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Before James Cameron became a blockbuster machine, he wrote the best sci-fi film you haven’t watched

A lot of cyberpunk has aged badly. A Kathryn Bigelow-directed thriller is a massive exception.

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THE FILM 'STRANGE DAYS' BY K BIGELOW (Photo by Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)
Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Getty Images

James Cameron would become the king of the world in 1997, but just two years prior, a movie he co-wrote with Jay Cocks tanked at the box office. Strange Days, a cyberpunk film decades ahead of its time, is more relevant today than it was then, but for the longest time it wasn’t available to stream anywhere.

That’s suddenly changed, as Strange Days is now on HBO Max. This controversial and criminally underrated film is worth a look for sci-fi fans and Cameron loyalists alike.

Its premise feels ripped from a novel by Philip K. Dick or William Gibson. In the near future, the most addictive habit in the world is reliving other people’s memories through “clips.” Using a technology called a Superconducting Quantum Interference Device — SQUID for short — users can experience every sensation of a moment from someone else’s life.

The clips are distributed on the black market as voyeuristic pornography, though not all clips are sexual. Many are violent. In fact, from rape to murder to stalking to gun violence, Kathryn Bigelow’s direction is unflinching to the point that contemporary critics accused her of glorifying these heinous acts rather than condemning them. Bigelow, however, has said she doesn’t view the film as pessimistic or dark for the sake of it. Instead, she argues, “The film ends in a strong insistence on hope. Ultimately it’s humanity — not technology — that takes us into the next century and the next millennium.”

Set in 1999, Strange Days stars Ralph Fiennes as Lenny, a former cop who now deals in illegal clips. Angela Bassett features as his friend and part-time limo driver, Mace. This relationship is central to the film, yet it stretches the credulity of the entire plot. In real life, it’s hard to believe that someone with Mace’s moral clarity would put up with the duplicitous and sleazy Lenny. The script justifies the partnership because Mace has an unrequited love for Lenny, but in a film that casually presents a slightly unrealistic sci-fi premise, it’s the undercooked romance that nearly ruins it. It’s a classic Cameron trope, taking a cliché shortcut to make the rest of the script fly. Thankfully, Fiennes and Bassett sell this movie so hard that their relationship works, even though it really shouldn’t.

Without spoiling the mystery plot and its various twists, what makes Strange Days so great has nothing to do with its characters. Instead, under Bigelow’s direction, watching Strange Days is like watching a version of Blade Runner about social justice. The film’s style is arresting and slick, but it feels closer to a true future rather than an anachronism. The careful world-building makes the script work, and the film never cheats. The way clips function is made clear at the onset, and there’s no last-minute twist that tells us that tech can be tampered with to create fake memories. The movie sticks to its own rules, right up to the end.

The basic tension comes from the accidental discovery of a clip that reveals LA cops are responsible for the murder of a rapper and activist named Jericho One (Glenn Plummer). For somewhat convenient story reasons, Lenny’s ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis) is involved in a dizzying conspiracy to cover up this murder. All of the mystery box stuff, upon close inspection, gets a little odd. But, because the film is so creative and well-shot, you hardly care.

Angela Bassett and Ralph Fiennes do their best to sell their strange romance.

Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Getty Images

Strange Days works because the movie is ultimately about more than just the gee-whiz speculation surrounding novel sci-fi technology. Lenny is confronted with his privilege, while Mace has to deal with the inherent racism contained in every single interaction she has. The resolution may not work for everyone, but the fact that Bigelow had the guts to make this movie in 1995 should be applauded.

As a piece of the ’80s and ’90s cyberpunk mosaic, Strange Days is a bridge between Blade Runner and The Matrix. It’s more contemporary than the former, and much less interested in impressing audiences than the latter. While The Matrix was a crowd-pleaser first and foremost, Strange Days is unconcerned about whether you like it. It’s a shocking, uneven film that you can’t imagine being made today. And yet, with its brutal message about our addiction to nostalgia and the ways technology supports systemic racism, Strange Days was decades ahead of its time.

Strange Days is streaming on HBO Max.

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