August 6, 2020 — The fact that this movie was a major box office bomb is mind-blowing in retrospect. It has all of the hallmarks of a classic, but it only made $8 million at the box office, a number that was paltry even back in 1995 when this film was released. When you compare that to its $42 million budget, it’s surprising that anyone made it out of production with a job. The problem wasn’t the content of the film – it was more about the timing. Though the film is set in 1999 and the New Year’s Eve of 2000, it has aged like a fine wine and is possibly more relevant now than it was in its initial release.
There are several incredible names attached to this project, but there are two that need to be mentioned straight out of the gate. It was written by the legendary James Cameron, who is responsible for an entire library of criterion films including Aliens, The first two Terminator movies, Titanic, Avatar, and some cult classics like Dark Angel and The Abyss. Cameron is more than just a creative genius, he’s a technical genius too with a laundry list of patents for innovations in film technology. The director was Cameron’s ex-wife, Katheryn Bigelow, who went on to become the first woman to win an Academy Award for directing. These two alone should be reason enough to watch any movie, but at the time, Bigelow was a relative no-name with Point Break being her only notable film credit, and Cameron was a lot closer to his days directing Piranha 2 than he was to the groundbreaking Avatar.
An ex-cop named Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) has chosen `to leave behind the badge for the life of a two-bit hustler. He sells a pseudo drug called S.Q.U.I.D., which records people’s memories onto a mini disc and can be played back in your mind like virtual reality. He’s relatively happy being a grifter, but things change when he is pulled into a conspiracy by Iris (Brigitte Bako), a friend of Lenny’s ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis).
Lenny is forced to navigate the seedy underground he calls home to protect the people closest to him and unravel the mystery. He encounters a setback early in his investigation when his car gets repossessed. This unfortunate event brings Lenny’s friend and possible love interest Mace (Angela Bassett) into the picture. Mace is a voice of reason and a certified badass that tries to keep Lenny on the straight and narrow while bloodying up some shady characters along the way. As Lenny gets deeper into the investigation, it turns out that nothing is what it seems, and one random act can spark a series of unrelated events. As the case unfolds, Lenny learns that not everyone is who he thinks and the truth could burn Los Angeles to the ground.
Running parallel to Lenny’s investigation is a subplot that is all too close to our current reality. As the turn of the century approaches, people are in the streets protesting police relations, especially when it comes to race. It is somewhat jarring to see a 1995 film so closely parallel the realities of 2020. The subplot eventually takes Mace in a different direction than Lenny, which gives her a co-starring role in the movie and wraps up the overall story with a depressing but satisfying ending.
Strange Days is a genre-bender that viewers are not used to seeing. It is a science fiction film that is so deeply rooted in reality that it doesn’t seem sci-fi at all until you remember that memories are capable of being injected into a person’s brain. It mixes a bit of every other genre with a spattering of comedy and some low-key sexual tension. You could argue that this is an action movie as well, but Lenny is more of an anti-hero who spends most of the movie getting his butt kicked by various people. It isn’t until the end of the film that he busts out a few moves that leave you wondering where they were in his previous encounters.
There are a lot of moving parts to this story and a fantastic supporting cast. It stars character actors Michael Wincott and William Fichtner whose names you probably don’t recognize but faces you have seen many times. Also of note is Tom Sizemore, who was one of the fastest rising stars of the 90s before a nasty meth addiction derailed his career. The face that really sticks out in this film is a young Vincent D’Onofrio who, for my money, is one of the most underrated actors of a generation. Though he had already worked with the famed director Stanley Kubrick before he was cast in Strange Days, it was still early on in D’Onofrio’s career. Even with little dialogue and little screen time than he should have had, he turns in a spectacular performance that shows a spark of what is to come in his career.
Strange Days wasn’t just a movie ahead of its time; it was a visual and auditory delight that should have been appreciated in 1995. Bigelow found that there were no cameras that could reproduce the look she wanted for the S.Q.U.I.D. view, so she had Cameron’s research and development department create one giving viewers a point of view they had never seen before. Music plays a large roll in the film as many significant scenes take place at a nightclub. While there is a lot of great music in this film, Juliette Lewis steals the show with her own vocals on the track “Hardly Wait.”
I believe that Strange Days is ripe for a resurgence or maybe even a remake; either way, it would most likely be more popular than the first time around. It is criminally difficult to find this movie streaming anywhere, and it seems like a major misstep that no streaming services have picked it up. The story by itself is better than it was ever given credit, and it was brought to life by an all-star cast who were all early in their storied careers. When you combine that with the visions of Katheryn Bigelow and James Cameron, you get a movie that is in the running for one of the most underrated films of all time.