By Daniel Barnes
One of the fascinating and unfortunate things about director Kathryn Bigelow is her natural and often exploitative appropriation of the male gaze. As I wrote in this 2010 SN&R column on Bigelow, “Her great cinematic obsession is the volatile group dynamics of violent, male-dominated environments, but beyond that, she has a way of eroticizing and exploiting women that feels very masculine.”
In her 1995 cyber-punk thriller Strange Days, Bigelow’s camera slobbers over every inch of Juliette Lewis’ body. She even has the gall to turn a disgusting POV rape scene into a cheap plot twist. Strange Days has some fantastic and audacious setpieces (always a Bigelow trademark), and a central hook that would get refurbished in Spielberg’s much better Minority Report, but for the most part this is an ugly, silly, unformed, and heavily dated film.
Bigelow and screenwriters James Cameron and Jay Cocks (he also helped pen the terrible script for Gangs of New York) envision the Los Angeles of late 1999 as a crime-filled war zone where tanks roam the streets, gas costs $13 a gallon, PJ Harvey cover bands rule the club scene, and socially conscious rap artists dominate the hip-hop industry. Nailed it!
In Bigelow’s vision, there is also a black market that has sprung up around memories, thanks to new technology that allows people to record and sell their experiences “pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex.” Several different subcultures have sprung up around this new technology, including thrill-seeking criminals looking to sell their memories for a big price, as well as scuzzball dealers like Ralph Fiennes’ unwashed Lenny Nero.
Lenny is a disgraced former cop reduced to selling illicit memories, and also a junkie addicted to the memories of his former lover, a punkish pop star played by Lewis. Bigelow indulges Lewis in several musical numbers, but her character’s torrid past with Lenny, while crucial to the story, is never believable.
There is a similar air of fraudulence in Lenny’s relationship with his ass-kicking best friend/love interest/limo driver/ conscience played by Angela Bassett, a character that feels trucked in from a different film and mutates to fit the particular needs of each scene.
There are a lot of issues broached in Strange Days, and besides a few great action scenes, the film is most worthy as a catalog of early-to-mid 1990s paranoid fantasies. Police abuse is a constant theme, as are millennium-centric apocalypse fears, while it is the murder of a politically charged rapper named Jericho One that sets the story in motion. Unfortunately, none of these ideas get intelligently developed, and the film gets very repetitive and draggy between the showpiece sequences.
At 145 minutes of pointless ugliness, Strange Days staggers towards a silly conclusion filled with deus ex machinas and monologue-ing villains. Bassett’s character is savagely beaten by police officers, sparking a massive race riot just as the clock strikes midnight, but the violence magically stops when an old white male figure of moral authority strides into the scene. It is the nadir of Bigelow’s compulsion to appropriate and assimilate with the male gaze, and although the film’s lack of box office success has reflexively spawned a league of defenders, Strange Days is easily her worst film.