Before Kathryn Bigelow became one of Hollywood’s hot tickets for films like The Hurt Locker (2008), and before her public spat with James Cameron, she turned out some fairly unknown but enjoyable films like Point Break (1991) and this week’s movie recommendation, Strange Days (1995).
The film is set in a deteriorating L.A., in the final moments of the last millennium. Racial tensions are ablaze, everyone is paranoid, and no one is safe (the Rodney King riots from four years before the film’s release loomed large). Against that backdrop, the conceit of the film revolves around a technological device intended for leisure, which transmits signals directly into its user’s brain and allows them to experience a pre-recorded memory - either their own or that of another person - as though it is in the present. An amputee missing both legs can know the sensation of running barefoot along a sandy beach, and an embittered lover can re-live his favorite memories from a long-ago relationship. Except our protagonist Lenny Nero, an ex-cop played by Ralph Fiennes who now deals in the market exchanging these memories, is mysteriously being sent recordings of rapes and brutal murders, and he needs to solve the whodunit before the killer strikes again.
Bigelow has a real talent for constructing engrossing and visually sensational set pieces. Los Angeles has never looked as meretricious as it does here, with the 90s rave aesthetic spilling out onto the cityscape: there’s no shortage of neon, sequins, strobes, and billows of steam. The visual experience is all the more intense when accompanied by prevailing violence and jarring camerawork, especially during the memory scenes. Like most good sci-fi dystopias, there’s more than a hint of film noir to feast on. L.A. is a city in decay after having been used up by people trying to ‘get theirs’ no matter the cost, and the main characters wear an understandable look of exhaustion and resignation on their faces.
Unfortunately, Bigelow’s talent for visual extravaganza isn’t quite matched when she tries her hand at symbolism. Lenny’s ex-girlfriend Faith, played by Juliette Lewis, won’t take him back (D’ya get it? It’s like he’s lost Faith!); his best friend Max, played by Tom Sizemore, delights in the coming apocalypse (Hmm I wonder how Lenny will end up if he abandons all hope and faith entirely?); and his guardian angel Mace, played by Angela Bassett, rescues him from just about every scrape in which he finds himself (redemption through the resolution of race tensions. That’s, like, so deep).
Nonetheless, I happen to enjoy that the central conceit is about the desire for escapism from the present life, and a failure to face up to current problems. It isn’t new, and while it’s been done better elsewhere (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind stands out as one example), this is a good effort with impressive acting from a great cast, and a passable script by James Cameron.
If you can stomach the visceral opening scene of Strange Days, you’ll manage the rest. Enjoy this New Year’s film, but don’t expect it be a calm start to 2014!
[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]
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