Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, April 14, 2017

Director Report Card: Kathryn Bigelow (1995)

5. Strange Days

With “Point Break,” Kathryn Bigelow had the first real commercial success of her career. As sometimes happens, she followed this up with her most ambitious film yet. In a nice coincidence of fate, “Point Break” was almost named "Riders on the Storm." Her next film would also be named after a song by the Doors. The initial idea for “Strange Days” was conceived by James Cameron, Bigelow's ex-husband. One can spot Cameron's fingerprints – a sci-fi premise, an almost fetishistic tough female lead – but Bigelow would make the material entirely her own. The resulting film was deeply uneven. Some critics defended it, others condemned it, and audiences ignored it. In 2017, is it time to reevaluate “Strange Days?”

The year is 1999 but just barely. The new millennium begins in two days. Los Angeles is embroiled in racial tension and crime. Lenny Nero is a dealer in SQUID technology. Those are video disc that, when paired with a special player, allows you to see and feel the events inside a recording. Naturally, the technology is used for porn. And snuff. After Nero is sent a disturbing SQUID video, showing a brutal home invasion/rape/murder, he is drawn further into the L.A underworld. Hours before the start of a new year, Lenny has to deal with police corruption, a deranged killer, the music industry, criminal empires, and lost love.

“Strange Days” is a mainstream film that undeniably belongs to the genre of cyberpunk. The film predated “The Matrix,” the most successful of any cyberpunk film, by several years. However, the two share a similar aesthetic. House and industrial music is the soundtrack of the day. People wear lots of leather and sport weirdo hair cuts. Intense violence, kinky sex, and urban decay stand alongside each other. What pushes “Strange Days” truly towards cyberpunk is its intense focus on how technology changes the world. The SQUID technology isn't the usual kind of sci-fi technology. It doesn't make space travel quicker or uproot society. Instead, it's mostly used for recreational purposes, affecting more how we see life instead of life itself. Bigelow freely mixes noir troupes with sci-fi ones, creating the kind of dreary story William Gibson probably would've approved of.

A problem with “Strange Day” is how hilariously dated it immediately was. To be fair to Bigelow and Cameron, the story was first thought up in 1986. 1999 probably seemed way further off than in 1995, when the movie finally got released. Needless to say, the film does not accurately portray life as it existed at the end of the millennium. For those that remember 1999, you'll recall that California wasn't under martial law, industrial fashion was already passe, and the streets weren't abuzz with immersive video technology. Even our most fantastic sci-fi authors couldn't have predicted the internet, which was just beginning to change life forever. They wouldn't have guessed that stupid computer bugs, school shootings, and presidential blowjobs would be the biggest causes of end-of-the-millennium anxiety. Yet setting the film so recent in the future was a risky move. Just four years after its release, “Strange Days” was irrecoverably dated.

In truth, “Strange Days” seems to more accurately portray the new tens than the early naughties. Technology like the SQUIDs doesn't exist and is probably impossible. What we do have is immersive VR like the Oculus Rift, micro-cameras in eye glasses, and powerful computers in everybody's pockets. People do make POV recordings of their lives and present them to the world. It's just done on YouTube, instead of through illegal MiniDisc. The film's racial threads seem most prescient. Though obviously inspired by the Rodney King beatings, a world where police officers are openly hostile against racial minorities sadly reflects 2017. So does more compact video technology making this violence more visible. Truthfully, “Strange Days” just undershot its setting. Bump the date up seventeen years and we'd be calling this movie pretty accurate, instead of utterly incorrect. (Though not even sci-fi story tellers as bold as Bigelow and Cameron would have predicted that a B-list celebrity and evil man-child would be our president now.)

For its interesting attributes, “Strange Days” is plagued by a number of problems. The biggest of which is a deeply miscast lead actor. Ralph Finnes plays Lenny Nero. Finnes is a great actor, capable of being a stately voice of authority and an utterly sinister villain. Even in his most wicked roles, he's still a dignified presence. Lenny Nero is a slimy, pathetic conman. He has perpetually greasy hair and wears garish outfits. Finnes does not project these qualities. The actor has no issue embodying the character's arc, of a hopeless man learning he's loved. He's just not right for the part, bringing too many respectable qualities to what should be a totally feckless individual. The worst insult is that Finnes' American accent is constantly slipping. You can't help but picture someone like James Woods, Steve Buscemi, or Christopher Walken in the part instead.

