Strange Days attempts an audacious conceptual straddle. It juggles a plot that ranges from being a whodunnit, an examination of racial tensions within contemporary America, an exploration of the moral questions represented by virtual technologies, the coming anxiety of the millennium and last, but not least, is a romance. That the film takes 2½ hours to cover all of this is no particular surprise. Strange Days offers a disturbing portrait of American society of the very near future verging on imminent collapse open anarchy in the streets, race riots and corrupt police violence. One sequence near the beginning, a slow-motion view looking out from Ralph Fienness car as he cruises through the street showing burning cars, armoured police vehicles and senseless violence, including hoods beating up a Santa is dazzling. It is like a vision of the future created by someone who has lived in South Central L.A. all of their lives. And if one wants to see how alarmingly close to the bone such a vision was, one need to look no further than the fact that Strange Days opened the same day as the verdict for the O.J. Simpson trial was announced, the entire defence strategy of which seemed to consist of swinging the trials focus around to point at a deep racist streak within the LAPD, something that was not that far removed from Strange Dayss vision of corrupt cops picking on a successful Black public figure.
Strange Days was a strong return to form for Kathryn Bigelow. Kathryn Bigelow made an extraordinary explosion onto the genre scene with Near Dark (1987), surely the most dazzling and original reinvention of the vampire myth conducted in the 1980s. Unfortunately, Kathryn Bigelows subsequent films the psycho-thriller Blue Steel (1990) and the amazingly silly skydiving/surfing bank robbers film Point Break (1991) and following this, the historical murder mystery The Weight of Water (2000) and the submarine drama K19: The Widowmaker (2002) showed her to be a stylist lacking in worthwhile story choice. That is, until she returned to form with the highly acclaimed The Hurt Locker (2008), which netted her an Academy Award as Best Director, followed by Zero Dark Thirty (2012).
With Strange Days, Kathryn Bigelow has the backing of her former husband James Cameron, no less than the director/writer of The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), on script. Strange Days was not Kathryn Bigelows first dalliance with Cyberpunk she has had an active interest in the subject and was once to have made a film of Cyberpunk godfather William Gibsons short story The New Rose Hotel (1981) later filmed by Abel Ferrara as New Rose Hotel (1998) and was one of the four directors on tvs excellent Cyberpunk mini-series Wild Palms (1993), while her first film job was an acting appearance in Lizzie Bordens feminist Dystopia Born in Flames (1982).
James Cameron is a director/writer with a rare intelligence. He creates massive action and special effects films but ones that also have a solidly human core to them. Cameron, co-writing here along with Time magazine film critic Jay Cocks, creates an impressive film. Strange Days is a long film, perhaps a little too long. However, Cameron and Cocks cover much, including questioning the central technology with an uncommon sensitivity Ralph Fienness sales pitches for it are persuasive but the film also makes strong moral points about the technologys usage. It is perhaps no surprise coming from James Cameron that the end of the film has Ralph Fiennes abandonment virtual memories in favour of real love. The triumph of the human is always at the centre of Camerons films and Strange Days offers up the hope of a real vs a virtual relationship as making the difference in a world going to hell in a hand-basket. (This is not unlike Camerons The Abyss where Cameron also seeks hope and salvation inside a relationship).
On the other hand, the climax the film reaches feels a little false the hero rejects virtual reality in favour of the real relationship under his nose and the corrupt cops are arrested. However, nothing is done to save the world around him and heal the deep racial divide the film exposes. Perhaps it is Kathryn Bigelows fault that she creates such a grim and overwhelming vision of the world that such an ending seems trite. (One also fails to believe that such advanced technology would be in street usage by the turn of the millennium, a mere five years from the time the film was made).
Kathryn Bigelow makes riveting use of handheld camera throughout. Unlike most Virtual Reality films, she makes the logical choice of showing the memory playbacks completely from a first-person camera point-of-view. The long scene involving the murder of Jeriko shot in first person camera is absolutely riveting. There is also a fabulous sequence that opens the film of a playback of a robbery, which contains a dizzying jump between buildings and a landing on fingertips on the roofs edge, all conducted via subjective point-of-view camerawork.
(Nominee for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress (Angela Bassett) at this sites Best of 1995 Awards).