It’s December 30th, 1999 and the streets of Los Angeles are more hedonistic and crime-filled than ever: police brutality is spewing onto the pavements, causing riots en masse. This is the caustic vision of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 masterpiece Strange Days and now, 25 years down the line, it remains as damning and remarkably astute.
Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is a disenfranchised ex-cop who has now taken to a life of crime peddling the hottest drug on the market. The drug in question, ‘The Wire’, is a VR-esque form of escapism where you can relive your own memories – an act Lenny has become addicted to as he laments his break up from ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis). Vitally, you can also live the experiences of others by ‘Jacking In’ as the device was originally developed by the feds to re-examine crime scenes. When a friend of Lenny’s dies, a much sought-after tape falls into his lap and reveals the true horror of why Black activist and musician Jeriko One was assassinated by the police. This video sends Lenny down a Los Angeles rabbit hole as he meanders through past trauma and friendships, including with his streetwise friend Mace (Angela Bassett), with whom he wants to reveal the true atrocities of the LAPD.
By having such a voyeuristic drug at the heart of Lenny’s journey, Bigelow conceives a society that is so subjugated that the people need a drug to escape the inexorable horrors of their own lives – sound familiar?
Lenny’s first of many seedy encounters sees him critically analyse POV lesbian porn from a dive bar toilet before offering advice to the women involved on how to make the experience more authentic.This juxtaposition between real life and playback is vehement throughout the film, mimicking the function of the cinematic experience and also being reminiscent of the current dichotomy of social media. In particular the wonderment one feels living in an alternate reality, even for a few hours: a point made especially clear in a sequence of a man without legs wire-tripping in order to enjoy running on a sunny, halcyon beach. In the words of Lenny’s playback expert Tick: “One man’s mundane experience is another man’s technicolor”.
Of course, this type of voyeuristic experience is presented as incredibly dangerous and, still today, operates as a fearful warning for the burgeoning VR landscape and other insular forms of technology. The explosive and kinetic opening scene has the audience experience the perspective of a petty criminal shoddily undergo a robbery before falling off a roof – causing Lenny to abruptly recoil and remove the wire as he effectively experiences death. Similarly, a harrowing scene involves a rape being recorded and streamed to the victim in real time; exposing the true grimness of this imagined society and the dangers of playback.
Suitably, on the brink of the new millennium, we see the civilisation at breaking point with scenes of protest not too dissimilar to that of 2020. Bigelow’s ethereal camera work reveals to us the smoke-filled streets of LA with a suffocating sense of impending doom: police are arresting rioters and circulating in helicopters whilst mall Santa’s are beaten up on the sidewalk. Talk of rapture is incessant via radio excerpts and TV news channels to level up this sense of finality. Discussions surrounding Jeriko One’s assassination are broadcasted as Mace watches on with a cynical stare: suspecting the murder would not be “gang-related” as the police falsely claim. Watching these events unfold as a modern audience, it is impossible not to think of the injustices served to this year’s victims of police brutality, like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Mace’s knowingness is presented as an intrinsic aspect of the Black experience, with Lenny being otherwise naïve to the situation until he is plunged into its core.
Mace’s disillusionment with society is powerfully illustrated by Bassett: the character’s own experience with the corrupt police, as well as how she met Lenny, is revealed through devastating flashbacks. There’s a rawness to her performance, stemming from Bigelow’s authentic presentation of the police force. Rooted in truth about and anger towards the institution of the time, the portrayal remains more relevant than ever today: showing a system begging for abolition and reform. Mace’s repellence to this society mirrors the audience’s reaction, a window into the psyche of a marginalised person in this world and as well as in our own. Her wisdom and scepticism extends to Lenny’s use of ‘The Wire’ as the most poignant scene has Lenny pinned up against a wall whilst she asserts about how memories are meant to fade and have been designed that way.
The ubiquity of a racist police force and its presentation through the media is still appallingly relevant a quarter of a century on. The two cops at the heart of the film’s controversy are trying desperately to cover their tracks, serving as an indictment of the entire police force, who are conveyed as racist and inept, nothing more than agents of chaos.
The film naturally concludes as the year turns to 2000, as Lenny and Mace strive to reveal the tape to the world to no avail. Although the cops in question are dealt their cathartic punishment in a pulsating final scene, the lingering and final looks of Lenny and Mace are not of victory, but of worry, of sheer fear, that nothing is going to change.