Monday, August 22, 2011

Strange Days

Science fiction movies often walk a dangerously thin line.  On the one hand, they need to be different enough from the modern day to make things interesting, but if you make things too different, you risk alienating your audience (unless you have a huge budget for cool special effects).  One solution that often works well is to set your film in the near future, so you can make some improvements, but not have to change the entire world; it's economical and takes a whole lot less pre-production to imagine a not-too-future world.  When I say that this method "works well," I mean that it succeeds upon the film's immediate release.  Movies like this can seem awfully quaint after the modern day passes what was once the near future.  Case in point: Strange Days.

In the last few days of 1999, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) has gotten himself into a lot of trouble.  For starters, he is a former Los Angeles police officer who has become a sleazy dealer of illegal technology.  You see, in 1999 Los Angeles, there are Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices (SQUIDs), which are cyberpunk tools for recording a person's point of view --- through their eyes, with their emotions and physical sensations --- and Lenny sells the recordings.  Of course, this was over a decade ago, so you probably remember all this.  SQUIDs are stylish, too, often taking on the appearance of obvious wigs.
Either a SQUID or somebody scalped a robot
It's not make explicitly clear why the practice is illegal, but I suppose a demand for "high-risk" memories of criminal acts could be a bad thing.  Anyway, Lenny is a fast-talking sleazebag with a heart of gold.  He spends his non-dealing time pining for his lost love, Faith (Juliette Lewis), and reliving his own SQUID-recorded memories of her.  Not surprisingly, his highlights usually include her in tight clothing or clothing-optional moments.  When I say that Faith is "lost," I don't mean dead; she just left him for the evil and gravelly-voiced record producer, Philo (Michael Wincott).  Philo is a rich jerk with psychotic tendencies and a habit for being over-possessive.  Faith wants to be a rock star, with all the egocentric behavior that implies.
"What a catch."  Apply the statement to either or both.
Man, science fiction movies require a lot of exposition.  Anyway, Lenny winds up at the center of a storm of evil-doing.  Someone is giving him SQUID tapes showing the anonymous user raping, murdering, and --- most disturbing to Lenny --- breaking into Lenny's apartment while he slept.  For one reason or another, Lenny concludes that this killer is going to go after Faith soon.  But who could the killer be?  Could it possibly be the two LAPD officers that are trying to kill Lenny?  Or are they a symptom of a deeper conspiracy?  Dum-da-DUUUUMMMMM?!?

For being a weird sci-fi movie, there sure are a lot of quality actors in Strange Days.  Ralph Fiennes turns in an interesting lead performance; he plays Lenny as a broken man, only a shadow of what he had been.  And yet, he is still capable enough to unravel a few mysteries and avoid getting killed on several occasions.  The cool thing about Fiennes is that his performance would have made Lenny's failure just as believable as his success would --- Lenny is not your typical movie hero, because he actually needs his friends.  Those friends turn in surprising performances, too.  Angela Bassett gets to play a tough, no-nonsense cabbie that also happens to be pining away for Lenny while he bitches and moans about Faith.  I don't know if we needed the romantic angle, but it was more depth than I expected from her buddy role.  The other buddy is Tom Sizemore as a sleazy private detective; while I normally enjoy mid-90s Sizemore, his ridiculous hairpiece was too distracting for me.
...or maybe I got lost in his dreamy eyes.
Vincent D'Onofrio and William Fichtner played corrupt cops (In Los Angeles?  In the 90s?  Suspend that disbelief!), but they weren't great at it.  Fichtner was fine, but D'Onofrio overacted in this one-dimensional role, somehow equating shouting and sweating with complexity.
And from this seed, Law & Order: Criminal Intent would sprout.
Glenn Plummer's character was a blend of Chuck D and Malcom X, so it should be no surprise that he didn't aim for quiet complexity in his limited screen time.  Career character actor Richard Edson (the parking garage valet in Ferris Bueller) had a bit part, too, and was only marginally more casual.  Michael Wincott once again played an evil character with an evil voice, and he is a pretty solid villain.  Juliette Lewis spent most of the film flaunting her body with either limited or tight-fitting clothing; that's fine I guess, but I've always been kind of weirded out by her.  This is in that time period when she somehow got every "crazy chick" role Hollywood had to offer, and she's as rude and obnoxious as ever.  My biggest problem with her part in this movie is that Lenny can't get over their break-up.
Who could ever get over this?

