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STRANGE DAYS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott
Director:  Kathryn Bigelow
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  145 Minutes
Release Date:  September 28, 1999

Film ****  

Strange Days is a thrilling, imaginative, and haunting coup of a movie.  It’s a veritable mixing pot of the best elements of action, science fiction, drama, and even a little social commentary, all blended together to create a unique and memorable film.

It opens with one of the most impressive POV shots I can remember.  We see through the eyes of a criminal as he and his compatriots commit a robbery, then are forced to flee from the police.  It is highly kinetic, and plays with no noticeable breaks (only a couple of well placed and disguised cuts).  The action goes from indoors to out, up stairs, onto a roof, where the robber tries to make a getaway by jumping across to another building, only to fall to his death.  Wow!

What does it all mean?  Well, turns out this first-person experience is for sale.  Lenny (Fiennes) is a small time hood who deals in “playback”—experiences that are recorded by special equipment directly from one’s optic nerve, and can be played back the same way, thus allowing his customers the chance to experience the ultimate in virtual reality…actual moments from other peoples’ lives.

It is New Year’s eve, 1999, and in a world where millennial paranoia is running horribly amuck and unchecked, playback is the new drug of choice.  It is illegal, but Lenny, who was once a cop before being booted off the force, knows how to play the game.  He even indulges in it a little himself, breaking out his old tapes of his experiences with the girl he loves, Faith (Lewis).  She’s been gone from him for awhile, but the tapes are better than any normal memories could be.

In this futuristic world, there is a hidden underground market for snuff, just like in our own society.  But the playback makes it different.  With this equipment, you can experience first-hand the dying…or the killing.  Lenny steers clear of it.  But eventually, somebody slips him a tape that is almost too horrifying to imagine.  A killer records a brutal rape and murder.  But it’s even worse than that.  He first blindfolds his victim, then fits her with the device emitting from his own recorder.  She sees her own death from the killer’s point of view while he kills her.  From then on, Lenny is in over his head in a world of mystery, intrigue, and danger.

In an earlier sales pitch, Lenny tells a potential customer to imagine the possibilities of this device.  It’s obvious that writers James Cameron and Jay Cocks, and director Kathryn Bigelow, certainly did.  These filmmakers knew how to make the concept seem appealing at first…then slowly but surely, reveal just how horribly wrong it could be.  How can you experience someone else’s life without giving up some of your own in the process?

And credit Bigelow, also, with the fantastic look of the picture.  The art direction is stunning, with a wide variety of color schemes that change from scene to scene, and a city setting filmed in mostly cool and metallic colors.  It has a razor-like sharpness look and feel.  Her choice of lighting constantly varies and makes for interesting contrasts.  Sometimes light sources are internal, sometimes external, sometimes white, sometimes colored, sometimes combinations.  It’s clear she was very conscious of how to bring the elements of each scene together to create its own look and feel.  And she wasn’t intimidated by the large scale action sequences either…they deliver a punch that even Mr. Cameron must have been proud of. 

But the film is a lot more than the action or the sci-fi elements.  The world of Strange Days is a world of pessimistic paranoia; a world teetering on the edge of unbridled insanity.  Look at the way the New Year’s celebration unfolds in the streets…riots, fires, destruction, cops and National Guardsmen everywhere, tanks, and plenty of noise and chaos.  It’s frightening and fascinating to experience.  Now that the year 2000 is only months, not years away, one can only hope it won’t be like that for real.

But like the best and most conscious of directors, Bigelow doesn’t spare us from the sometimes unpleasant task of looking at our own darker sides, and the possibilities that may lie dormant within.  Her vision is one that may not be as incredible, or as far into the future, as we might like to think.  The reminder is strong and clear…choose carefully.

Video ****

Though not anamorphic, this is one of Fox’s best offerings to date.  This is a film, as mentioned, with a vast color scheme and array of lighting.  Images are always sharp and crisp, from the foreground to the background, and all coloring is excellent.  Contrasting colors always work well together, with no bleeding.  There is no noticeable grain or compression, even in the many darker scenes.  The disc is dual layered, and I didn’t even notice the switch point. 

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 soundtrack is equally stunning, as the dynamic audio effects include everything from car chases to gunfire, to loud rock and rap music, all making excellent use of the rear channels with good clean crossover effects and balance.  The subwoofer gets many moments of action too, adding some bottom end to the action.  But the audio also shines through with great clarity in the quieter moments of dialogue.  All in all, a terrific listen.

Features **1/2

A teaser (which I can remember seeing in the theatre and being intrigued by), a trailer, and a short commentary by Kathryn Bigelow on the making of the opening action sequence.

Summary:

Strange Days is many things.  It’s science fiction and action, it’s exhilarating and unsettling, it’s fascinating and repulsive.  Most of all, it’s terrific storytelling impeccably blended with technical brilliance.  Kathryn Bigelow works with a large palette, and she showed no fear in mixing her colors and media to create a unique and specific vision.  This is not a movie likely to please everyone, but if you have a taste for the unique, the original, and the adventurous, this is a terrific film on an excellent DVD, and it belongs in your collection.