excellent. Fiennes is absolutely believable as Lenny. Basset’s Mace is a real bad-ass. You can feel the cast’s courage, and indeed they carry the film when it’s bravery isn’t apparent.
Stumble Towards Greatness
The lesson that stays with me from the film is that in creativity, courage always beats cowardice. Even partial courage is better when it predominates. This film may not have done well at the box office, but it has been re-evaluated in time, and that validates the flawed bravery of the movie.
Much like its protagonist, the film is imperfect and has shallow moments, but it does keep going. If you don’t stop, maybe you get to a place that’s better.