Strange Days

tn_strangedaysStrange days we’re livin in, here in the futuristic year of 1999. Everywhere you go there’s people getting chased, cars on fire. I just saw 2 people beating up Santa Claus on the sidewalk. Can you believe gas has gotten up to three whole dollars a gallon? What a nightmare! And man, I almost miss junkies. They were so much better than these “wireheads” you got now, who plug into recordings of the brain responses to sex and bank robberies and stuff. Those guys make me sick.

Okay, you got me, this is actually late 2009 when I’m writing this, and that was a made up science fiction scenario that did not end up happening in ’99. I would remember if it had. Isn’t that weird? In less then two months we’ll be at the 10th anniversary not of this movie, but of the future it takes place in. So it’s ironic that it’s about people stuck on re-living old experiences, and meanwhile we’re watching it comparing it to the actual New Year’s Eve 1999 we experienced.

mp_strangedaysFunny, I don’t remember it being so dystopian. It was an intense time here in Seattle though, because the WTO craziness had just happened on November 30th. Then on  December 14th a border guard in Port Angeles noticed that a guy seemed real nervous, so she searched his car and found a trunk full of explosives. This made the authorities take intelligence about terrorist attacks at New Year’s celebrations more seriously, and the mayor chose to cancel ours, which was widely considered an overreaction. It did turn out the guy was planning to blow up LAX, not the Space Needle, but after 9-11 the threat seems more serious than it did at the time. He turned out to be a valuable intelligence source about al Qaeda and proof that a terrorist can be interrogated without torture and convicted without military tribunals.

But at the time we were more concerned with the so-called “Y2K Problem.” Remember, everybody was worried the computers were gonna crash at midnight and everything would go to hell? You heard about it so much you couldn’t help at least be slightly nervous. I remember the street lights on the block I was at went off right at midnight. Everybody kind of gasped and then they went back on. I thought I would’ve written about it at the time but all I could find was this column I prepared in advance.

No mention of “the Y2K Problem” in STRANGE DAYS, so either they hadn’t heard about it yet or they saw that one for the paranoid horse shit it was. Either way, well played.

James Cameron produced this one and co-wrote it with Jay Cocks (GANGS OF NEW YORK). The director is Kathryn Bigelow, her next after POINT BREAK. It’s their version of

*”See… I can get you what you want, I can. I can get you anything, you just have to talk to me, you have to trust me. You can trust me, ’cause I’m your priest, I’m your shrink… I am your main connection to the switchboard of the soul. I’m the magic man… Santa Claus of the subconscious. You say it, you think it, you can have it. “one of those “cyberpunk” stories they had in the ’90s, with the big city and different low lifes using illegal sci-fi technology and there’s a badass female bodyguard and they end up having to fight the power. The lead is Lenny Nero, a rare case of Ralph Fiennes playing a streetwise American. He buys and sells the brain recordings I explained earlier, so he’s sort of a sleazy drug dealer with a corny rap* and way too proud of his expensive ties and fake Rolexes.

Like a cyberpunk story it’s like a noir story. Lenny is supposed to be an ethical low life (he refuses to deal in “blackjack clips” where people die) but he’s stalker-like in his obsession with Faith (Juliette Lewis), his ex-girlfriend who’s now a rock singer and moll to sleazy record label owner (Michael Wincott). Through a prostitute friend they all find themselves mixed up in a plot involving police corruption, assassination and a serial rapist.

Angela Basset’s first IMDB credit is as a prostitute, but she went on to play Betty Shabazz (twice – in MALCOLM X and PANTHER), Rosa Parks, Tina Turner, plus the mothers of the Jacksons and Notorious B.I.G. as well as authoritative fictional characters like the CIA director on ALIAS. And she was in CRITTERS 4. She’s definitely the best part of the movie playing Mace, Lenny’s driver, bodyguard and unconditional friend. She does a bit of her trademark emotional yelling theatrics for the Oscar clip, but it’s also her chance to beat people to death and drive a burning car off a dock into water and then escape. Especially after WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT she had a reputation as a strong woman, but this is the only one I’ve seen where she fits the Sarah Connor definition.

Bigelow has directed some great action sequences in her time, and in this one some of them are done as continuous POV shots. It kind of shows that good action chops are in the blood, because she’s able to capture the chaos of one person running through a robbery in a continuous shot without ever making it confusing. Somehow all these shakycam directors today can’t make their scenes half as clear even without the limitations of making it look like it’s shot from one character’s eyes.

But it’s not all fun and thrills. The technological gimmick is also used in really upsetting ways, because there’s a rape scene done from the POV of the rapist. To make it even more harsh Lenny watches it and shows it to other people. Everybody sitting around feeling what it was like for a guy to rape their friend. They’re pretty subtle about how sick it is, which is nice. They don’t rub it in too much.

For some reason this “virtual reality” nonsense fascinated everybody in the ’90s. So they take a pretty neat gimmick and find believable ways for it to be used and abused. It makes sense that if this technology existed it would be on the black market and people would do crazy shit so they could sell the experiences and other people would spend their lives trying to live other people’s. But a sci-fi movie of this type is better when it seems to say something about where we’re going, and I’m not sure this one does. I guess Lenny reliving his old sexual encounters makes sense at the dawn of the home sex tape era. But I don’t think being obsessed with living your old experiences turned out to be a consequence of the technology that was developing in the ’90s. If anything the problem is that people ended up to in the boring present, always moving on to the next little clip on Youtube and telling Facebook and Twitter what TV show they’re watching.

