Strange Days (US, 1995)

Almost the end of the world

Strange Days, a complete flop at the box office, is set in 1999. Its fin de siecle vision of 1995 – remember SF is always about the present – presents a dystopia that is mired in problems of law and order. The army is on the streets of L.A. backing up a heavy police presence. Early in the film Lenny Nero (who is fiddling while L.A. burns), the white central protagonist, drives through the city streets observing the near anarchy: a Santa Claus is chased and beaten up; burning cars send smoke billowing everywhere. Like Blade Runner, lights penetrate private spaces: in Lenny’s apartment red neon suffuses the scene and blue helicopter searchlights pry through venetian blinds. Also referencing the Blade Runner is the first shot that is an extreme close-up of an eye.

The central conceit of the film concerns a device – a SQUID – that allows experiences to be recording as real and played back later. This raises the issue of memory for if experience can be recorded first hand, rather than photographed or videoed, then memory can become almost redundant. The SQUID is an illegal apparatus and Nero deals on the black market, peddling pornography and ‘b and e’ (breaking and entering) recordings. The device is characterised as an addictive drug which, over-used, increases paranoia.

Strange Days is immensely ambitious: the narrative thrust of the film concerns the murder of Jeriko 1, (a black civil rights leader) by rogue LAPD elements that is recorded by a SQUID. The ‘clip’, which falls into Lenny’s hands, is potentially incendiary, as there is already a near riot on the streets, and it is New Year’s Eve 1999. Lenny is a rather pathetic character obsessed by a femme fatale ex-girlfriend, ironically named Faith. He is aided by Mace, a female, black security specialist who, unbeknownst to Lenny, is in love with him. However, Lenny’s only concern is to get Faith back and he cares little for the race war that seems about to erupt.

In Blade Runner memories are shown to be crucial to our identity as humans. Strange Days develops this idea: a symptom of Lenny’s obsession with Faith is that he constantly ‘plays back’ – using the SQUID – the happy times they had. Mace, who is an immensely charismatic and powerful character, eventually loses her temper with him: ‘Lenny, memories were meant to fade. They’re designed that way for a reason.’

‘Time heals’ is a cliché that expresses the process where painful memories fade. If they do not then our existence could be unbearably painful. By the end of the film, Lenny realises that Mace is right and the chief of police averts the cataclysmic riot. This deus ex machina happy ending is certainly at odds with what precedes it and is probably a result of Hollywood insisting on ‘happy ever after’ in preference to a chilling political statement about race relations in contemporary North America. However, the relationship between the central characters, a white man and black woman, may express the filmmaker’s hope for a future were racial strife is history.

Strange Days also deals with cinema. The opening scene gives us a visceral experience from the point-of-view of an armed robber who ends up falling off the top of a building. The director, Kathryn Bigelow, especially designed a camera for this sequence that seems to give us an uninterrupted flow from start to finish. This first person narration is what the SQUID ‘clips’ provide.

Later, in an extremely disturbing scene, a prostitute wearing a SQUID is raped and strangled by a man also wearing the device. Simultaneously he is playing back his experience to his victim thereby doubling her terror: she can see herself being murdered and feel the murderer’s pleasure. The whole scene is filmed from the point-of-view of the rapist using all of cinema’s voyeuristic power. It implicates the audience in the viewing by making us conscious that we are looking at something we do not want to see. Most cinematic scenes of sex and violence distance the audience from the material in such a way it can become pleasurable; we gain vicarious pleasure from what we know is a representation. However, Bigelow’s direction of this scene gives us no such pleasure. We, like the victim, are caught in a loop of seeing the forbidden. Blade Runner also alludes to cinema in the characters of the replicants; who, like actors, are programmed (by directors and themselves) for an ephemeral role.

Adapted from Blade Runner, Nick Lacey (York Notes: 2000)

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