*. I want to come at Strange Days mainly by way of Roger Ebert’s contemporary review. Ebert gave it a full four stars and called it out for its fascinating treatment of the then-new technology of virtual reality. Yes, Disclosure played around with VR as well just a couple of years earlier, but Strange Days takes things further.
*. The plot revolves around a machine called a SQUID (Superconductive Quantum Interference Device), which records someone’s physical sensations (basically whatever they see) onto a minidisc so that someone else can later re-experience them with a special neural cap and player. Predictably, this means that these discs turn into a new kind of porn, and there’s even a snuff variety (or “black-jacks”) where you get to go inside the head of someone who actually dies. Things then get even kinkier when a serial killer records himself offing people and sends the discs to a scruffy disc bootlegger named Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes).
*. It’s actually a pretty good idea for a future-noir thriller and Ebert thought it fascinating. “This is the first movie about virtual reality to deal in a challenging way with the implications of the technology,” he wrote. The problem is that, nearly thirty years later, this isn’t how VR turned out. Are we just taking our time getting there, or was something fundamentally wrong with the whole projection?
*. More than that though, Ebert declares that “Strange Days does three things that will make it a cult film.”
*. First: “It creates a convincing future landscape; it populates it with a hero who comes out of the noir tradition and is flawed and complex rather than simply heroic, and it provides a vocabulary. Look for ‘tapehead,’ ‘jacking in’ and the movie’s spin on ‘playback’ to appear in the vernacular.” Alas, none of these have appeared in the vernacular. And the “convincing future landscape” only looks retro now, crossing the streets of Blade Runner with the L.A. of the 1992 Rodney King riots.
*. Second: “At the same time, depending more on mood and character than logic, the movie backs into an ending that is completely implausible.” Wait . . . this is something that makes a movie a cult film? Why? I’ll admit the ending is over-the-top, but for a big-budget movie of this sort I don’t find it completely implausible. Especially in an age of comic-book action.
*. The third point has to do with it being the first VR movie, and again I’d wonder why this would make it into a cult film. What other movies that were first to deal with new technologies turned into cult films? Don’t most such cutting-edge efforts just come to seem embarrassing?
*. I bring all this up precisely because Strange Days bombed when it came out and what reputation it has today probably is due to fans wanting to think it has some cult value. I will confess that when I came across the DVD I pulled a complete blank on it. I couldn’t recall anything about its initial release and hadn’t heard of it since. This despite the impressive credits: co-scripted and produced by James Cameron, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, and starring Fiennes, Angela Bassett (looking very buff, or in top James Cameron-leading-lady form), Tom Sizemore, and Juliette Lewis. All this and a considerable budget should have at least made some kind of impression, even if only as a bomb. But it just sank without a trace.
*. Where does it go wrong? It’s big budget but it looks cheap. The mystery is kind of obvious since there’s only the one suspect. The potential for a fresh take on Peeping Tom is never fully developed. As a writer, Cameron handles structure really well but his characters are, as usual, thin and his dialogue atrocious. Fiennes is a decent actor, but here the twitchy weasel Nero only seems a low-rent James Wood. Tom Sizemore’s hair is a joke just waiting for its punchline.
*. Just to return to the James Wood reference for a moment: wasn’t Videodrome (1983) a more likely candidate for the first film to deal in a challenging way with the implications of a proto-VR technology? Or at least the addictive blending of hardware and wetware? That’s a movie that still seems a lot more relevant than this one today.
*. Most of all, however, Strange Days is a movie that for all its billing as being cutting edge now looks hopelessly retro. That Cameron had apparently had the script kicking around for a decade before being greenlit comes as no surprise. Remember when Y2K was a big thing? And when the thought of gas being over $3 a gallon was a sure sign of the apocalypse? Or when minidiscs just were? The future imagined and described here didn’t last very long. Nor has its cult.