Spoilers will fry your brain.
I wanted to pick one film to wrap up this crazy year. If you have never seen it, you might want to read on a little bit. Although you could sum up the plot focusing on the device that can make you relive someone else’s memory, that is actually more of a plot device that becomes the means to an end. There’s a lot of deeper subjects here. As much as one can praise the filmmakers for actually addressing them, they also decide to resolve them pretty much as exceptions to the rule. The problem is they’ve already portrayed them all going on throughout the film. It does make for an interesting movie.
Strange Days (1995) was directed by Kathryn Bigelow based on a screenplay by James Cameron and Jay Cocks. We’re introduced to Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) a former disgraced cop from the LAPD who is now a hustler of memories that you can play and record via a SQUID device giving you a virtual reality experience where you also feel the same emotions than the person who recorded it. The device has two components: one peripheral that you put on your head, slim enough that you can disguise it under a wig or a hat, and a drive for the media that looks like a mini-disc. Lenny himself “wires” up to relive his memories of former girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis), a former hooker turned singer.
But not everyone in futuristic Los Angeles is corrupt. Meet Mace (Angela Bassett), a total badass. She drives a limo and provides security for high-paying customers. She has to provide for her family since her husband ended up in prison. She’s the moral compass and common sense for both Lenny and the audience, which means he often ignores her words of caution. Mace can kick ass in a fight and usually does when Lenny has gotten into a bad situation, which happens at least once a day. More than a few plot summaries of the film speak about Mace having an unrequited love for Lenny, but that is hardly a defining characteristic and I will add, it’s not a necessary one. We’ll discuss that further soon enough.
There’s also Max (Tom Sizemore), a private investigator that seems to know Lenny from his days in the force. He’s gone ahead and accept a job that Lenny is not going to approve. He’s become Faith’s bodyguard and informs on her ongoings to Philo Gant (Michael Wincott). Philo is a media mogul who’s biggest claim to fame is his client Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), a rapper that has been making headlines speaking out against racial injustice. Jeriko has just been found dead, shot in an supposed gang-related incident. Philo now seems to be offering Faith the spotlight, trying to make her a star. On top of that, Lenny keeps using every excuse to try to talk to Faith, enraging Philo.
While Lenny goes about his business or gets kicked by Philo’s posse of bodyguards, he’s being constantly tailed by Iris (Brigitte Bako), a hooker and friend of Faith’s. She’s on the run from two particularly sadistic police officers, Steckler (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Engelman (William Fichtner). We learn early on they will shoot her on sight and during a close call, found out she was wearing a SQUID device under her wig. At this point, you can play connect-the-dots and see where all this is going. There are no coincidences in this plot.
Iris seems determined to get a disc to Lenny and ends up slipping it into his car. Lenny doesn’t know this but he ends up getting an envelope with yet another disc where someone has recorded himself raping and killing Iris. This murder is even more gruesome as the killer also has a modified rig where they can hook up a parallel SQUID to make the victim feel what the killer experiences. The killer is the last piece of the puzzle. Although there’s a few obvious suspects in this short list (namely, the ones still alive of course), we can already rule out the ones no longer alive. This killer is apparently working alone.
When the disc is finally found, which (I said spoilers, don’t at me) ends up revealing the two cops after Iris are also behind the murder of Jeriko, this becomes Mace’s true agenda as she knows this is bigger than Lenny’s intention to use the disc as leverage with Philo. I love that at the party Lenny acknowledges this is more Mace’s fight than his and gives it to her. This sequence of Mace taking the disc to Commissioner Strickland (Josef Sommer) and then finds herself targeted by the cops had me screaming at the screen. The part where the crowd watching this finally snaps and stops them is glorious.
All that said, it has a fundamental flaw. The violence and the problem of racial injustice is reduced and isolated to just the two officers. The problem is solved by going to a superior, and white, officer. The system is exempt of any wrongdoings (keep in mind the entire police is still out there beating up civilians in the background) and the two only evil members of law enforcers end up dead. They won’t even be judged. The guilty are dead, and the system ends up saving Mace and Lenny.
There’s a scene which one could debate is even more messed up as Lenny goes up to try, once freaking more, to “liberate” Faith. This time he’s armed, but once he reaches the hotel room where Faith is supposed to be, he founds everything in disarray and a new envelope with a disc for him. There’s all sorts of issues that come up here, including another recorded rape that ends up being consensual which somehow is more problematic. Lenny ends up facing up with the killer as well as sort of saving Faith. I don’t have a problem with Juliette Lewis’ performance, but I found her character very troublesome in the final reveal. Fortunately, Lenny finally walks away from Faith here.
I think a lot of the characters are engaging as well as the plot. Lenny has the chance to do the right thing, and only with much prodding from Mace is he willing to realize the evidence he’s got should be put into the right hands. Mace embodies the strong female character for her moral backbone more than her fighting skills. I know the easiest conclusion is to believe she has unrequited love for Lenny and there’s that kiss at the end which you could argue seals the deal. I just don’t think that last kiss was needed and their relationship was better left to interpretation. Mace does appreciate Lenny as he was there for Mace’s youngest child, but this can constitute a strong bond of friendship. I know that kiss erases that as a possibility, but it still feels tacked on as an audience pleaser. I think both would be better characters without it.
Strongly recommended with reservations. This film has depictions of voyeurism, rape, violence, racial injustice and murder through a lot of its runtime. A lot of them are problematic to say the least. A lot of violence against women and minorities is treated as routine in the background. To its credit, the movie does address some of these issues although resolution is only against individuals as exceptions. The ideas of systemic racism and sexual exploitation are in this film, but coming up with steps towards solutions might have been too far fetched even for science fiction. Hopefully we’re making progress before the next century rolls around.
That will do for now.