I think this is a pretty good movie though, smarter than average, well directed and acted with some interesting ideas, and makes a pretty good time capsule of what people were thinking about in the ’90s. But it’s not on the level of Bigelow or Cameron’s best, and I think my problem is mainly with the ending. The mystery is solved, we find out what this is all about, and tension comes to a head. The heroes know an explosive secret, they’ve got to make people believe the truth, but there’s corruption everywhere and people are going to kill them for knowing.

Meanwhile, it’s New Year’s Eve and tens of thousands of people are in the street partying in that one way that Prince always encouraged people to party. If the secret gets out this could turn into a race riot – in fact, even without the secret getting out a couple of corrupt cops start beating Mace, a pretty, unarmed black woman, right in the middle of the crowd. The cops also have a shootout where they hit several innocent bystanders. It’s not even a situation where it could get ugly, it’s already ugly, it’s just that it seems pretty definite that it’s about to get way uglier.

So that’s a hell of a corner they’ve painted themselves into. How do they resolve it?

By giving the evidence to the police commissioner. Turns out he’s clean as a whistle, so he arrests the bad guys. The end. For a movie where most everything gets messy, that sure is an unbelievably clean solution to all their problems.

But there’s an aspect to the end that I do really like. For the whole movie Lenny is obsessed with Faith, who keeps telling him she doesn’t love him anymore. But there are signs that she really does and is just playing along with her sleazy boyfriend in order to protect Lenny. It seems like he’ll get her in the end. Instead, he realizes she’s bad news and finally recognizes that his badass black bodyguard is the right one for him! You want it to happen, but you don’t expect it to. She’s smarter, she’s classier, she’s tougher… but she’s black, so you wouldn’t think it would happen. (The only question though is why she can’t do better than Lenny. I’m pretty sure she could.)

Cameron wrote it when the Rodney King riots were still fresh on the mind, so racial tensions play a part. It all centers around the murder of a political rapper called Jeriko 1. Cameron, who had young John Connor wear a Public Enemy t-shirt in T2, obviously had respect for political rappers. But based on what we see this guy is pretty wack. He’s not even really rapping, more of an angry harangue that happens to rhyme, like the non-rapper guy from X-Clan or maybe a failed audition for the Last Poets. He’s not in it much so they strangedays-jeriko1could’ve gotten a real rapper to play him, but instead they got Glen Plummer (THE SUBSTITUTE, SHOWGIRLS). And then when he gets pulled over by the cops he’s a total dipshit, yelling stupid things at them before they even do anything. Not that KRS-One is perfect or anything, but he’s sure more charismatic than this asshole. This guy is not likable enough to be the sort of prophet of the people we’re supposed to accept him as.

It got me thinking – that heavy political hip hop was pretty big in the late ’80s, early ’90s, but for it to peak in ’99 was a bad prediction. In fact, when STRANGE DAYS came out we’d already been through the “G-Funk era” with Snoop and Dre, and were seeing the beginning of Wu-Tang dominance. Some of the classic albums of ’95 include the solo debuts of ODB, GZA and Raekwon, plus Mobb Deep’s “The Infamous,” all sounding at least as hard and dark as Jeriko 1, but not trying to bring politics to the people. That was kind of a thing of the past, for better or worse.

By the time of the real 1999 there was alot more respectable “positive rap” like “Things Fall Apart” by The Roots and “Black On Both Sides” by Mos Def, but little in the way of militant revolutionary poets. Meanwhile, Dr. Dre returned to prominence with “The Chronic 2001” and “The Slim Shady LP.” That was the start of Eminem’s fame, before he always complained about it, and he was really smokin with his guest appearances around then. So maybe if he was on a song somebody would’ve listened to Jeriko 1’s album. Otherwise, I don’t buy it.

But ignoring some big details the movie seems weirdly prophetic when you consider Tupac was killed less than a year after it came out. He wasn’t generally thought of as a political figure, but was definitely an icon and hero to many people, and even talked about being a political leader. Michael Wincott is the Suge Knight of the movie – both are powerful, dangerous owners of record labels who were worried by rumors that their artists planned to leave them. In the movie he wasn’t involved, though, and corrupt police killed the rapper spontaneously. In real life, according to the most popular theories, Knight hired corrupt police officers to take part in the murder. We’ll never know what really happened, though, because nobody was plugged into a SQUID device to record it.

All of that is a long way of saying that Cameron, Cocks and Bigelow were doing some exploring of black-white relations during the rise of mainstream hip hop. They weren’t all that right about where things going, but at least they were looking. In the end, though, Lenny and Mace doesn’t feel to me like Bigelow and friends saying “Can’t we all just get along?” It’s more like, of course you’d choose this amazing woman over that skinny, skanky girl. What kind of fool wouldn’t choose Mace?

I’m giving this one to the women. Angela Bassett and Kathryn Bigelow for the win.

This entry was posted on Saturday, November 21st, 2009 at 10:19 pm and is filed under Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

61 Responses to “Strange Days”

  1. “But a sci-fi movie of this type is better when it seems to say something about where we’re going, and I’m not sure this one does.”

    I think its more re-emphasizing one of the traditions of the film noir: The hero not getting over his old woman, and well that nostalgia fucks him in the end of the mystery. You know, new rims for the old car.

    And mate I don’t remember if you made a point of it, but wasn’t the deal with the squid shit that you could FEEL what you’re seeing? Which if you ask me, was what made that rape scene even more fucked up. Really I give Cameron(and Cocks?) credit for putting some real thought into that stuff. Instead of a gimmicky flashy macguffin.

    Vern – Basically I agree with your review. Maybe I liked it more than you did, but that’s petty stuff.

    Yeah that “future” didn’t exactly pan out (no shit), but I always consider more such movies a representation of the feelings/politics at the time it was produced instead of trying to be accurate. Kubrick, that smart guy, was so accurate (for 1969) with the space shit for 2001. Yet he nor Arthur C. Clarke (another smart guy) considered the PC.

