Thursday, July 31, 2008

Strange Days: SF film noir? Cyberpunk?

I ran across this film while browsing. Strange Days came out in 1995 but received little if any notice. Roger Ebert gave it five stars on Netflix, and that's what intrigued me.

Strange Days is probably best described as cyberpunk, some of whose elements are

1. a hero who is engaged in some sort of mildly illegal activity,

2. lots of hi-tech stuff,

3. frequently a heroine who takes a traditionally male role as a bodyguard,

4. a techno-geek expert who aids the hero with the really hi-tech stuff,

5. some sort of direct electronic input to the brain which bypasses the organic sensory system,

6. the presence of one or more large transnational corporations who frequently replace or join governments as villains,

7. and, of course, sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.

Strange Days' hero is Lenny, an ex-cop. He sells illegal virtual reality (VR) discs. He is at home in the underworld. but he really isn't a bad guy. His customers are all consenting adults, etc.--he's just a guy making a living.

The VR discs go beyond what is possible today since they interact directly with the brain and convey all sensory information, not just the visual as VR systems today are limited to. The female lead is a chauffeur and body guard and tough--well trained in weapons and the martial arts (See William Gibson's Neuromancer for the breakthrough novel with this type of a female lead).

The film is set in 1999 in Los Angeles, Dec. 29th to be exact. On the streets, a party atmosphere had already appeared, mixed in with a touch of looting, car burning, and window smashing--the usual way for urbanites to celebrate. One could see people carrying signs reading "2K--the end is near." Obviously this was before the accepted logo became Y2K. There was no mention of a world-wide computer meltdown either--just the typical "end of the world" warnings.

Lenny (Ralph Fiennes) is making it, selling his wares, and carrying a torch for the love of his life, who left him for a promoter. Life, if not exactly good, is livable until Lenny gets involved with some real bad guys. He is given a VR disc that someone is willing to kill to get. In addition, someone is making snuff VR discs and sending them to Lenny. And, just to make life interesting, he discovers that his ex-girl friend, the one he's carrying the torch for, is somehow mixed up in all this.

Lenny can't go to the police, since his reputation is somewhere below the basement with them. So, he gets some of his friends to help: Max, who is an ex-cop, on a medical pension, who started up his own detective agency; Tick who is the hi-tech expert; and Mace, the female chauffeur/body guard, who is played by Angela Bassett.

Rating: 4/5 scale.

Why not five? The ending was somewhat predictable.

However, don't let that put you off. You might disagree with me. The atmosphere was convincing--I guess the operative term would be "gritty"--and the dialogue, while not sparkling, worked. The special effects were limited but good, especially the VR stuff which convinced me I was seeing through another person's eyes at times.


  1. I know that I have seen this film in the past, but for the life of me I can't remember the details.

    I have thrown it to the top of the Netflix pile and will take another look at it.

  2. Scott,

    I'm waiting to hear your reactions to the film.

  3. Fred,

    Did it seem odd to watch this movie knowing that the end of 1999 wasn't like that? I wonder why they used such a "near future" setting? Was the millennium theme crucial to the plot?

  4. Cheryl,

    It was a bit strange, mostly because of the century issue. If it had just been left at 1999 without the century celebration I doubt if I would have noted the discrepancy at all. However, I read a lot of classical SF, much of which takes place in the 1980s and 1990s, so it's not too unusual. I just ignore it.

    I think they needed the party atmosphere, along with the sense of impending doom, possibly, to create the atmosphere they thought they needed. It was the combination of the racial tension and the end of the century-beginning of the new century which contributed to much of the edginess and stress permeating the work.