Strange Days Indeed

Paul R. Potts

A few years ago, I watched this film again. My opinion of the film has diminished significantly in the years since I wrote my original review. I can still recognize some of the visual elements, props, edits, and action scenes that I enjoyed, but over the years my reaction to violence of any kind in fiction has changed. I think I’ve been “de-desensitized” — in other words, the callous attitude towards violence I had developed, from a childhood and adolescence of television, mainstream films, and violent video games, has faded. I haven’t had cable television since the twentieth century. With young children in the house, I don’t watch very many mainstream “grown-up” films. And the last time I tried to play a violent video game, I was so repulsed that I had to quit.

Reading my original review now, my defense of the film’s violence towards women makes me cringe. I have also evidently become more critical of sloppy screenwriting and indifferent direction. This film is stuffed with both. Angela Bassett plays a stunningly gorgeous badass, and she is electrifying in the action sequences. But she was poorly directed in quieter scenes, and so gets some truly clunky line readings.

I note in my defense that I was not the only one who thought more highly of Strange Days when it came out. Many professional critics, including Roger Ebert, praised the film, although he did note its implausible ending. In 2016, though, the film has a 63% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes film review web site, which seems about right to me. Reviews that appeared when the film came out indicated that the film was quite polarizing. I think in some ways it has simply aged badly. In other ways I think the stylish visuals and aggressive music encouraged the audience to believe they were watching a better story than they actually were. It has, I think, some of the same issues that make the revered science fiction movie Blade Runner fascinating rather than great.

Despite its weaknesses, it remains somewhat of an iconic film, and dimly reflects a vision of the future passed that says more about the time it was made than the time it portrays. It reminded me a bit of another odd film, Brainstorm, and parts of a book called Mother of Storms. I’m not sure if these were influences, but William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy almost certainly was. And the soundtrack album is still worth seeking out, with very cool tracks by Skunk Anansie and Deep Forest.

My opinion of Johnny Mnemonic hasn’t changed one bit, though.

I went to see Strange Days. I was expecting to hate it. After all, I ground my teeth all the way through Johnny Mnemonic and had heard that all the recent information super-cowpath spinoff films (Hackers, The Net, etc.) were pretty poor. I was hoping, and the group of friends I went with was also hoping, that Strange Days would be something better. It was.

I liked Strange Days. Actually, I liked it quite a bit. I thought the acting is really above par. It avoids most clichés. The technology isn’t geeked-up. The music and sound effects (in a THX-equipped theater) are great. The editing is wild. The movie is gripping, and doesn’t slow down. The characters are engaging, if slightly greasy. (Will someone please wash Our Hero’s hair?) I’m convinced; it looks like Los Angeles in the last days of the year 1999. Not because it looks so different, but because it looks so much the same. I once thought that the year 2000 was unimaginably far away. After all, I will be 32 when it gets here. Once, that seemed old. Now, it is looming very near.

Why is everyone bashing Strange Days?

I think I know what happened — a decent movie managed to escape Hollywood. The Mediocrity Enforcement Response Team (MERT) went into action. All the reviews I’ve seen of it have been horrible, as if they were reading from the same press kit. Oh, another reason it isn’t going to be popular: it is relatively long, and people don’t have the attention span necessary to watch long movies any more (what were they thinking? Sub-plots? Character development? Establishing a sense of place? They should know better!)

Were I only slightly more cynical, I would say that the chief reason the Johnny Mnemonic crowd won’t like a movie such as Strange Days is that they simply go to movies for different reasons than I do. They don’t go to a film to see compelling characters doing compelling things, or being swept along (as in Strange Days) by terrifying events that are much larger than they are. They go to a movie to see expensive special effects and explosions, or something.

Now, Strange Days is no slouch in the explosion department, but the special effects all exist in service to the plot, and are not highlighted as if they were the stars of the film. In fact, the high-tech SQUID recording and playback gear has an utterly convincing, hand-assembled, underground look to it; Our Hero keeps his personal cartridges in a shoe box, and the playback device looks like a rewired, dirty, battered Sony Discman. This is pretty much the opposite of what filmgoers expect to see when confronted with a gleaming new technology, and it is bound to disappoint the Lawnmower Man crowd, but to me it is extremely convincing, and a good example of the director’s integrity. (I heard Strange Days referred to as Lawnmower Man II, which I found extremely puzzling; I can scarcely imagine two films with less in common).

Oh, I’ve just thought of one more reason that Strange Days is not taking the adolescent theater-going crowd by storm: non-traditional characters. Our Hero is no gun-toting Antonio Banderas; he is an anti-hero; he is a weak man undergoing a great deal of personal torment as he clings to a broken love affair. Our Heroine is no simpering, buxom bit of scenery: she is the strong one, tough, competent, in command. Her only weakness appears to be Our Hero, but it is revealed in flashback that there are reasons for her compassion for him. Oh, and Our Heroine is African-American. Apparently, it doesn’t pay to defy stereotypes, at least at the box office.

