In 1998 – I know, I can’t stop mentioning it, but the opprobrium is deserved, really – James Cameron rather infamously gave an Oscar acceptance speech in which, following a request that the assembled Academy members observed a minute’s silence in remembrance of those who lost their lives on the Titanic, he directly followed up with the invitation “And now. Let’s go party till dawn!” There’s a sense, revisiting Strange Days, which he devised and co-wrote with Jay Cocks, of eerie premonition, of similarly pat, consequence-free logic in a tale of rape, murder, racism, police corruption, voyeurism and general brutality that resolves itself with a millennium’s eve kiss; as the credits go up, Lenny and Mace go party till dawn!
Strange Days was released to general viewer indifference, but I well recall being bowled over by it during a period that seemed to be offering great movies week after week (late ’95 and early ’96). Most of these (Heat, Seven, Twelve Monkeys, Trainspotting) remain tried-and-tested classics. But, in the cold light of day, Strange Days, like much of Cameron’s filmography, is revealed as sore lacking. Simplistic, shallow, but with brandished aspirations towards depth and resonance, its anticipation of a post-grunge, cyberpunk millennium, complete with ’70s retro-wear and long greasy hair, is as quaint as Predator 2’s globally-warmed zoot suits. Jimbo was originally set to direct (can you imagine that, his first outright flop?) but commitments to True Lies and Titanic gummed up the works. He reportedly had Andy Garcia in mind for the lead, but he may just have been be one of many mooted.
For Kathryn Bigelow, coming off a Cameron exec-produced picture that narrowly escaped a Doors-referencing title (Riders on the Storm became Point Break), and alighting on one that feels as painfully self-conscious as Morrison’s music, it’s a case of making the best from what you’ve got. Which is a mostly great cast, a whopping budget, and a resultantly miniscule gross. The full-blooded manner with which she confronts and explores the concept of SQUIDs (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device; the device jacks in to the cerebral cortex of the user, becoming a kind of virtual-sensory VCR – Brainstorm a decade on, basically) would likely receive accusations of misogyny were a man to have shown it (another near-escape for Jimbo there; this would be just the sort of thing one would expect from De Palma), and there’s a nagging feeling throughout that this is little more than well-presented exploitation cinema (“Goddam, you know I don’t do snuff!”).
Despite the rigour of the art direction, and the unsurprising detail of the mechanics of the SQUID, there’s something rudimentary and facile about Cameron’s conception of this then-near-future that should be unsurprising to those familiar with his cartoonish characterisations and plotting. Areas that, when given to good actors can either be exposed as even more unflattering, or, at best, are moulded into an almost respectable form.
Max: This is life, straight from the cerebral cortex.
The idea behind the SQUID, being very much embedded in the VR-curious ‘90s, is that the technology was developed by the FBI to replace wearing a wire, then went black market. So we get street slang (“Have you ever jacked in?”; “Have you ever wire tripped?”) and grand pronouncements as to its experientiality (“You’re doing it, seeing it, feeling it”).
Some of Cameron and Cocks’ ideas are suitably, believably, grizzly, such as the murderer forcing his victims to jack in to his own outlet (“She’s seeing what he sees”), but for all Bigelow’s visual flair, there’s something simultaneously banal at the premise core. This isn’t like Until the End of the World, where we get a strong sense of the seductive ambience of viewing one’s own dreams, or Videodrome, where the allure of the technology is both repellent and alluring. It remains wholly on the side of gloss and glorification, so the revulsion itself is virtual, facsimile; this is a movie forever celebrating its own design and construction, closer to a two-and-a-quarter-hour Smack My Bitch Up video than suggesting anything profound.
And, being Cameron, there’s the cumbersome exposition of things – of 2K, of SQUID – to people who would surely know what they are; it’s very Cameron to drop in the unadorned info-dump. Jimbo’s approach to all his subjects is that of a blunt instrument, so when he writes something with drugs, sex and sleaze in it – relatively foreign ground – that’s all there is. There are no shades here, be it taking on police violence directed at African-American citizens by way of Rodney King/ the LA Riots (Cameron was inspired after seeing them on the news) or the inclusion of a martyred rapper, Jericho One (with this and the limos, I was occasionally put in mind of the considerably more perspicacious Cosmopolis).
Yet the police (strictly supporting appearances from Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner) are revealed as bad apples spoiling an otherwise good barrel; it’s the ultimate and rote Hollywood cop-out, so everything ends happily ever after, an unconvincing and ill-at-ease fairy tale finale. That the resolution is so trite adds to the sense that the overt, sexualised violence is exploitative and unjustified by the content. Cameron and Bigelow have rendered a movie encapsulating seedy, scuzzy, speedball-heroin chic; it’s designed for designer-imitations, not to really make you think.
The assembled cast are mostly very strong, though. Fiennes, in a rare flirtation with Hollywood leading man status, is convincingly weasily as hustler Lenny Nero, although it’s less easy to believe he was “the finest cop ever thrown off Vice Squad”. Angela Bassett is similarly strong, playing another of Cameron’s hot, kick-ass female fantasies made flesh (he’s nothing if not consistent, is Jimbo), and is responsible for that renowned piece of dialogue sampled by Fatboy Slim (“This is your life, right here, right now!” imbuing it with conviction it doesn’t have on the page). Michael Wincott, as always, is wonderfully debauched, while Tom Sizemore, a mere babe in arms in his mid-thirties but looking at least a decade older, is in typecast mode, handed the role of psycho Max because he’s a psycho because he’s a psycho.
Letting the side down is Juliette Lewis (though no doubt it got her work with The Prodigy) as the unlikely object of Lenny’s affections, but that may just be personal taste; she’s convincing enough as an incorrigibly debauched wild child, I guess, but it’s quite impossible to perceive what Lenny sees in her.
Bigelow’s direction is first rate, of course. From the use of slow motion (revellers mugging Santa) to bravura action (the scene where the limo comes under fire from the bad seed cops, and subsequent submerged escape is as good as it gets), but there’s a cumulative sense of fatigue to the slew of night clubs and indie rock, not helped by it being some fifty minutes before Lenny even gets interested in the case. The pacing is off, and there isn’t sufficient intrigue to keep it motoring along (Cameron was heavily involved in the editing so we can blame him for that too). And she can’t diffuse the overcooked Jimbo inclusions, like the flashback of why Mace cares so much for good old Lenny.
I mentioned Until the End of the World before, another Millennium-obsessed ’90s film transfixed by the idea of escaping from all the hideousness into a virtual world. It’s also a picture with its own quirky sense of fashion, soundtrack and technology. If anything, though, Wim Wenders’ foray has only improved with age, its themes transcending era. Strange Days has really very little to say, beyond the obvious, and its grand gestures seem not a little pedestrian (an interracial romance transcending the brutalising environment that would hold it back), as one would expect from its screenwriter, and essayed quite unpleasantly. It’s too well made and performed to be a dog, but I’m no longer so swept along by such acumen that I can ignore what lies beneath.