While I wouldn't say that any of the acting is all that good, I think the cast played up to the storyline pretty well and fit the general tone of the movie.  I had some major problems with the direction, though.  This was Kathryn Bigelow's follow-up to the successful and ridiculous bromance that was Point Break, and Strange Days definitely exhibits more confidence as a director than that film.  Unfortunately, I believe that confidence was largely misplaced.  Bigelow has trouble with the point-of-view camera work necessary to convey the experience of a SQUID recording; the sex scenes, in particular, felt like the cameraman was under strict orders to not follow a natural line of sight.  The pacing of the film is erratic, and the tone suffers from a number of action scenes that have no falling action; that's fine in a tightly-wound and taught thriller, but those words do not describe this film, if only because it takes a while to progress anywhere with this story.  And it is a long while, clocking in at almost two-and-a-half hours.  I understand that James Cameron co-wrote the movie, but he is certainly no genius when it comes to the written word; some more editing would have been nice.

There are also a few stupid ideas in this fabricated future.  That's to be expected from a lot of futuristic sci-fi movies, but these weren't errors in judging how we use technology, they are just poor choices.  I liked that most of the characters in Strange Days dressed more or less like normal people (it was set only five years in the future, after all), but the exceptions to that rule looked idiotic.  For instance, I don't care how eccentric the bad guy is, he's not going to hire a dread-locked albino woman wearing a bondage-themed outfit as a bodyguard, especially as a bodyguard who is sometimes called upon to assault and/or kill someone.  Flashy bodyguards with a license to kill tend to stick out in people's memories.  And why do only people in the future dress that stupidly?
Wasn't she in the Matrix sequel?
It also bothered me that this film deals with cyberpunk ideas, including having bionic parts put in your noggin, but we never see anything too bio-technical.  We get the stupid SQUID hair nets --- which are suspiciously bulky, considering they are recording and reading brain waves that include vision, emotion, and physical sensation --- but we never get to see a bionic eye?  Lame.

I would also like to ask what the deal is with characters who presume that their enemy has drowned.  I don't know how many times I have seen a movie where a car goes into the water --- the bad guys may shoot at the underwater car, or they might not --- and the villains wait to confirm that the good guys are dead...but give up a few moments before the hero resurfaces.  What is the big hurry?  Are these bad guys late for an evil henchmen dinner party?  If there's "no way anyone could have survived that," then why not wait a few more minutes until a body floats up?  That happens pretty frequently in action scenes, but I thought Vincent D'Onofrio's impatience in this movie was especially bad.

Despite its shortcomings, Strange Days is a decently effective science fiction adventure.  The story might have a few too many twists and turns to be truly effective, and the "future" is kind of quaint now, but it is a pretty well-realized future, and that deserves some respect.  I thought the relationships between the various characters was pleasantly atypical; while the plot may have been almost stock for suspense/thrillers at times, the characters didn't ever comfortably fit into that mold.  I would give this movie a higher rating, if not for one glaring flaw: there is absolutely no mention of Prince in this film.  That's right, a movie that climaxes on New Year's Eve, 1999, and was released in 1995 (the height of Prince's "The Artist Former Known As" fame) did not have anyone partying to Prince's "1999."  Talk about science fiction.
"I've got a lion in my pocket, and baby he's ready to roar!"


  1. ok so this is on the noir list as part of neo-noir and im looking forward to it. however with it being right near the end ive got a little way to go. i was going to read your review anyway but just as the 2nd paragraph started i checkened out. sorry brian.

    the M post goes up tomorrow am btw.

  2. Nice write up, I don't know if I'd be as harsh on it as you were, I think it was a fun enough sci-fi thriller...

    That said, you make an excellent points about these sci-fi movies set in the future. LOL. It hit a chord with me because I'm currently digging into Blade Runner pretty heavily for an upcomming post.

    It's set in Los Angeles, 2019.

    I see that and my first though was LA better hurry the %$#& up, I dont think its gonna make it! LOL.

    Nice post!

  3. I love me some Blade Runner. I'll look forward to what you have to say on that one.

    As for Strange Days, this was nowhere in the neighborhood of "harsh." I had wanted to see the movie for quite some time --- it had solid critical rating, Ralph Fiennes is usually great, and I like sci-fi --- but this let me down. The basic premise here (living someone else's memories) has great potential and deserves a film devoted strictly to it.

  4. Screw any errors about predicting what the future may bring, the most major flaw is someone being that broken up over Juliette Lewis. There is no future world where that is a possibility.

    And "fogs," you better watch out if you are planning on bashing Blade Runner. You may just make my list.

  5. Who could possibly bash Blade Runner? Someone allergic to awesome? I wouldn't want to look into the eyes of a Blade Runner-basher; I would probably see the depths of hell in them.

    As for the Juliette Lewis thing, maybe it's worth pointing out that she was 21 when this movie was made, which implies that she was at least a year or two younger than that when she was with Ralph (age 33 in 1995). I guess I can see a guy being wistful over the frequently topless girl he once dated that was 12 years his junior. Of course, once you realize that the woman in question is batshit crazy and weird-looking Juliette Lewis, that argument loses its power. So...I guess I made a counter-argument and then completely negated it because I agree with you. So there.