Probably as a result of bad reviews, the theater was virtually empty (on a Friday night only a week after the film opened, that’s pretty bad). It’s a shame. It’s the best film I’ve seen in some time.

The Violence Issue

It has come to my attention that Strange Days is getting a lot of bad press on the ’net. People are saying that it is filled with misogynistic violence. Life is like that some times. I will elaborate on this topic below.

Warning! Spoilers!

I find it difficult to swallow the claim that Strange Days is just another misogynistic male vision. Why? Well, for one reason, the director is a woman. Now, it doesn’t necessarily follow that she is not by nature misogynistic (or perhaps she didn’t have the editorial control she should have), but that fact may make one at least stop to consider the situation further.

Strange Days does contain some shocking scenes. The scene that seems to be causing the most indigestion is one in which a woman is assaulted, bound, raped, and killed. Or, to put it as bluntly as one of the characters does, “he rapes her, then he does her.” The strange thing about the scene is that it is recorded from the perspective of the assailant. The perpetrator is wearing the SQUID device that records his perceptions for later playback. The grotesque twist on this crime is that after the victim is blindfolded, the perpetrator places a SQUID headgear apparatus over her head, connected to his own. She now sees through his eyes (he holds up the murder weapon in front of his own eyes so that she will see it), and experiences the perpetrator’s sick pleasure during the sexual assault. The combined experiences of both victim and perpetrator are recorded on a mini-compact disk and delivered to Our Hero.

Now, this all sounds pretty graphic and grotesque, and it is. That disk recording this event is a highly charged symbol of many things that are very wrong in the world. But it is presented in a manner designed to horrify, not to titillate. The director here forces us to overcome our own squeamishness at the sight of sexual violence and face the titillation factor. This playback can be contrasted to Our Hero’s compulsive, sad playback of erotic recordings of the earlier days when he and his girlfriend were getting along. These two very different uses of the recording technology, each in its own way a perversion of real experience, stand as two ends of a spectrum of depravity, and set up the final use of the SQUID playback, where Our Hero must confront the possibility that the same crime has been committed against his ex-girlfriend. The two polar extremes of playback experience are combined, knocking him out of the past and into the final realization that she is beyond redemption. She is no longer the person in his recycled memories, and he must give her up, because if the past is not forgotten, the pain of it cannot be healed.

Our Hero is forced to view the event in its recorded form, not to gratify his own urges, but to find out what has happened to his friend. By seeing through the eyes of the perpetrator, he is able to establish the location where the crime is taking place. Just enough of this event is shown to establish what is happening. The camera does not linger over it. What is our hero’s reaction to experiencing the crime through the SQUID headgear, coupled with both the emotional experiences of horror and warped pleasure? Agony, horror, sweats, and vomiting. Does that sound to you like the director is portraying this event to give the audience a cheap thrill at the expense of women?

I suppose it won’t really matter to those hell-bent on promoting a particular interpretation of the film, but in the film, episodes of violence towards men are on par with, or even outnumber, those of violence to women. And the violence towards men is portrayed in more graphic detail. This tendency to accept the one as par for the course and be righteously horrified by the other is known as “being politically correct.” In fact, most viewers will regard this situation as nothing out of the ordinary; it won’t even be possible for them to truly see the acts of violence against men as violence against people. But I digress.

In several scenes, the nasty rock-n-roll dude strikes his girlfriend. He is a Bad Guy. This action helps establish his character. I believe it is possible to portray acts like this without advocating them; the difference is the context. Context is something we tend to forget about these days.

For me, the most horrifying violence in the film centers on the actions of two “loose cannon” Los Angeles police officers. In one scene they abruptly execute an important character. In another, they chase the heroine through a crowded outdoor scene, weapons blazing. Several random bystanders are struck by bullets — wounded or killed, we don’t know. The police officers are oblivious to this carnage. We don’t get to go back and find out what became of these shooting victims. This cold-blooded attitude of indifference to actually terrifies me more than the twisted mind of the stalker who rapes and kills the woman in the earlier scene.

My one warning about this movie is about its rating. It is graphically sexual (not pornographic, but Our Hero’s ex-girlfriend wearing chain-mail panties is enough to titillate even this jaded net hack). In my mind, this justifies its R rating. I don’t believe that showing breasts in an erotic context will harm young minds. But given the events of sexual violence, I think an NC-17 rating would be justified. I don’t believe that people below 17 are necessarily capable of integrating the rape/murder scene and understanding it in its proper context.

Ann Arbor, Michigan

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