  2. I’ve always thought of Strange Days as Cameron and Bigelow’s version of a De Palma film; it’s got all De Palma’s motifs: politics, sex, voyeurism, a hero who’s betrayed by people close to him (spoiler, I guess) and who fails to save someone in trouble. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have De Palma’s sense of humor or satire; and, I should point out, he never would have gotten away with that rape scene. It’s weird to think that there was once a time when a pov sequence like that (the killer/audience commits a rape-murder) could be in a big budget studio movie. Now days that’s more the territory of desperately provocative French art films. (“Gaspar Noe! Oh no you di’nt!”)

    Jeriko 1 – Yeah, for a character who’s supposed to be “the most important black man in America” Jeriko 1 struck me as more 50 Cent than Tupac. At first, I thought that’s what the movie was suggesting – that he was just another bullshit artist/hustler. After Mace “watches” the tape of his murder, I half expected her to say, “Oh, man…I can’t believe I took that guy seriously.”

  3. I haven’t seen this movie yet, but in it, doesn’t everyone also have HDTVs? those certainly weren’t as common in homes as they are now

  4. in 1999 I mean

  5. (SPOILER)

    you know what was funny, for a minute I was thinking “Oh wow, Tom Sizemore actually gets to play a nice guy in this one” and then about 10 seconds later I thought, “wait a minute…”

  6. I like this movie for having some interesting ideas about the future and treating the whole premise seriously (no wisetalking best friend etc). Ray Fiennes should have gotten more of these kind of roles.

    Vern’s knowledge of late 90’s commercial hip hop is too good for him to be an old white guy.

  7. Where do Madlib and Cannibal Ox fit into this alternative dystopian future, hmm?

  8. I don´t understand how people can not love James Cameron´s scripts.

  9. I found this a major disappointment when I saw it earlier this year, not becasue it fucking sucks which it doesn’t, but because I thought the first half was so good, so intriguing and so inventive that the second half of the movie with a generic plot, generic and lackluster action scenes and a ton of cliches (“that’s a shame, he got one of my favourite tapes…”) seemed like a huge let down. If it had started in the manor it ended I might have liked it more. Even though it’s got its problems I think the thematically similar “Brainscan” is a much better movie for sticking with its concept the whole way through.

  10. One Guy From Andromeda

    November 22nd, 2009 at 6:07 am

    I think it was more prophetic than you give it credit for, as today it already seems like recording the experience to be rewatched/lived later ist more important than the experience itself. just look at all those kids who go to concerts only to watch the recording screen of their camera phone all the time…

  11. If anyone is interested in Cameron’s unproduced ‘Gigantic Asteroid Fucks Shit Up’ script (co-written with Peter Hyams), it is here: http://www.sendspace.com/file/g5f8s4

    It was put on the back-burner because THAT was the summer that ARMAGEDDON and DEEP RISING were coming out.

  12. This movie was a huge disappointment. I do like the DePalma comparison above, though. I got that vibe bigtime.

  13. Jam, I pray that you didn’t mean Deep Impact and that the script has something to with an asteroid AND a giant octopus monster!

  14. Sorry, CJ – my bad. Working on a tight script deadline and my head is up my ass.

    Yes, I meant to say DEEP IMPACT. Apparently, Cameron’s script has elements similar to both that film and Vern-fave ARMAGEDDON, but is superior to both. Haven’t read it yet, though (so I guess there could be both an asteroid AND a giant octopus monster in there, which I wouldn’t put past Cameron)…

    There’s a couple of interesting Cameron scripts and treatments out there on the interweb, including his version of SPIDERMAN, an early AVATAR outline and a thing about a rapist with multiple personalities that Leonardo Di Caprio was once attached to.

  15. No need to apologize for this. :)
    On another note…Peter Hyams and James Cameron? What an interesting pairing!

  16. “But a sci-fi movie of this type is better when it seems to say something about where we’re going, and I’m not sure this one does.”

    I’m not completely sure about that. To me , it seems kind of prophetic even in other areas , not only in the hip-hop angle. For me it’s the nostalgia wave we’ve currently living in , remaking or re-imagining old memories of our childhood ( Transformers , G.I. Joe , comics , boardgames movies , old sit-coms movies….). It’s seems like a lot of directors are unable to let go of their old childhood favorites , and the audience seems to like this kind of approach . Not only that but even vintage clothes and vintage technology is on a permanent rise . We’re stuck in reverse . The new movie Yattaman by Miike seems to be making that point , that sometimes it’s better to let go and to grow up . Like Lenny finally choosing the more mature woman , after “playing” with tapes of his old girl , like it’s some kind of toy.

  17. Thought this would be better than i remember it being. I seem to recall it started pretty cool, but peaked about half way to three quarters of the way and just became another chase movie.

    Thought that some of the tech concepts were interesting and backed up with the usual Cameron ‘talk’, but the whole concept of everyone being corrupt, but just to varying degrees made it difficult to really care about what happened. Other than ‘Mace’, but was she the token ‘normal’ person, that made everyone else look more of a scumbag, or was she just as bad(ass), but didn’t care as long as it didn’t involve/effect/implicate her or her boy ?

  18. I don’t know if the nostalgia , the “let go of the past ” angle was originally intended , but it made me think about it , and that’s all I ask for in a movie ( well , that and kicking ass ).And after witnessing the 2 movies I mentioned before, after a new Halloween and Texas Chain Saw movie almost every year , I completely agree. You can say that in our case the nostalgia wave is fueled by a lack of imagination , an absence of stimuli , by the laziness of writers and directors and by the business side of everything entertainment , but that’s also part of the approach of a totalitarian government ( suppression of ideas , forced conformity ) , as depicted in the movie .

