Wednesday, March 4, 2015

CYBERPUNK REVISITED: Strange Days (1995)

Dossier: Bigelow, Kathryn, Strange Days (Twentieth Century Fox, 1995).

Filetype: Film.

File Under: Cyberpunk derivative (strong).

Executive Summary: Strange Days takes place in Los Angeles on the eve of Y2K (insert joke here). Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is an ex-cop (booted off the force for some unclear reason) who now peddles virtual reality “jack tapes” (actually minidiscs) in Hollywood nightclubs. In his off time he watches “tapes” he made himself while he was together with Faith (Juliette Lewis). Problem is, some ill shit is going down--the murder of rapper and anti-LAPD activist Jeriko One (Glenn Plumber) is all over the news, and Nero intuits a connection to Jeriko’s producer, who happens to be Faith’s sketchy new boyfriend, Philo Gant (Michael Wincott)--a connection that may endanger his beloved Faith. So he recruits ass-kicking limo driver “Mace” (Angela Basset) and schlubby private eye Max Peltier (Tom Sizemore) to follow down a dark trail of murder, conspiracy and betrayal, hoping to find the killer before the city explodes.

High-Tech: Most of the technology in Strange Days comes straight out of the mid-1990s--CRT televisions, landlines, minidiscs, cars with oval windows, etc. The one difference is that, instead of crack and heroin, people looking to get high attach a “squid” (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) to their head and play “tapes” of other people’s (or one’s own) experiences recorded with said squid. Like the simstim technology in Neuromancer (from which the concept is lifted wholesale), the viewer enjoys the full sensory experience of the recorder. However, do it too much and your brain gets fried, man.  

Low-Life: As mentioned above, Nero is a small time “jack” peddler, and is pretty much resented, despised or condescended to by everyone else in the film. Despite having once been a cop, Nero isn’t a tough guy, so he uses quick wits and a quicker tongue to save his ass from getting beat down. And the threat is near-constant--Hollywood in Strange Days is pretty much like the real Hollywood, in the sense of being grimy and crime-ridden, only amplified--there’s even a scene where Santa gets mugged. (Santa! Can you imagine that? Oh the humanity!) Plus most of the film takes place in seedy Hollywood’s even-seedier underbelly--nightclubs, strip clubs, dive bars, run-down apartment buildings, trash-strewn alleys and so forth. So yeah--we’re securely in neonoir territory here.

Dark Times: In real life, after the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King by members of the LAPD and the rioting that occurred in the aftermath of the officers' acquittal, the LAPD and city authorities enacted a series of reforms, began engaging more with local and civic leaders and worked to soften their approach and image. Though there are still lots of ongoing problems, I think most Angelenos would agree that community relations have gotten a lot better since hitting rock bottom in 1992. The Los Angeles depicted in Strange Days, by contrast, is one in which the LAPD and city authorities took the opposite message from the riots, and doubled-down on heavy-handed repression. There are near constant images of riot police beating the crap out of random people. And since people have had it, there are also near constant images of shit on fire.

Legacy: Strange Days is probably one of the better examples of virtual reality in film, but since there hasn’t exactly been a cavalcade of VR-themed films since, it’s hard to consider this as much of a legacy. It is currently streaming on Netflix, however. So there’s that.

In Retrospective: Smart people like Roger Ebert really liked Strange Days when it was released in 1995, but it has not aged well--only, not for the reasons you might think. The day-to-day technology, though outdated (even for 1999), isn’t obtrusive, and the “squid” is handled pretty well. Actually, the POV scenes are among the best in the film.

The problem is that the rest of the film itself is just, well, not very good, and the ways in which goes about being not very good aren’t funny or lovable the way they are in, say, The Warriors. Feinnes, for one, is bizarrely miscast as the streetwise hustler. In fact, he is so thoroughly unconvincing in the role that it’s hard to remember that he's a generally well-respected actor. Tom Sizemore is more predictably cringeworthy, especially with the Pearl Jam fright wig. However, neither quite plumbs the depths like Juliette Lewis, whose stilted delivery, poor timing and highly irritating character portrayal manages to be both drab and grating at the same time. And her band! If you ever needed proof that the 1990s were much less cool than you remember, this is it.

Speaking of, Strange Days also features the prerequisite cheesy 90s faux-rave. Only this one turns out to be a...grunge rave. Yes, a grunge rave. With Juliette Lewis’ shitty band playing knock-off grunge that’s orders of magnitude worse than the knock-off grunge featured in that one episode of Street Sharks . Come to think of it, why didn’t I just watch Street Sharks instead of this crap? Now that's some 90s culture I can get behind...


For its time: 3/5
Watched today: 1/5
Cybercoefficient: 4/10


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a Feather founder/administrator (2012).