Memories Were Meant to Fade: Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days (1995)
Sometimes I miss the bigger picture, and in the case with Kathryn Bigelow I felt like there was a rift in her directorial work. There was everything before her 2009 Best Picture winning war film The Hurt Locker, and her 2012 Zero Dark Thirty. While watching the trailer for Detroit, I thought, “well I like Bigelow’s hard-line realism, but I wish she would make pulpy genre movies.” Blue Steel was a creative action film, while Point Break and Near Dark left enduring impressions. Strange Days, however, is a different matter that lead me to realize that Kathryn Bigelow’s socio-political driven brand of direction wasn’t a recent occurrence. It was just as visible in her earlier work.
Strange Days is a wildly ambitious amalgam of social, political commentary as a vehicle for hard science fiction. For all that the movie has to offer, it’s almost too much. Bigelow’s high minded intentions provide a wildly imaginative but occasionally overpacked epic. And yet this murky expose is as generous as it's sensorily assaultive; it’s perversely compelling, and it’s dated in a way that might make its social import seem more poignant.
What makes this delightfully uneven film such a joy is that its story and scope are trying to match one another and the movie gets bigger and bigger. Strange Days is somewhere between cyberpunk neo noir, or a neo-punk cyber noir. Regardless, Bigelow's feature borrows from darker genre counterparts with enough originality swished in the mix, lending a crisp veneer to the film; Strange Days is slick and stylish but brandishes a street smart sense of gritty realism.
On the eve of the millennium the newest drug on the streets isn’t heroin or coke, but mini discs of recorded memories and events that are taped straight from the user's cerebral cortex using a sensory recorder headset aka SQUID device which can record anything experienced by the user. Ray Fiennes (remember when we called him Ray?) is brilliant as Lenny Nero a down on his luck small time criminal who’s not only immersed in the trafficking of SQUID discs but a defunct member of the LAPD. Nero’s a schemer and a bit sleazy but as any anti-hero abides by a moral code.
In the days leading up the new year, Nero is roped into an intricate conspiracy murder plot involving the LAPD, his ex-girlfriend (the always delightful Juliette Lewis), her magnate record producer boyfriend and his cronies, while the entire city is plunged in a racially fueled, politically incendiary city on the brink of self-destruction.
Strange Days is a film that shows some of the best sides of Bigelow’s sensibilities. Before The Hurt Locker makeover of suspenseful realism, her political acumen is in full throttle by posturing the post-Rodney King climate. Sadly that state of affairs hasn't quelled over the years. It’s the cultural agency that makes Bigelow’s narrative age so well, that and its treatment of media and technology; the level of commentary is deep enough to penetrate the social strata and serve as a sharply accurate forecast of the invasive and incriminating power of social media. In the overly sanitized landscape of modern movies, and asexual science fiction epics, this film delivers a jolt in its frank depiction of mature themes.
At some points, you wonder if the film is commenting on our demented fixation on fetishizing rape culture, and I’d like to think that the lurid plot elements are a condemnation but at times we linger a few paces longer than we need to. The overarching themes of “visual media = drugs” felt heavy handed in the mid-nineties. It goes without saying that our current cultural climate has proved our tech obsession tenfold.
The stylistic collision lends to the over inflation, but the genesis of the movie and its culling aesthetic resources serve as a snapshot of modern politics and the different atmosphere of science fiction. There’s a massive waft of Blade Runner, the rainy nocturnal imagining of Los Angeles echoes Scott’s visionary film. The unmistakably Japanese influence as Strange Days is a full-blooded cyberpunk feature, (James Cameron was a vehement admirer of the original Ghost in the Shell), but Kathryn Bigelow, at this point in her career, opted toward genre films and Strange Days is an immaculate hybrid of her shared sensibilities as an entertainer and social commentator.
In the case of American movies in the nineties, there isn’t been a more allegorically laden action/sci-fi feature (and it wavers at moments, tripping on its shoelaces) than Strange Days. Kathyrn Bigelow’s film intentions have been curtailed to a more straightforward style of storytelling but the duality of Strange Days, to me, wields more power than her later work.