  19. Good points. The people going around wearing devices under their wigs so they can record everything for other people to experience definitely has a similarity to the way kids now are constantly recording things for Youtube and taking pictures of everything with their camera phones. I guess the reason it didn’t connect for me is that the movie focuses more on the other end, the people watching the tapes (the movie definitely wants to say that Lenny needs to let those memories go) and it seems to me those kids are all about recording everything to show other people, not to re–watch over and over again themselves.

    But it’s also true that it makes perfect sense within the story itself, as a metaphor for letting go of his old girlfriend, and doesn’t necessarily need any other meaning. Obviously Cameron wasn’t predicting that this technology would really exist (I don’t think).

  20. Yeah , a lot of kids today are all about the “showing off ” , letting other people see what they’re doing , but I think that is our own society spin on the concept . Everything today is about showing off , and showing off is perceived reality . Again , I never had a cellphone and I don’t use social networks , but I do know that in Facebook or Myspace , with your personal photos , there’s a “friend counter” , and that’s perceived popularity , you don’t really know them, you’re only showing how much popular you are. Plus some people are really obsessed with the past , stalking is common word today and crimes of that kind are on the rise , with technology of every kind ( cellphones , chatrooms , cameras …) playing a substantial role . So , for me , it works both ways : for people showing off and for people obsessed with the past (ex-girlfriend or significant other ) or with a different “life” ( stalking random targets ) .

  21. Vern – alot of sci-fi in general isn’t meant to be realistic.

    Before people get mad, I don’t mean its silly or cartoonish. I mean alot of sci-fi in general is meant to MAKE A POINT or make some sort of commentary or statement. You know that already.

    Take one you didn’t like: BLADE RUNNER. Oppressive awful dystopic future, where the humans aren’t exactly warm and expressive with their feelings, helping to hunt down and exterminate these robots who certainly seem to act more human (for good and ill) than the real thing. What is “human” and all that shit.

    Anyway, before HURT LOCKER, I probably thought STRANGE DAYS was Bigelow’s best movie as a director. I mean seriously, shes like the female Peter Hyams. Except better.

    Jam – Hyams always shoots nice-looking movies, if problematic he doesn’t have the story or shit to dunk the ball. With Cameron, that would have been something rather nice.

  22. Mixing Hyams and Cameron would have led to some technical difficulties for the camera department. Is it possible to shoot everything in steel-blue day-for-night AND have lens flares in every shot? This is probably why the project was scrapped.

  23. That Mind-rape scene was, and maybe still is, one of the most brutal scenes I’ve seen in a mainstream Hollywood big budget release.

    How I remember it, the thing he puts on the girl shows her the rape from his POV (she feels it and everything) whilst she’s being raped. If I remember it right it also fries her brain or something?

    Fuck, the layers of nasty really got to me when I last saw this…. such a grueling scene. If I was the type of guy who thought getting offended was a worthwhile endeavour that scene would have probably done it.

    Digging the DePalma observation, with the whole near future thing I thought of Strange Days more like a “Cameron / Bigelow, Verhoeven flick” but DePalma fits better.

    Also agree with whoever else liked Fiennes in this mode. He was great in this.

  24. RRA – of course it’s not trying to be entirely realistic. Like I said, I don’t think Cameron and friends expected this technology to become real by 1999. But by using it are they saying something, like the way BLADE RUNNER tells us (among other things) that the world is becoming too corporatized and that we may be becoming so dehumanized that machines have more soul than us? I was just trying to say that STRANGE DAYS doesn’t entirely click for me in those ways. But there have been some good arguments made for the other side.

  25. I guess that leaves Titanic and Vern is completely caught up with the James Cameron Collection, an exciting thing indeed.

  26. Brendan : I also hope he finds the time to review Cameron’s underwater adventures . I’ve seen Ghosts of the Abyss and its pretty cool as a sea documentary ( plus one of the crew inside the ship is Bill Fucking Paxton himself . Can you imagine that ? You’re going in a deep sea operation inside a submarine with Hudson! ) , but i can’t find the other 2 , Aliens of the Deep and Expedition Bismarck . I understand that this kind of movie is not for everyone , but I like the technology that they show and the incredible views they’re able to capture .

  27. The whole ‘stealing memories’ thing could be pretty possible, in a jury-rigged sort of way. You’d need portable videocameras that can record 24/7 and dump to a hard drive somewhere. The only problem is bandwidth, but its possible that everybody would be wearing a rig like that. I just stole the idea from Charles Stross though
    did this predict Juliette Lewis fronting The Licks or was she already a rockstar when they made this? are they worth seeing live?

  28. I saw this film at a way early preview (about six months prior to its release) in 1995 or whenever it came out, and it blew me away. I loved the films style and it’s ideas, which was really something fresh around that time. The mid-90’s didn’t give us many great movies and I think Strange Days really stood out.

  29. Vern, I recently re-visited this movie after discovering that its director was Katheryn Bigelow, fascinated that a woman was behind the helm (sort of) of a movie like this, and also of course favourites Point Break and The Hurt Locker. Watching it again I was reminded of all the things that made it stick in my mind the first time, but mostly I was more than a little disturbed by the overtly sexist and expliotative nature of the film. So many excellent (even later inspired-by) moments certainly make it relevant today however.

  30. Speaking of Women Directors, whatever happened to Mimi Leder? After the excellent The Peacemaker and the not so excellent Pay it Forward she went back to television. There was a promising career there, me thinks.

