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Monday, 22 August 2016

Retro Review: Strange Days (1995)

Strange Days 
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Vincent D'Onofrio, Michael Wincott, Richard Edson 
Genre: Science Fiction Thriller 
Worldwide Lifetime Gross: $7,959,291 

Plot: Former policeman Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) has moved into a more lucrative trade: the illegal sale of virtual reality-like recordings that allow users to experience the emotions & past experiences of others. While the bootlegs typically contain tawdry incidents, Nero is shocked when he receives one showing a murder. He enlists a friend, bodyguard Mace (Angela Bassett) to help find the killer - and the two stumble upon a vast conspiracy involving the police force Nero once worked for

*This review may contain spoilers* 

'Stylish, CyberPunk ''Who-Dun-It'' Thriller With Thrills & Spills'

Made in 1994 and released in 1995, Strange Days imagines a distant future where people get to experience other people's lives; in the film's case, it is that of sex and violence, as well as their own without leaving their home. People here are so hooked on sharing one another's lives, it is almost akin to taking drugs. This technology is known as SQUID (Super Conducting Quantum Interference Device); unfortunately, however, SQUID has fallen into the hands of a sadistic killer, who murders his victims and records them. It's up to Lenny to figure out and find the culprit responsible. 

The key aspect of this film is it is very character-driven, with the main plot centred around the 3 characters: Lenny, Faith and Mace. The longer the film progresses, the more emotionally attached you become towards each of them, as a viewer. 

Lenny is an ex-cop, who as a dealer illegally sells people's experiences on small disks; in viewing these experiences is the equivalent of strapping on a VR headgear and watching them. When he comes across one of these disks, he is horrified when he stumbles across a rape & murder that has been captured on the diskLenny is a flawed character, but an ultimately flawed good guy character who you want to root for in this movie, as he digs deeper in sussing out the perpetrator responsible for these murders. He is also obsessed with his ex-girlfriend, singer Faith of whom he has trouble getting over. She is involved with a producer, Philo Gant, who wants to turn her into a star. Mace is a tough-as-nails bodyguard who tries to warn Lenny of the dangers and tries to steer him on the straight and narrow. 

There are murder, mystery, suspense, intrigue, tension and a few good twists that keeps you glued. The so-called cops in uniform are really bent cops and the ex-cops, Lenny and bodyguard, Mace are the ones who try to do the right thing. Lenny operates more as the anti-hero who still goes right at the deep end, whereas Mace is, in actuality, the real hero and the moral voice of reason. The realism and dark tone of this film with the Y2K theme is gritty & raw, making this extremely watchable. The excessively bleak tone may be off-putting for some viewers, but here and in the context of the story and the events surrounding it, it really galvanises the film and gives it that eerie, sombre feel that is ideal and applicable for a movie of this statue. There are scenes of rape (the rape scenes themselves are equally disturbing), violence & porn but these are not done to illicit thrills, but rather they are essential to the plot & the story. 

The comparisons with Blade Runner from the 1980s is clearly evident: that Utopian, futuristic part of L.A. The special effects, the futuristic cars, Harrison Ford and Ralph Fiennes as the so-called protagonists, & the dark, atmospheric mood. 

There are hints of the infamous Rodney King incident and the L.A riots with the race riots that rile up the tension which occur right towards the end of the film, the murder of a rapper going by the name of Jericho 1 and of images of Black people retaliating against police brutality, with one kid jumping on a cop. 

The story is intricately well told that once you get sucked into it, it becomes highly engrossing. It is also well-plotted with terrific characterisation: you have your good guys, you have your bad guys. Lenny's not Superman, a badass or hero: he is a troubled soul still in love with his ex - who herself is in love with a nasty music mogul, Philo Gant. He is an evil, wicked monster and a regular user of ''Blackjack''. Lenny is in deep despair as he sees Faith in the arms of Gant, wondering what she ever sees in him. He tries to rescue her from the deep, dark underworld she has been sucked into. Seeing Lenny try to win back Faith - only for her to throw it back in his face, is disheartening but also makes him more sincere and that there is something about this guy that makes you want to root him to succeed in the end. But as the story progresses, he realises that it is pointless loving someone who doesn't love you back, and the only solution to that is that you've got to let go and move on. The unrequited love of Lenny and Faith's is all the more sad and tragic, especially for Lenny, who up until the final act, clearly struggles with Faith's rejection towards it. 

This is a long, slow-paced noir tale, set in the future with contemporary and social themes and issues all thrown in and wrapped up in a whirlwind of sci-fi thriller/murder mystery/conspiracy, with subtle hints of romance for good measure. 

I very much doubt that anyone else besides Kathryn Bigelow (who is critically renowned for The Hurt Locker & Point Break) and James Cameron - who has dabbled with Terminator 2, Aliens and Escape From New York, all of which are sci-fi movies- would ever attempt at making a film such as this. More likely you'll see something remotely like this in Luc Besson's, The Fifth Element and Anime's Akira from Japan. I didn't care for Titanic - as much as I like Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet, yet thankfully they have gone on to star in far better movies than this overrated saga. But going back to Strange Days, this film has a lot more scope and depth than one would least expect from it. Every 20 mins or so something is happening; whether Lenny is in danger, Mace getting him out of danger, Faith's loyalty to Philo Gant being severely tested to its limits. You have Cameron's out -of- this- world, futuristic backdrop, mixed with Bigelow's direction that touches on the emotional arc of the story and of its characters. The plot twists are excellent: just when you thought we had it sussed it out, there is something else that springs out of nowhere that surprises and amazes us. 

Compared to The English Patient and Schindler's List, this is quite a turn around for Ralph Fiennes in a role that not many people expect him to play, and yet he pulls off an exceptional performance. Fiennes has never been better with a range and complexity and topples his turn in Schindler's List. In fact, all the performances are top-notch and stellar; even the dis-likeable villains, Faith, Lenny's former friend, Max and Philo Grant via Juliette Lewis- who also sings in this movie, Tom Sizemore & Michael Wincott are terrific. Also watch out for Richard Edson from 1987's Good Morning, Vietnam, who appears as one of Lenny's accomplices, Tick alongside Angela Bassett's Mace. Bassett's character, in particular, is, all I can say is I'm glad she didn't play the victim this time around, but rather a hardass, a badass who kicks ass!

How on earth this film didn't do well at the box office when it was originally released, is astounding actually. Because this is quite impressive. 

Final Verdict:

This is a brilliant and daring futuristic and voyeuristic look at how when something falls into the wrong hands, can lead to devastating consequences. The film succeeds on both levels: being character and plot-driven. It takes the best elements of movies such as Blade Runner & The Fifth Element and fuses it with a story that is both heartfelt, poignant but also disturbing at times, and equally suspenseful & engaging. 

This is one of my favourite films from 1995. 

With equally stylish presentation and visuals, Strange Days is yet another one of those underrated - yet overlooked movies that should have done much better at the box office originally. Yet clearly with outstanding performances throughout and added twists and surprises at every corner, it does a great job portraying the darker side of the future, whilst also presenting a resolution that offers hope and prosperity for the good guys and the good people.    

Highly recommended. 


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