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Why Strange Days Is An Underrated Sci-fi Classic


Nearly 30 years after its release, the flop that was Strange Days captures sentiments still echoing today

When pondering films that capture the cyberpunk terror that occurred on the cusp of the new millennium, many’s first thought lands on a film so iconic and the opposite of underrated, it’s actually found a way to resonate with both the left and the right: The Matrix

With the characters’ sunglasses and leather-clad ensemble, unforgettably quotable dialogue, and 2021 revisiting, The Matrix remains a favorite example of Y2K anxiety against a sci-fi/action backdrop. But, there is a predecessor to The Matrix that is criminally underrated and deserves some time in the spotlight: 1995’s Strange Days.

A Film Few Understood 

Kathryn Bigelow, most famously known for her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, is renowned for her approach to action filmmaking. By the early 90s, she had already directed Point Break, Blue Steel, and Near Dark. Midway through the decade, she would direct one of her best films: Strange Days. James Cameron had the initial idea for the film and presented what was essentially a treatment to Bigelow, knowing he wanted her to direct. Together, along with Jay Cocks, they crafted a script unlike any other.

Bigelow is known for blending genres, and Strange Days has a science fiction landscape with noir elements at its forefront. The film sees Los Angeles ex-cop and current pleasure marketeer Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) who buys and sells SQUID recordings, Superconducting Quantum Interference Device, in which first-person POV footage is captured and transferred to a disc to then be experienced by others. When a snuff disc with his name on it features the rape and murder of Iris, a prostitute he knew, Lenny, along with his friends Mace (Angela Basset) and Max (Tom Sizemore), must figure out who did this and why they sent the footage. However, it’s not just a regular Sunday. It is New Year’s Eve 1999, and chaos has erupted in the streets. Los Angeles has become a wasteland of crime and apocalyptic doom. As one radio guest says, “The economy sucks, gas is over three bucks a gallon, and fifth-grade kids are shooting each other at recess. The whole thing sucks.” Unfortunately, 24 years after the film’s events, our real world continues to see similar tragedies. 

It’s truly a sight to see, though not always pleasant. However, the film never feels gratuitous or exploitative. It builds an incredible, palpable atmosphere. The decision to actually include the diegetic performances of the music is an excellent one, mastering the sensation that doomsday will be a big party. 

However, this genre-blend is one of multiple factors critics point to in trying to assess why the film bombed at the box office. With a budget of $42 million, it would only recuperate shy of $8 million. Writer and professor of film Will Brooker cross-examined critic reviews and fan theories for the film’s lack of success and identified that the studio, unsure how best to market the film, landed on a popular common denominator: sex. With a tagline “you know you want it,” viewers likely expected a sexy tech-thriller and were shocked and disgusted to find the “sex” in the film was anything but sexy.


The Political Context of Strange Days 

Picture this: a black man is pulled over by white police and is badly beaten, bruised, and sent to the hospital. All of this is recorded on video and watched by the country. The police are charged with excessive use of force, but with a jury consisting of mainly white people, they are found not guilty. Riots ensue. This is a story deeply ingrained in U.S. history and consciousness, in which names and locations can be swapped out with similar outcomes. However, one, in particular, inspired the story of Strange Days, in which the death of prominent Black activist and musician Jeriko One sends Los Angeles spiraling with suspicion and anger. 

In 1992, the four officers responsible for brutally beating Rodney King were acquitted, and South Central Los Angeles erupted with rage. The LAPD carved out an aggressive presence in the area. NPR writes, “During the five days of unrest, there were more than 50 riot-related deaths — including 10 people who were shot and killed by LAPD officers and National Guardsmen. More than 2,000 people were injured, and nearly 6,000 alleged looters and arsonists were arrested.” 

A year before the film’s release, Clinton signed the 1994 Crime Bill into law, now considered one of several factors responsible for mass incarceration, alongside other consequences, including punitive punishment and increased use of the death penalty. 

Angela Bassett’s Mace is notoriously against experiencing SQUID, but when a disc captured by the now-deceased Iris reveals the truth behind Jeriko One’s death, Bassett ‘jacks in’ for the first time and poignantly delivers a prescient (and personal favorite) line in the film: “I see the world opening up and swallowing us all.” Perhaps audiences were tired of science fiction that was too real, too relevant, or too sympathetic to the rioters. 

What’s Gender Got To Do With It?

Booker also investigates gender essentialism in audience reactions, especially those who like the film. “There is a sense of novelty in the praise for Bigelow’s successful handling of a ‘guy thing,’… Cameron’s ability to shift from the grubby future war of Aliens to the doomed historical romance of Titanic is, by contrast, never mentioned.” This is especially interesting when Cameron himself admitted, “On this film, I was always pushing to make it more romantic, for example. And she was always pushing to make it harder-edged.”

The Matrix was directed by the Wachowskis, who at the time were not yet out as trans women, but since doing so, the original film has seen multiple trans interpretations. 

In her Cyborg Manifesto, Donna J. Haraway writes ten years before the film’s release, “By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism—in short, cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics,” which incredibly captures the ethos Strange Days possesses and hopes to overcome by the end. Haraway’s book seeks to connect the concept of the cyborg to frameworks like socialism and feminism and even compares the identity of women of color to the othering of cyborgs: “Feminist cyborg stories have the task of recoding communication and intelligence to subvert command and control,” which is an interesting point as though Bassett rejects SQUIDS, she is the one who wants to show the footage of Jeriko One’s death to the world, even if it starts a war. She is the one to deliver the footage to the police, and it is her public beating that forces the crowd to riot.

Dance Me to the End of Love 

Strange Days is a suitable foil to The Matrix in many ways. Both films offer insight into the human condition through technology. In The Matrix, the characters must ‘plug in’ to interact with the world; in Strange Days, they must counter the urge to ‘jack in’ and put down the SQUIDS to witness the present moment. 

In his original review of Strange Days, Roger Ebert said the film was bound to become a cult classic for three reasons: “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.” What again distinguishes the film from The Matrix is the main character. Lenny Nero–  notice the irony that an ‘r’ separates it from the identity of Keanu Reeves’s character in The Matrix– is not the polished, heroic figure we are used to seeing in science fiction, the genius with all the answers, or the man who was ‘the one’ all along. He is deeply flawed and must learn to let his memories stay in the past as they were meant to, and multiple times he puts himself and others in danger for the sake of someone who never actually needed saving. 

Strange Days concludes with a grand celebration and countdown to the apocalypse, but also a hopeful twist that either works for audiences or doesn’t. It’s not nearly as damning as it could be on the institutions responsible for brutality, and it gives us a final kiss that’s too Hollywood, but it’s a frighteningly realistic depiction of a world we still know all too well. With its biting acknowledgment of racial tension, tech dependence, and a killer soundtrack, it deserves a resurgence in our social consciousness.


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Source: Dead Talk Live

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Ariana Martinez is a Florida-based writer and filmmaker pursuing a cinema studies degree. Their work frequently gravitates toward explorations of gender and sexuality in film, and they have a Youtube channel and website, Awake in the A.M., dedicated to film analysis.