  31. It has been a while since I have seen this one, but it is interesting to read your review because I have been meaning to watch this again. I really enjoy Kathryn Bigelow’s work. Near Dark, Point Break, & The Hurt Locker are all excellent movies. Point Break is one of my favorite action movies of all time. However, I don’t remember this one really connecting with me. It has a lot of interesting ideas and it is well made, but it never comes together. In addition like Vern I was underwhelmed by the ending. Maybe my opinion will change with a second viewing. I was still in high school when I first saw this and I remember how affected I was by the brutality of the rape scene. It is really uncomfortable to watch, but I give them props for not pulling any punches. I also remember that I thought the Jeriko 1 character was a little over the top and unbelievable. In retrospect the Jeriko 1 character seems even more over the top and cartoonish. I agree that the Blast Master KRS One would have been a much better Jeriko. Actually, do you know who have made a great Jeriko 1 is onetime Seagal sidekick, and rapper DMX. I don’t think he dropped his first album till 97 or 98 so there is no way he would have ever been cast in the movie, but he would have made a great Jeriko. He has the screen presence, and as he demonstrated in Exit Wounds he has a vast knowledge of video technology and experience with corrupt cops. Come to think of it they should do a DTV remake of this movie with Seagal as Lenny, Pam Grier as Mase, and DMX as Jeriko 1 (“SPOILER” Tom Sizemore would of course reprise his role as the rapist). They could call it “The Y2K Problem”. Speaking of Y2K, the review really reminded me of growing up in Seattle and what it was like living there in 1999. I remember all the hysteria at the time. I had friends that were tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets during the WTO, and everybody was Y2K crazy. As a side note I heard that the movie they made about the WTO that stared Charlize Theron had a dude with some sort of Asian accent play Governor Gary Locke. Can anyone here confirm that for me?

  32. What sort of story would people like to watch Bigelow make a movie about, with Angela Basset as the lead character? (Moreso than in _Strange Days_ I mean.)

    Also, less seriously: GIANT OCTOPUS VS. MEGASTROID!!!

    (Starring Angela Basset. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Produced by James Cameron.)

  33. So I remember being let down by the deus ex machina ending -the riot starts, it looks like “the end of the world” is about to happen (at least for our characters)…and then the riot just stops. It seemed like a total copout, but now I love it – it’s kind of like a precursor to the Ferry Scene in the Dark Knight – where you expect the worst in humanity to take over but common decency prevails.

    Also – any fans of Y: The Last Man on here? There’s definitely shades of the Mace/Lenny relationship in that one. It’s a must-read.

  34. Everyone in STRANGE DAYS’ 1999 does have a widesceen TV. A tube widescreen TV. Ironically, STRANGE DAYS has never been released “enhanced for widescreen TV” on DVD (same for THE ABYSS and TRUE LIES. You’d think Cameron’d be all over this, but I guess the man’s been busy).

    STRANGE DAYS will always have a special place in my heart as the first real hard-R film I saw in a theater without the parents. I remember only 3 other people were in the theater, two of which were my brother and my best friend. It was this epic, harsh, dirty movie with tits, guns, deaths shown from the first-person, race riots, rape, evil cops and Santa getting beat up. And then as I grew older, it was a little depressing that my more sophisticated film-geek brain couldn’t help but observe how trite the third act is with the miraculous quelling of the riot (Ebert’s great remark in his review: “as if you can turn off anarchy like water from a tap”) and Max’s Bond-villain speech right at the moment when he could have realized his goals with a single gunshot.

    However, I still think STRANGE DAYS has one of the greatest first acts ever. Up until Lenny first watches the clip of Iris’s murder, it’s all about soaking in the world and these characters and the details of the technology central to the plot and it all feels organic. There are a few hints in the background of the larger story, but it’s mostly vignettes of Lenny at work: how he gets the clips, how he sells them, his philosophy, his friends, his lost love. I loved how there wasn’t really a plot structure at work in these scenes, other than a day in the life of a fast-talking sleaze with some ethics. The characters and the world are so rich, it does a lot to distract from how conventional the plot ends up becoming.

    One more detail I must note is one of my favorite bits of screenwriting ever. Right before Mace is about to watch the clip of Jeriko’s murder, Lenny instructs her, “Close your eyes or you’ll see double”. I feel like applauding every time I see that. This late in the movie and we’re still learning things! You watch the film again and you see that, yes, everyone using the wire has their eyes closed and you think to yourself, “Of course!” It’s a great line because it teaches us something we might not have explicitly noted in our minds yet (it was never mentioned in dialogue before this), and yet it doesn’t feel clunky because it comes from Lenny trying to comfort Mace during her first experience with this technology. A perfect fusion of exposition and character.

  35. neal2zod – I was surprised too at that Dark Knight scene. I mean, I guess they didn’t want us leaving the theater totally bummed, but it did seem implausible in the world they had given us up to that point. I still feel ambivalent about that scene. I don’t believe it but I’d like to.

    Yet, I didn’t feel as cheated by the “happy ending” of STRANGE DAYS. The New Year’s theme helps. Isn’t that how we all view New Year’s, as the chance to reset? Plus, I think the optimism is tempered the right amount. The last shot of the film pans up to the sky, and the clock is put on the screen for the last time, still ticking forward. Nothing’s really changed, this joyful moment isn’t frozen in time forever. But maybe we can get it right this millennium. Maybe.

  36. nemuren–

    it’s funny, that’s the moment where the movie kind of frustrated me. it’s good screenwriting to throw a detail like that in there, but i remember thinking when i saw the film how that scene was bullshit overall. let me explain:

    Mace’s character’s whole thing in the movie is that she’s the one person who has never used SQUID tech and never will. The moment where she has to use it should be huge both for her (obviously) but also for the audience, because ideally that would be the point where we would be forced to acknowledge that there is a positive or at least beneficial use of a SQUID. I even remember Fiennes saying, “You’ve got to see this for yourself to believe it.”

