23 Jan 2018

52 films by women #15: Strange Days

From Widescreen, 11:36 am on 23 January 2018

Thanks to the Dystopian Film Festival, fans are getting a rare chance to see a Kathryn Bigelow cult film on the big screen, reports Dan Slevin.

Ralph Fiennes as out-of-his-depth memory retailer Lenny Nero in Strange Days (1995).

Ralph Fiennes as out-of-his-depth memory retailer Lenny Nero in Strange Days (1995). Photo: Lightstorm

When I started this #52filmsbywomen project this time last year (I know you’re meant to complete it within 12 months but I’ve been busy!) one of the filmmakers I wanted to pay more attention to was Kathryn Bigelow, still the only woman to win an Academy Award for best director – The Hurt Locker, 2008. Looking down her list of credits I realised that I had seen all too few. Zen-surf-thriller Point Break, of course, was a staple but somehow, I hadn’t seen Jamie Lee Curtis as a rookie female cop in Blue Steel in 1989, The Weight of Water from 2001 (starring Sean Penn and Catherine McCormack), the vampire movie Near Dark which featured the late and very lamented Bill Paxton, or the submarine picture K-19: The Widowmaker which, considering it stars Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, seems like quite the oversight.

Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett in Strange Days.

Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett in Strange Days. Photo: Lightstorm

There’s a reason why I hadn’t seen most of these and that is because it actually wasn’t that easy. In the days of VHS these titles were readily available but in the transition to DVD, not every video store had them and the new-fangled streaming services couldn’t, it seems, care less. Now, thanks to the first ever Dystopian Film Festival, which is on in Auckland for the next couple of weeks, audiences will get to see one of the odder entries on her resumé, Strange Days from 1995, on the big screen. It’s worth a look.

Set in Los Angeles as the millennium is about turn, society is falling apart. Drugs and other lawlessness are rife. Citizens who can afford it have become addicted to Squid, not a drug as such but a new form of media with very addictive properties.

Squid is like a video capture and playback device for a person’s memories. Once recorded, a first-person experience can be replayed using a what we now know as something like virtual reality goggles. Obviously, pornography would be a prime product for such a device.

The brilliantly named Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), a former cop now cynical distributor of these illegal recordings, gets into hot water when he discovers that he possesses a disc that contains evidence of a particularly nasty murder and that if he doesn’t investigate, someone he cares about will be the killer’s next target.

Things get more and more complicated with double-crosses and twists galore until there’s a final set-piece face-off on the streets of LA as the countdown to the year 2000 is underway.

James Cameron (centre) and Kathryn Bigelow (right) on the set of Strange Days.

James Cameron (centre) and Kathryn Bigelow (right) on the set of Strange Days. Photo: Lightstorm

Strange Days was a commercial failure – another reason it has been so hard to find – but is a fascinating curio of what people in the mid-90s thought we should be worried about in the future. They don’t seem to care about the Millennium Bug, for example.

Why did it fail? Someone thought that Ralph Fiennes could carry a film as an action hero which is palpably not in his bag of tricks. I’m not sure audiences (or executives) in 1995 could handle the super-powerful Angela Bassett as sparring partner for Fiennes/Nero, pretty much everyone else in the supporting cast are just creepy – Tom Sizemore as Nero’s former cop partner, Michael Wincott as a corrupt music manager and a bunch of other actors usually cast for their, shall we say, lived-in faces.

The conscious decision by Bigelow (and co-screenwriter James Cameron who had the initial idea and who was also, at the time, her husband) to reflect back some of Los Angeles’ most recent newsworthy moments (Rodney King, Lorena Bobbitt) might have turned audiences off rather than on.

Time has been kinder to the film than the critics of the day were and its relative rarity – at least compared to the films that James Cameron got to make in that period – have delivered it something like cult status. Bigelow is a wonderful action director (but some of the violence against women in Strange Days is a very tough watch for an audience today) and I was sorry that her most recent film, Detroit, disappeared from New Zealand cinemas too quickly for me to get to see it.

Strange Days is playing the Academy Cinemas Dystopian Film Festival in Auckland on January 27 and February 11. #52filmsbywomen is a project encouraging film lovers to seek out and enjoy films made by women.

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