There’s a lot of sex in Strange Days. A lot of sex, and a lot of violence. Director Kathryn Bigelow and her screenwriter cronies James Cameron and Jay Cocks understand well that the sleekest new technology is immediately turned to the seediest purposes. Their protagonist, L.A. ex-cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), understands it too, and he’s the consummate salesperson for virtual sleaze, circa 1999. When Nero watches a potential client “jack in” — a contraband silver rig on top of the mark’s head wires the contents of a mini CD recorded with the full sensory experience of another person directly into his brain — he sports the sharp grin of a guy who loves the junk he’s dealing as much as the junkies do. After the client’s spent a few quality moments feeling himself up through his business suit, Nero cuts off his feed. “You were just an 18-year-old girl taking a shower,” he tells the client. And, of course, there’s more where that came from.
The filmmakers also understand that good help is hard to find. After he’s just played back a pornographic disc of a half-hearted lesbian encounter — from the point of view of one of the women, naturally — Nero coaches one of the two performers from the clip. “You should move your eyes a lot slower,” he explains. “Like you’re making love with your eyes.” The girl stares back at him silent and uncomprehending, her eyes a complete blank. Nero’s a lost romantic in the age of sensory overload.
The minidisc system is called SQUID, a charming acronym for Superconducting Quantum Interference Device. That’s just another way to say The Movies, for which SQUID is sort of a doublespeak stand-in. Nero is the director, who lives vicariously through the exploits of criminals and neo-porn stars as his own life moves in ever contracting circles. Among the clips in highest demand are the ones recorded in the most extreme of circumstances, like the botched robbery sequence that opens the film. The scene is one long take from a criminal’s p.o.v., and the event doesn’t end happily, which pisses Nero off. Nero doesn’t deal in “blackjack clips” — that’s snuff clips, the ones where some poor sucker winds up dead before it’s over.
The clips that Nero loves best, the ones he keeps in a shoebox back at his house, are home movies, full-sensory snippets from his life with Faith (Juliette Lewis), the girl who used to love him but now sings in a nightclub for sleazy music mogul Philo Gant (Michael Wincott). This shady circle of friends also includes a flunky named Max (Tom Sizemore), a tough cab driver named Mace (Angela Bassett) and a prostitute named Iris (Brigitte Bako). When Iris comes running to Nero, begging frantically for help, he shrugs her off. But the next day, when a blackjack disc of a particularly traumatic murder is anonymously delivered to him, Nero starts to wonder what Iris had to tell him that was so important, and whether he might be next in line.
What a kick — Strange Days is an action movie with real characters and uncommonly skillful actors. Ralph Fiennes as Nero is a real tragic hero, one who’s fallen from grace with his former employer (the L.A.P.D.) and his former lover. Fiennes is so damn likable in the role, he gives the scuzzball a fuzzy surface. Angela Bassett’s ass-kicking turn as Mace, the only woman who’s willing to stand by Nero through and through, is actually a secondary role, but she brings it straight to the fore and reinforces the star status she won in What’s Love Got to Do With It? Juliette Lewis gets to stretch out just a little, even though she’s once again typecast as a sexpot for scumbags (can’t she talk to her agent about this?). The supporting cast, which includes the chameleon-like Vincent D’Onofrio as a rogue cop, is excellent as well.
In very literal ways, Strange Days is a movie about sensory overload. If you see the movie in a house wired with digital sound and a big screen, it will undoubtedly get your blood flowing. Tellingly, in this age of bright lights and big sound, one character from the film is knocked into a coma when his SQUID unit is wired to over-amp the signals to his brain. Moreover, the interaction of people wearing the devices and crossing their own experiences with the playback amounts to a conceptual tour de force, with one experience informing another, brutality overlapping terror, and pleasure licking the heels of sadism. The single most punishing moment of Strange Days owes a specific debt to Michael Powell’s definitive treatment of voyeuristic pleasure, Peeping Tom (1960), and I could see couples huddling closer together and others slouching lower in their seats as a true high-tech perversion played itself out onscreen. Strange Days isn’t always an easy or pleasant film, and in the age of the easygoing bullet-laden blockbuster, it’s sobering to see a movie where representations of violence are, well, violent.
More to the point, Kathryn Bigelow cements her reputation as a stops-out action director who encourages audiences to keep their brains engaged as she steps on the pedal. I’m not a big fan of her ex-husband Cameron’s movies (they include Aliens and True Lies), but it’s hard to explain how his admittedly exhilarating approach to an action scene differs from Bigelow’s similarly expert tactics, which also work wonders. Maybe it’s her background as an artist that shapes these quick cuts into a montage that makes sense, or her intellectual fascination with the first-person point of view that shapes the SQUID sequences. You don’t have to be intellectually aware of how good she is at all of this to appreciate the sheer rush of the fast action, but the experience is heightened by her sure control of thematic concerns. And at any rate, this is miles ahead of her previous Point Break.
The special effects are so well done that they’re nearly unnoticeable, and aside from a couple of fireworks in the night sky over L.A., I can hardly remember what the digital effects shots were. The throbbing soundtrack, featuring the music of bands like Tricky and PJ Harvey (who might actually still be current in 1999), is a savvy, welcome switch from SF movies with pop soundtracks comprised exclusively of 70s retreads or bad techno. Despite a fairly contrived screenplay, Strange Days is altogether hip, slick, and wicked. What you get out of it it is probably proportionate to how much credence you’re willing to give it, and it seems that most folks will love it or hate it.
When the end credits started rolling, the crowd at Strange Days was fractured in a way I haven’t seen in a long time. There was spontaneous applause — that much you expect — but then the clapping hands were overwhelmed by a loud chorus of hisses. Couples left the theater engaged in heated arguments, and larger groups stood in the lobby afterward, flashing back to the movie’s most violent moments. One point of contention is the ending, and that’s definitely a cop-out. Any $40 million production has to be mediated by the aesthetic needs of a mass audience, but the tidy 15-minute denouement here is so at odds with the controlled chaos that brews for the first couple of hours that it leaves a bad taste.
All that having been said, what’s up on screen is still quite an experience. It is rare that a Hollywood blockbuster can encourage debate in a moviegoing audience, and rarer still that there might be something truly disturbing lurking under a high-gloss surface, but there is substance in Strange Days. Nero is the vessel for the knowledge it imparts, which has to do with sorting out desire, regret, and nostalgia and learning to make the best of this world. Like Nero, who has to learn to give up his aluminum-coated memories of what once was to live in the here and now, Strange Days struggles to come to terms with the relationship of memory to reality, the future to the present, and what could be to what is.