    Had I written the movie, after Mace took off the squid she would have furiously said to Fiennes, “THAT’s what I had to see to believe? THAT’S what you’re gonna make me wear this fucking thing for? Repeat after me: ‘Hey Mace, two cops killed Jericho One.’ Is that so fucking hard to say? Yeah, we need this video as evidence–SOMEBODY’S gotta watch it– but that somebody’s not ME, Lenny! You know me better than that! You know i have issues with this kind of shit! You gonna make me throw all that out the window so I can watch two cops kill this poor talentless motherfucker? That’s it. We’re through. Whatever’s going on here between you and me: it’s over. Well, fuck it– I’ll help you turn this tape in, but after that, we’re done, you sick piece of shit.”

    Woulda rung a little more true, in my opinion.

  37. Nemuren – Well also I think its pretentious, but I suppose the idea of setting that story in 1999 and the 2000 hysteria shit ties into that ending shot. The movie got inspired by the Rodney King race beating and of course the race-inspired LA Riots. Alot of the same shit in same region that NWA were rapping about years earlier in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON.

    So that ending shot of black woman and white guy together, you know a new future, a new America. Can’t we all just get along and groove to love? Not exactly subtle, but it ties exactly into your point about the reset.

    And unfortunately, maybe that ties in with the ending with the L.A. Police Commissioner. Real Hollywood like that other shot? Why yes. But hey, new decade and maybe a Commish that isn’t Gates II.

    Then again, its the same sort of sentimentality Cameron had toyed with earlier. Outside of TRUE LIES of course (which was more as his somewhat attempt at combining the big action blockbuster with the romantic comedy)

    Seriously, Cameron is really the love child of Spielberg’s fucking corny sentimentality, and John Milius’ love for guns and ammunition.

  38. Watching Jeriko’s death through Mace’s eyes instead of Lenny’s frames his death in a way that seeing it through the white guy’s eyes doesn’t. The knowledge brings Mace to tears (which it didn’t to Lenny) even though we never heard her express an opinion on Jeriko one way or the other before this point. Yes, he could have just told her, but after all the trouble they went to to get the clip, “So?” “Cops killed Jeriko” “Jesus” would’ve been limp dramatically. The moment is the hard sell of the notion that Jeriko is “one of the most important black men in America” and you either go with it or you don’t. Admittedly, it’s hard to take STRANGE DAYS seriously as a statement on race relations. It uses racial tension as a backdrop much in the same manner THE ABYSS used first contact with an alien species as a backdrop. A mere prop in the service of a thriller/love story.

    The moment is another in the chain of “she really does love the loser, if only he’d notice” subplot. Given everything they’ve been through, it’s her showing more trust and more vulnerability to him than she does at any other point. But it’s also him revealing the deep respect he has for her.

    Film School Digression, bear with me, I hope this has a point: In film, looking is power. Those who watch have power, those who are watched do not. Thus, we the audience have power over everyone. Onscreen, men tend to have more “power” than women, as women are fetishized far more often than men. Think of it this way, notice how pretty much only men are shown doing “playback”? Women make recordings, but are rarely seen watching clips themselves. In fact, other than the Mace scene under discussion, the only other times women are shown watching “playback” are when Max forces Iris and Faith to watch themselves getting fucked. And both times the women’s own “power” is removed by blindfold and they are forced to see what the man is seeing (how he is seeing them). Lenny’s insistence comes from his desire to share that power/knowledge with Mace, placing them on equal footing. This is reinforced when Lenny later confronts Faith and she says she’ll tell the truth to Lenny alone, and without hesitating Lenny insists that Mace is in this too. It’s an exchange: she submits to his wish that she use the technology and in return she gets the power of “seeing”.

    Random thought: I dug the moment when Lenny gives the guy in the wheelchair a clip of someone jogging, a poignant example that playback is good for more than sex and violence. Actually, when I first heard that AVATAR was about a crippled man “virtually” experiencing walking again, that scene was the first thing to pop in my head.

  39. Taylor Snatchlover

    December 4th, 2009 at 9:47 pm

    “the trampled skeletons of the weak…” LOL! Nice one, Vern!

  40. Saw this one again on New Year’s Eve – the world-building is still strong, the (brief) action sequences are still great, the ending still works. It seemed like a cheat that Max/the movie brings up the corrupt cop death squad and then it’s immediately dropped as a ruse – but it works in line w/ the optimism of the ending – what could be more optimistic than saying there is no conspiracy by “the man” to keep us down, and a few bad apples/cops can’t spoil the whole bunch?

    Great observations on this comment board – I never thought of the DePalma connection, even though the movie does do a DePalma trick of giving the twist away right in front of you *SPOILER* it’s been established multiple times that everyone wears wigs to hide their SQUIDs, and the villain turns out to be the guy wearing a ridiculously obvious wig! (This does bring up the question – Max watched the rape tape with a SQUID over his wig, which had another SQUID underneath. What happens when you double SQUID?)

    Also, I never noticed the Avatar parallels with the man in the wheelchair, but i did notice Jeriko 1 talking about “re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic”

  41. Small world — the terrorist Vern mentions in the opening paragraphs here was exposed & found to be connected to international bad guys in large part due to the outstanding work in 1999 of Agent Fred Humphries,
    ex-Army guy who became the FBI agent who initiated the investigation into Jill Kelley’s alleged e-mail harasser,
    which led to uncovering D/CIA General Petraeus’s affair with biographer Paula Broadwell,
    which led to the discovery of the one harmless shirtless pic of Humphries that the media stupidly blew up,
    which was tied to the discovery that General John Allen was also e-mailing Jill Kelley a weird number of times,
    which put into question both Generals’ fitness for duty.

    Well, today, General Allen was cleared; it looks like all the e-mails & hours of time he wasted on his laptop while “serving” in “Afghanistan” have not ruined his career. He’ll be nominated for NATO Commander.

    This guy Fred Humphries is movie badass material, though.

    ***Humphries read Noris his rights in French. Then he asked, “Voulez-vous parler de ce qui est arrivé?” Do you want to talk about what has occurred?

    Non monsieur, je ne veux pas en parler.” No sir, I do not want to talk about it.

    That single sentence told Humphries plenty. He asked that Gahan turn off the speaker and get on the line.

    What ID does this guy have? Humphries asked. A Canadian passport and baptismal certificate from Montreal, with the name Benni Antoine Noris, came the reply.

    “There is no way this guy is who he says he is,” Humphries said. “There’s no way he’s from Montreal.”

    The agent knew Quebecois French — and this wasn’t it. The accent, he thought, sounded like that of a language instructor he had in the Army — a man from Algeria.***


    That whole Seattle Times series is pretty amazing, and, upon further research, I see Humphries also has some other real life “how badass is he” moments ripe for filmatization. And furthermore, he has elements of Badass Juxtaposition in his persona, like when he disagreed with his superiors & the prosecutors by fighting for more humane, gentle treatment of the terrorist Ressam, all the while extracting more intel out of his friendly interrogations with the suspect/prisoner.


  42. I watched this last night in preparation for New Year’s 2014. Great cast – when you’ve got Vincent D’Onfrio and William Fichtner playing small roles as dirty cops you’ve got some talent overflow going on.

    I found it really hard taking a bad guy seriously when he’s wearing a fanny pack though. Every time he approaches a locked door you hear “zip!” and he looks down and takes out his lock picks or his little crowbar, and once he’s through the door “zip!” he puts all his little tools away.

    Some interesting parallels to EXISTENZ (virtual reality vs recorded life), MINORITY REPORT (Tom Cruise watched old holograms from his past life), in addition to those mentioned above.

  43. onthewall2983

    May 6th, 2015 at 9:20 am

    Watched this last week. Kind of odd to watch a science-fiction film set in what now is the distant past, but is quite relevant now for reasons already stated (racial police violence being the most obvious one now) but is also very stuck in it’s time period. It’s a very 90’s film, brimming with fatalistic cynicism towards authority and the (near) future. Those aren’t necessarily bad things in movies, but there were several thrillers that beat the starch out of that formula (I think you saw less of it after 9/11 however), but this has at least enough innovation and lop-sided foresight to rise above what’s otherwise channel-surf static.

    Fiennes is great as the stock forelorn male lead. I like (in what’s arguably the film’s only traditional flashback) where we see him reading to Mace’s kid while the father is being hauled off outside. He’s not funny ha-ha in this, but anyone who did see it back in the day probably shouldn’t have been surprised to see him do comedy so well with GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, IN BRUGES and I would imagine he’ll get at least a couple laughs in the next Bond movie as well. The only disappointment performance-wise would be D’Onofrio and Fichtner, basically just running and scowling through the whole thing.

  44. Bigelows pretty good futuristic VR, Y2K thriller gets a Region 2 bluray release this September. Place your pre-orders over on Vern’s link before August 30, and I’ll send you a free squid head-set with a complimentary memory download of me rollerskating in hot pants and a singlet. Or opt out and just enjoy Juliette Lewis sweating it up instead (recommended option).

    Mastor Troy - Google+

    Mastor Troy - Google+

  45. Interesting it still hasn’t come out on Blu in the states. Hell the DVD isn’t even in 16X9. Bit of a longshot but I’d like to see Criterion release it at some point.

  46. Shame we don’t get more ‘written & produced by James Cameron’ movies. We’ve gotten some pretty swell ones from that set-up (POINT BREAK, STRANGE DAYS, SOLARIS). Wonder if it’s his output has slowed down or the projects just get stalled. I know we have BATTLE ANGEL ALITA coming up, I’m choosing to be optimistic that Cameron can inspire Rodriguez to care again.

  47. I keep forgetting he directed True Lies.

    Weird question, will there be backlash for not casting a Japanese actress as the lead OR will people ignore it for hiring an Hispanic actress in the lead?

  48. geoffrey, I think the fact that ALITA has already wrapped shooting a while ago, but won’t hit theatres until next year, should give us hope that Rodriguez returned to making real movies, instead of glorified home videos. (I mean, it can still be awful, but at least it was made like a real movie!)

  49. Despite being an anime nerd I’ve never seen the ALITA anime, it’s strange to think of an obscure anime getting a movie adaption, but I like that.

  50. Griff: Despite Cameron being much older than me, he’s from my anime generation (noticed a while ago that anime fandom is VERY generational). ALITA only ever got one OVA (or DTV) movie, it continues to mostly just be known as a long-running comic book. If you have not read it I highly recommend it. It’s easy to see to why Cameron became such a huge fan and has been trying for over two decades to adapt it.

  51. Forgot to reply to you Stern: My brother and I have a mean-joke we like to use in these situations: “Which stance will make me more progressive?” I’m sure they’ll be some grumbling about a non-Asian actor cast (if said actor wasn’t Japanese there would be a bit of grumbling about that) but I strongly doubt this will generate the same anger that GHOST IN THE SHELL did because BATTLE ANGEL ALITA has zero mainstream penetration and the lead is not white but as stated, there will be some but it’s not big enough to bring enough attention (both a very serious issue of the lack of Asian actor opportunities and self-righteous assholes wanting us to all know how much more progressive they are than you).

