The Films That Made Us: Strange Days (1995)

Nothing in the world, I thought to myself, is as old as what was futuristic in the past.
— (Ben Lerner, 10:04)

When you think about the future, do you see technology, space travel, groundbreaking science or Earth-stopping catastrophes? Shot in 1994 and set in the final two days of 1999, Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days imagines a (then very near) dystopian future in which the U.S.A. are ravaged by social injustice, racial inequality and drug addiction. So far, nothing too futuristic. But the drug of choice is virtual: a technological support through which humans are able to live the lives of others vicariously through a media player which connects directly into the wearer’s cerebral cortex and nervous system. When you ‘jack in’ to this player called SQUID you don’t just watch clips from somebody else’s real life - you physically, emotionally, neurologically inhabit another body, and experience everything that the person recording was experiencing. In the backstory of Strange Days, SQUID quickly becomes addictive, people seek more and more dangerous thrills so an appetite for snuff grows; SQUID is banned, it goes underground, and a black market is born.

True, the technology on which this concept is predicated looks, today, pretty ludicrous. SQUID is essentially a minidisc player (remember the minidisc? A short-lived apostrophe between the decline of the CD and the rise of the mp3) with a cephalopodic hair net that connects electrodes to the player’s head, like a sort of shock treatment helmet from a 1950s B-movie. But look at it carefully and you’ll find that SQUID actually looks a lot like Google glasses, exoskeleton suits, and new generation VR players, plus Facebook Memories and Periscope software all mashed together - not so absurd now, right? We have all the technology in place to integrate our own experiences with external reality and subjectivities, and our unprecedented access into other people’s profiles means we are closer than ever to vicarious experience - with all the thrills, heart-ache, jealousy and human emotions that this entails.

Look at it more deeply and what Strange Days is actually about is not the technology but the hearts and minds desiring it, creating it, and powering it; not the future, but the past. The past haunts the consciousness of the film’s protagonist, the improbably named Lenny Nero (even more improbably played by Ralph Fiennes in long blond hair and stubble, skinny leather trousers and flashy silk shirts). Lenny is an ex-cop now turned SQUID dealer. Like all drug dealers, he’s got an addiction of his own. Lenny is wallowing in love for his ex-girlfriend, a punk singer called Faith played by Juliette Lewis (heavily modelled on ‘90s P.J. Harvey and Courtney Love). He plays and replays his memories of her, obsessively re-watching and re-living their filmed love-making and past happiness. There’s an exquisite scene in which he goes to see her perform live on stage and watches her with a longing and helplessness that rips your heart out: Lewis is extraordinary at screaming out an accusatory cover of P.J. Harvey’s ‘Hardly Wait’; what is going through Lenny’s mind is something you’ll recognise if you have ever been in love with somebody whose business is performing for other people, inhabiting their fantasies and not exclusively yours.

If Lenny is the damaged mind and broken heart of Strange Days, the body and soul of the film are firmly lodged within its brilliant female co-protagonist Mace, played by Angela Bassett. Watching her muscular and strong performance in this role was a revelation to this tomboyish adolescent girl: I had never imagined that a female heroine could be so powerful and yet capable of tenderness, that she could hide her feelings as required but not be ashamed of them. After Emma Thompson and Kathleen Hanna, Mace was as close to a female role model as I encountered in my 1990s. Shamefully, it is still rare to find all-rounded female characters of such agency and sheer power on screen, whose definition was so three-dimensional. No wonder this is a film directed by such a powerful woman filmmaker, too. I later sought out more performances by Angela Bassett and discovered her powerhouse turn as Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It (1993), which recently topped the BFI's public poll of the Best Black Performance of All Time in the Black Star season. Not arguing with that.

Importantly, I think that Strange Days was the first film I ever saw that featured a positive portrayal of a black woman who was neither victimised, nor used as a comedic device. Mace’s body was beautiful and incredibly sexy but not objectified, displayed and depicted with pride, consciousness and freedom; her blackness was one aspect of her character rather than its sole defining trait. And yet, race in Strange Days matters - it mattered then, and it matters now.

Because what also makes the film so powerfully prescient and still so relevant in our own strange days is its understanding of the force of the image in situations of power imbalance. Central to the noir/thriller plot of Strange Days is a recording of the brutal murder of a politically engaged African-American rapper by the LAPD - the SQUID disc becomes unmistakable evidence that the police are trying to hide the killing. Shot in the aftermath of the infamous 1992 LA riots and the Rodney King case (soon to be the subject of an upcoming film by Mustang director Deniz Gamze Ergüven), Strange Days was striving to make sense of urban violence in the American suburbs which doesn’t seem far at all from the scenes witnessed across the US in 2016 - or any other riots past and present, really.

As I started writing this piece, we were merely weeks away from the girlfriend of Philando Castile livestreaming a shocking video that documented his fatal shooting at the hands of the Minnesota police on Facebook. (Philando Castile’s only crime was ‘driving while black’.) The sudden, inexplicable, unmotivated violence of this act, committed to video and broadcast live to social media channels, became not just damning evidence of social injustice and racially-motivated violence, but also the prompt to a series of protests under the flag of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I won’t reveal what happens in the plot of Strange Days to mirror our own days, but suffice it to say that the finale may give us hope even in the year of Ferguson and Trump.

For all these dark themes, one notable feature of Strange Days is its stunning use of colour photography. Bright colours splash across the nights of Strange Days - all full of cyberpunk clubs, neo-noir luxury hotels and the streets of LA ablaze with fluos, neons and fires, as the final movement of the film explodes with New Year’s Eve fireworks. If you can’t watch the film in a cinema, I thoroughly recommend the German Blu-Ray print to make the most of it, because the tracking camerawork and the point of view sequences in the film are technically daring and surprising. Upon its release Strange Days bombed at the box office and attracted facile criticism from the most disparate corners (some as unlikely as famously anti-technology Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti), but it is now time to revise this underrated film.

Technology changes, and the way we imagine the future changes - but if the past teaches us anything, it’s that the human heart changes at a slow pace or even not at all. It’s the heart of Strange Days that speaks to us today, through our eyes.

[Irene Musumeci, Film Marketing Manager, Curzon Head Office]

This post is part of The Films That Made Us - click below to read more.