The leading lady is much better cast. Angela Basset plays Mace. A professional driver, she's one of Lenny's only real friends. And being Lenny's friend is hard, as she's constantly grappling with his sleazy ways. Watching the relationship between these two characters grow is interesting. What's more compelling is just how bad ass Basset is. She beats up a trio of thugs attacking Nero, in one especially impressive moment. When her car is set on fire, she takes a direct solution to the problem: Driving into the bay. Later, she's right beside the male hero as they rush into trouble, taking attackers head on. Basset is so good in the part that you wish the whole movie was about her tough but vulnerable character. You also wish that “Strange Days” had been successful enough to launch Basset to a whole career of action movie roles.

There's a problem with Basset's character though. She's in love with Lenny. We see brief glimpses of Nero's previous life, as a respected police officer. Despite their personal connection, it's impossible to believe someone as strong as Mace would be stuck on someone as pathetic as Lenny. Part of Lenny's sad life is his obsession with his ex-girlfriend, Faith. Nero's prior life with Faith was seemingly angelic. Now, she's sleeping with a scum bag record producer and spending time in seedy bars. You can tell how nice her life with Lenny was because those flashbacks are brightly lit. Her current life is gloomy and sweaty. (If that's too subtle, she's also dyed her hair a darker color.) Juliette Lewis plays Faith as some sort of grunge-rock sex pixie, her personality varying due to the whims of the script. Similarly, if Faith is so lousy to him, why is Lenny still so in love with her? The criss-crossing tales of unrequited love is convoluted but ultimately too emotionally simple, leading to an utterly dishonest final scene.

What really caught people's eye about “Strange Days” in 1995 were the SQUID sequences. The first person perspective shots recall the gritty, on-the-ground action direction Bigelow employed in “Point Break.” They also bring voyeuristic horror films to mind. The audience is put behind the eyes of a sadistic serial rapist and murderer. One sequence shows the attacker breaking into an apartment, tying up a woman, assaulting and then killing her. It's an intense, sickening moment. This scene is reprised later in the film as a session of kinky sex, really messing with the viewer. It's powerfully, unnerving stuff and Bigelow pulls it off excellently. I just wish the film used this moments to comment on voyeurism and the effect technology has on it a little more.

In addition to Finnes and Basset, a number of other fine performers appear in “Strange Days.” Tom Sizemore, an actor who has never had any problems playing an unlikable part, brings an earthy sleaze to his supporting part. Though her character is inconsistently written, Juliette Lewis is very attractive in her part. An early scene, in which she wears a leg-warmers/bikini bottom/tank top combo while on roller skates must truly be seen. You don't understand why Lenny loves her now but you certainly get why he loved her then. Vincent D'Noferia is all intense bluster as the racist, scumbag cop. He makes for a good villain. William Fichtner shows up as his partner, bringing some sweaty looks with him. Michael Wincott sports a bizarre accent as the scummy record producer but otherwise brings the hatable qualities necessary for the part.

Reportedly, James Cameron's original treatment for “Strange Days” was rambling and way too long. Jay Cocks pared Cameron's words down into something manageable. Yet “Strange Days” still feels disorganized in its plotting. Eventually, it's revealed that the serial killer, the SQUID trade, the racist cops, and the shady record producer are barely connected. Some of those elements don't connect at all. It's as if the movie was attempting a film noir style plotting but half-assed it. These surplus of loose ends come crashing together in the film's final act. “Strange Days” features an especially egregious cliché. The bad guy appears to the hero and explains every detail of his plan.  He even mentions that he intends to kill him as soon as he's done. Gee whiz, why don't you just kill him now?

Another problem with “Strange Days” is that it's too long. The film is two hours and twenty-eight minutes. You really begin to feel that in the last twenty minutes. After the true identity of the killer is revealed, the story feels more-or-less resolved. Instead, “Strange Days” continues to roll on. We get yet more dramatic reveals, more bad guys meeting their untimely demises, more social unrest. These scenes also feature a rather blunt recreation of the Rodney King beating, which is in debatable taste. This isn't just a failure of pacing but plotting. If the writer hadn't set up all these plot points, we wouldn't need a bloated finale devoted to resolving all of them.

Ultimately, “Strange Days” is an interesting but deeply uneven film. There are some clever ideas but the script is overstuffed. Some of the performances are really good. Others are miscalculated. The setting is impressive but also laughable. (Such as a rapper who is supposed to be an inspiring public figure... But really sucks at rapping.) I guess that's what you get from an equally dated and prescient motion picture. With a cleaner script, snappier run time, and different star, it could've easily been a sci-fi classic. Instead, it's an interesting but far from satisfying minor cult film. [Grade: C+]

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