  52. Was there an out cry in Japan when all the characters in the Attack on Titan movie were played by Japanese actors? lol

  53. onthewall, I’m curious about what you think might qualify STRANGE DAYS for a hopeful Criterion release. Is it the way it capsules the 90’s fear of Y2K, it’s sci-fi technology-can-be-used-against-us ideas that were pervading 90’s films(along with Internet concerns that were explored by other films) like in Terminator 2, Virtuosity, Matrix, Lawnmower Man?

    I’d love to know more about Criterion’s selection process. I own exactly 4 of their editions – One PT Anderson, one Wes Anderson, one Jacques Tourneur and holy shit one Michael Bay. Their choosing of The Rock was because it was the birth of poorly shot action and bad editing, which is still plaguing us, I get that. They never said it was bad, they only held it up as a foretelling of action cinemas future.

    But it also makes me wonder how broad their umbrella extends. Would they acknowledge a DTV title in the action renaissance of the late 00’s early 10’s, a Florentine or a Hyams? Where quality takes an upturn. These are benchmarks to a lot of us, but deserve to be seen by more people.

    And I’ll put JOHN WICK forward for a Criterion recommendation, since we’re at it.

  54. I haven’t gotten too deep into why I think it should be in, other than Fox has been sitting on it for years. I would like to see them release stuff that would be in between the most mainstream and the most art-house. STRANGE DAYS seems to fit that mold for me.

  55. Shout Factory is another place that would do a fantastic job with Strange Days. Strange Days is so underrated.

  56. THE ABYSS is not on blu ray either as far as I know, I think the problem with both it and STRANGE DAYS is it’s up to Cameron and he probably doesn’t give a shit, so it might never happen.

    I mean don’t certain directors have it in their contract that they have to oversee the remastering for a movie? Cameron probably considers himself too busy to devote the time.

  57. I have read in the last 2-3 years or so that Cameron has completed work on both the BD versions of TRUE LIES and THE ABYSS but is holding off releasing them because INSERT REASON HERE.

    (Take it all with a pinch of salt – although the TRUE LIES story was via Tom Arnold, as he’d been interviewed for the special features, so that one is probably true and not lies).

  58. Rewatching this thanks to the HD transfer on HBO Max. Feel like the rape stuff was Too Much. It’s in line with the genre that Lenny doesn’t realize his close friend is a coldblooded murder, but he *also* hasn’t noticed the guy is a straight-up rapist/Jigsaw Killer/psychopath? Seems like a missed opportunity, in a movie about police corruption, that two of the main characters are former cops and one of them is a sex criminal and the other isn’t at all complicit or turning a blind eye, he just never noticed.

    (Also, for all their protests that jacking-in isn’t just TV but better, Lenny and co seem to treat reliving a rape-murder as no worse than watching a screamer video on Youtube. It ages poorly, is what I’m saying. In real life, Lenny would have PTSD, like, immediately.)

    As for the ending? I don’t know. It’s already over two hours in runtime, they need to wrap things up, and it’s James Cameron, so of course he ends it with a big showdown where a hundred squibs go off and both the crooked cops definitively go down. At the time of this comment, Vern just posted a review of Geostorm where he complains that we don’t actually get the Geostorm; I think Cameron was imagining a similar reaction and going “okay, you get the riot, you get the bad guys getting blown away, you get the boy and the girl kissing, everything works out in the end.”

    It’s pat, but after ten plus years of the MCU and their hundred-and-one secret societies and doomsday weapons, I actually find it a bit refreshing that this is a big sci-fi action movie (well, comparatively) where the bad guys are two power-tripping cops who got caught on tape, a sleazy record producer, and… yeah… one serial killer who likes to send taunting messages to the protagonist. The villains’ big plot, all this chaos and insanity, is just to cover their own asses. It’s kinda great.

    (And I don’t think we’re supposed to see the two cops as bad apples, but as typical products of the system.)

  59. Agreed that despite its protestations this movie is all about seeing. We see what the SQUID wearer sees and often that’s the eyes of someone looking back at us; the rape/murder victim is Iris, and only Mace can interfere with our vision. Lenny is blind to the truth in front of him, be that Max’s psychotic nature or Mace’s love. He’s blinded by Faith.

    As to the ending, I can see economic expediency being a driver, but all of Cameron’s screenplays from this time focus on averting catastrophe (or at least surviving) and asserting the love of a man and a woman, so I’d suspect this was where he was going from the outset.

    It’s an ambitious movie made by a brilliant action director and that more than its many flaws are what keep me coming back to it. Like several of the commenters above, I wish Bigelow would return to more genre-rooted films now, but clearly her own interests are elsewhere.

  60. Always interesting to read old Vern reviews, and the comments. You’ve been running this websight for so long, it has really become an archive of not only your reviews but the time(s) in which they were written.

    The review holds up of course, but I’d add that watching this fresh in 2023 the SQUID technology felt prescient to me in two ways it couldn’t have in 2009: go-pro cameras that capture your POV (no idea how they filmed some of this stuff without small digital cameras) and VR, which as of now still feels overhyped but at least CAN deliver a “you are there experience” in visual and audio terms, though of course not the SQUID experience of all five senses. It also correctly anticipated that any tech like that is going to be at least 50% used for porn, which in some ways is an easy prediction but it’s s little wild to see a big budget film really go there.

    I also think Ralph Fiennes appearance and performance eerily anticipates Bradley Cooper.

    On the other side of the ledger: in our post-BLM age, the police commissioner being the hero feels more bullshit than ever. You certainly called that one, Vern.

    But yeah, Angela Bassett is electric.

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