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The Best Movie You Never Saw: Strange Days

07.05.2013by:

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be examining Kathryn Bigelow’s STRANGE DAYS, written by James Cameron and Jay Cocks.

THE STORY:

A former cop turned street-hustler accidentally uncovers a police conspiracy in 1999 Los Angeles.

THE PLAYERS:

Director Kathryn Bigelow, worked from a script by former spouse James Cameron and screenwriter Jay Cocks for STRANGE DAYS, adding an impressive cast to the pic, including Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Glenn Plummer, and Michael Wincott.

THE HISTORY:

James Cameron conceived of STRANGE DAYS just after his success with 1984’s THE TERMINATOR, writing a five-page story called “The Magic Man” that attempted to tackle the noir genre with a high tech upgrade. It languished for years until he pitched the concept to Bigelow (fresh off POINT BREAK), who agreed to shoot it, while waiting for Cameron to shape it into a script. Then, in 1993, Cameron emerged with a 131 page scriptment for the film, which he turned over to Jay Cocks to make it “shoot ready”

“Between Jay and Kathryn, ideas flew like crazy — visualize whirled peas. Their restructuring of my unweidly piece was efficient and focused, while retaining the style of the meandering, quirky dialogue. They wrote it down to a manageable length and shaped it into Kathryn’s vision. Though Jay and I did very little writing together, we are both proud of the collaboration.” – James Cameron

Because of the intricate POV sequences in the film, Bigelow needed a camera that could capture the footage without making audiences barf. A year before filming was to begin, she had a new camera built that “weighed 8 pounds, it was 35 millimeter, with interchangable lenses — prime lenses — and outfitted it with a kind of modified Steadicam rig, which enabled you to give you the kind of fluidity of Steadicam.”

Filming took place in 1994, shooting 77 days of night photography of the 80-day shoot. The biggest part of the shoot was the New Year’s Eve party, which took place in downtown L.A. The production hired Concert promoters Moss Jacobs and Philip Blaine to help create the massive event, which attracted more than 10,000 “extras” and featured performances by Dee-Lite and Aphex Twin and many more techno groups.

The film debuted on October 6, 1995 and pulled in a paltry $7.9 million domestic take from a $42 million budget. It had mostly favorable reviews, although wasn’t universally loved. It fell quickly into obscurity, even with its Saturn Award wins, but has since become a staple in the sci-fi noir genre, helped even more by Bigelow’s career trajectory with hits like THE HURT LOCKER and ZERO DARK THIRTY.

WHY IT’S GREAT:

STRANGE DAYS is a “futuristic” noir tale that’s caught up with its future, like many before it. At the time of its release it was only five years away from the projected timeframe, so it was inevitable. What’s fun about films that predict a possible near future is the compare and contrast that comes with watching it afterward. How much did they get right or wrong? How close did they get to the truth? With STRANGE DAYS it’s a mixed bag, but not an entirely incorrect one.

With a multitude of themes, from the crumbling of society to the perversion of technology to unrequited love, STRANGE DAYS tackles a lot, all wrapped up in a sci-fi murder/mystery/conspiracy thriller. That’s a lot to toss in, but with screenwriters James Cameron and Jay Cocks, it’s not an unattainable feat. While the plot thickens and twists throughout the running time it never becomes so convoluted that you can no longer follow it without having to hit the rewind button (but, it does come close). Director Kathryn Bigelow, long before she was an Oscar winner (although she did win a best director Saturn award for STRANGE DAYS), had directed mostly high-energy action thrillers like POINT BREAK and NEAR DARK up to the point of tackling her ex-husband’s (She and Cameron were married from 1989 - 1991) story about an ex-cop peddling bootleg “experiences” on a high-tech brain recording device who gets embroiled in a murder cover-up that goes all the way up the food chain.

Lenny Nero, played by a youthful Ralph Fiennes (in his first U.S. film) is a terrific everyman hero; a sleazy dealer obsessed with his ex-girlfriend (Lewis), now a musician in a relationship with an equally sleazy producer (Wincott), but who somehow manages to charm everyone enough to believe that there’s still something sincere and salvageable left in his soul. He’s not a bad ass or a genius; he’s a survivor and he uses his peddling skills and charming wit to make it through the day. Fiennes captures the pain and intensity of Nero perfectly and you want to believe that he will overcome the odds, rather than get what he deserves. It’s a protagonist that often goes missing in thrillers like this, as we’re typically given the MacGuyver jack of all awesomeness who we know can never fail.

Equally, Angela Bassett (who also won a Saturn Award for her performance) gives a tremendous performance as a “defensive” limo driver who befriended Nero during his police days. They share a strange bond that walks the tightrope of friends on the cusp of plunging into something more, but are held back by their personal demons. As Mace, