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by Peter Keough
James Cameron's Strange Days is 'Apocalypse How'
by Peter Keough
STRANGE DAYS. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by James Cameron and Jay Cocks. With Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, Vincent D'Onofrio, Glenn Plummer, Brigitte Bako, Richard Edson, and William Fichtner. A Twentieth Century Fox release. At the Cheri, the Harvard Square, and the Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs.
The revolution may not be televised, as the Dead Poets prophesied in the '60s, but the apocalypse probably will be. If not shown on television, then broadcast on some high-tech version of it like SQUID ("Superconducting Quantum Interference Device"), or "the wire," as in Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron's flawed but awesome millennial mardi gras Strange Days.
An advancement over the traditional "wire" used by law enforcement agencies to record conversations, this latest version records not just sound but all senses. It's more than virtual reality, it's virtual life, and an appallingly apt metaphor for the state of contemporary culture in which human experience is packaged and sold, and as a consequence individuals are alienated from a society that is oppressive, ineffective, and doomed. This world ends in neither a whimper nor a bang but a barrage of garish, thrilling, black-comic pyrotechnics that don't quite cover up the spiritual void at its heart.
We're in Los Angeles on the last day of the century, and it looks like a cross between the 1992 riots and Blade Runner. Nihilistic revelers contend with the police and the National Guard, but ex-cop Lenny Nero (a hirsute, nearly unrecognizable Ralph Fiennes) doesn't just fiddle while the city burns. He deals in illicit "clips," SQUID CDs allowing users to experience moments vicariously, ranging from an 18-year-old girl's shower to violent crimes.
Like the James Woods character in David Cronenberg's prescient Videodrome (Fiennes even talks like Woods), Nero's essentially a high-tech pornographer trading on a decadent society's need to watch but not touch. As a matter of principle, Nero draws the line at "snuff clips" depicting death. Since they're the logical conclusion of the technology he panders, however, it's not long before the snuff clips he avoids seek him out.
This is where Strange Days gets stranger, and braver, in its exploration of such incendiary issues as the media, race relations, and sexual violence than any film made in the last decade. An anonymous donor gives Lenny a clip that appalls even his jaded sensibility. From the point of view of the assailant, a woman is brutally raped and murdered. But before the deed is done, the rapist places a "wire" on the victim's head so she can experience the crime from the assailant's point of view, and vice versa. And Lenny, of course, experiences both the criminal's rage and orgasm and the victim's terror, pain, and death. It's the most mindboggling image of the sadistic voyeurism at the heart of cinema and related media since Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960).
The snuff clip, though, is only a cover-up for a more volatile incident. The victim was herself a wired witness to the police murder of Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), a charismatic black rap singer with a militant following. With revolutionary feelings peaking as the millennium comes to a close, the clip could bring on a racial uproar that would make the Rodney King episode pale in comparison.
Saddled with this responsibility, Nero also has a more personal kind of Doomsday stalking him. Someone is out to get the incriminating clips, and him. More distressing, his estranged lover Faith (a scantily clad and barely acting Juliette Lewis, who nonetheless impresses with her renditions of some PJ Harvey tunes), an ambitious rock singer, might be the nefarious bad guys' next target. Since home-movie clips of their intimate moments together provide Nero with his only semblance of a life, keeping Faith alive is as important as his own survival.
With covert clips and conspiracy theories abounding, the suspects range from Philo Gant (a spectral Michael Wincott), Jeriko's manager and Faith's manager/ lover, to the entire LAPD. Nero's allies are less intimidating; they include his ex-cop buddy Max (Tom Sizemore, again brilliant as a scumbag with irresistible charm) and Mace (Angela Bassett in a performance of dazzling physicality and emotional range), his long-suffering, straight-arrow pal with an armored limo and a martial arts degree.
The characters and dialogue are hip and trenchant enough to compete with Bigelow's stunning visuals and breakneck technique, though in the end the vision outshines the untidy plot entanglements. Bigelow has an eye for flashy, classy squalor the equal of Ridley Scott, and her editing flow is a lot more dynamic. The climactic New Year's Eve "party" does the bloodiest and most depraved century in history justice, and the virtual-reality clip sequences are the finest since this benighted subgenre first became trendy - her use of point of view composes an essay on the semiotics of film. Although the conclusion is a bit of a deus ex machina letdown, Strange Days - along with To Die For - proves that the wisest and most responsible people on the issue of film and its social impact are filmmakers themselves. Summing up the end of the world, Max says, "Everything's been done. Every kind of music, every government, every hairstyle. How are we going to make it another thousand years?" Movies like Strange Days should help us at least get to the end of this one.
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