A noirish thriller set on New Year’s Eve, 1999, “Strange Days” focuses on the misadventures of Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes). Lenny is a dealer—not of drugs, but of videos. These videos are no feature films. Rather, they’re real-life experiences: images, tastes, sounds captured by a device that essentially turns people into video cameras. If you see it and feel it, you can record it with a Superconducting Quantum Interference Device: SQUID for short.
The tech is illegal and the videos hawked by Lenny doubly so, given that they are first-person footage of crimes committed by those wearing SQUID rigs. He’s selling the experience of being an outlaw to suited stiffs looking for a vicarious thrill. The imagery captured by these units, so alien in perspective upon the film’s initial release, is far more familiar to a generation that has been raised on first-person shooters on their PlayStations and cellphone videos on YouTube. The opening scene of “Strange Days”—during which we watch the robbery of a Chinese restaurant through the eyes of one of the perpetrators—sprang to mind last week when I saw the images of the Roanoke shooter pointing his Glock and pulling the trigger. From the angle of the camera to the action in front of it, life was imitating art in the most horrible way imaginable.
Lenny is an addict as well as a dealer, reliving a past relationship with a singer named Faith Justin (Juliette Lewis) over and over again. His addiction keeps him from seeing that his friend and hyper-competent limo driver and bodyguard Mace (Angela Bassett) could provide the stability he needs.
The Los Angeles of 1999 envisioned by director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriters James Cameron and Jay Cocks is a pre-apocalyptic hellscape: as Lenny cruises the streets from deal to deal, police clash with protesters and average citizens alike. A smoky haze drifts up from the trash-strewn pavement, lending a sense of menace to the city streets. A rapper named Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) is a mainstay on local news and music video channels, riling the proles with his socially conscious rhymes before being mysteriously gunned down under an overpass.
For convoluted reasons not entirely worth getting into here, Faith’s life is in danger because one of her friends was at the scene of Jeriko One’s murder, which she witnessed while wearing a SQUID rig. The recording reveals the horrifying truth: the rapper was not killed as a result of gang activity, as police suggested, but because he mouthed off to some cops during a random traffic stop. As several of the characters note, should this video hit the airwaves the city would likely erupt into an orgy of violence that would make the Rodney King riots look like a love-in.
“Subsequently, the danger surrounding his death is not that he was killed, but that there is a tape that reveals how it happened,” writes Peter Labuza in “Approaching the End: Imagining Apocalypse in American Film.” “Actual events are less harmful than their media documentation, which amplifies its reception and thus its consequences.”
It’s an apt reading of the stakes in “Strange Days,” one that echoes the current angst over police violence that has given rise to Black Lives Matter. From Eric Garner in New York to Tamir Rice in Cleveland, the killing of African American males by police officers has touched off a crisis across the country. I’m not here to litigate the merits of Black Lives Matter, but Jeriko One’s murder and the subsequent coverup of the crime play into that movement’s deepest fears: that driving while black is a crime; that mouthing off to a cop can lead to a death sentence; that the Thin Blue Line is the true Menace II Society. Our times may not be quite as tenuous as those in “Strange Days,” but the violence in Ferguson following the killing of Michael Brown and the burning in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray suggest that we’re not as far off as we might like.
Given its continued relevance, I find it distressing that the film is only available for home viewing on an embarrassingly outdated DVD in the United States, one so old that it’s not even enhanced for 16×9 televisions. Granted, the movie was a pretty big flop on theatrical release, grossing under $8 million on a $42 million budget. But the flick’s pedigree—Bigelow is the only woman to win a best director Oscar and James Cameron co-wrote the screenplay—leads me to believe that cinephiles would be willing to shell out for a luxe Blu-ray release from a boutique home video outfit like the Criterion Collection.