There are few if any science-fiction films more intense than this. Issues of sexual assault, boiling racial tensions, and drug addiction are swirled together into the apocalyptic chaos of an LA at the turn of the millennium. James Cameron’s best screenplay, directed with the characteristic rawness of Kathryn Bigelow, makes for some truly Strange Days, about one Lenny Nero, cyber-drugdealer and worst friend ever.
He deals in a cyberpunk kind of drug that allows the user to experience someone else’s memories and sensations, an episode specifically recorded for this trade, typically something adrenaline-pumped or sexually charged. If you’ve always wanted to rob a bank — someone else did it for you. Just be sure to hit pause before the end…
It’s a premise tied to a scifi technology, but unlike other stories of this beginning mold, Strange Days isn’t the story about the man who brings down the industry, or something like The Surrogates where… that happens, it’s more like Blade Runner. The world might be out starting point, but this story uses that like I Am Legend uses the post-apocalypse. It’s telling a story that most in the genre don’t.
It’s police conspiracy and serial killing, and tech-noir centered around the scummy Lenny, drugdealer and worst friend ever, as mentioned. But as it turns out, Lenny isn’t the worst friend ever, given the final reveal, and some kind of requisite character arc. He used to be a good guy, and where we see him at the start of the movie, he’s fallen onto a bad trade he happens to be good at. But his friend Max sees something in him, despite his quirks.
Angela Bassett is one of my favorite actors, and her role her as Max is quintessential Cameron heroine, only lensed by the female gaze. Not that Sarah Connor or Ripley were ever sexualized, but if you’re looking for a perfect representation of strong female characters in science-fiction film, Strange Days should be your first stop.
The script is inspired by the Rodney King incident, how racism becomes societal implosion, and the apocalypse and rebirth is rendered in cathartic uprising. Meanwhile, Lenny pines for a lost love, and uses the drug to relive a relationship that ended long ago. He holds onto ghosts, and needs to wake up. How these things connect to scifi tech? You’ll have to see for yourself, but needless to say, it all clicks together with the tensile satisfaction of a Lego set or something.
And like Legos, this is a bruiser of an experience, absolutely draining and disquieting. For such a violent and dark film however, Strange Days has a kind human heart, and that’s the one consistency on this Top 100 list, a subconscious requisite. We might have confrontational brutality in American History X, themes of dehumanization in Jin-Roh, hammerfall in Oldboy, but so much of these movies come back down to a human center.
So this movie is kind of a turning point for me, the application of the cinema violence I loved prior to a more mature, productive end. Here, it’s not fun, though there is one gratuitous car chase. Strange Days represents the apex of scifi film, the paragon of socially responsible science-fiction. It might be hard to watch, and it will leave you shaken, but it’s a highly necessary entry.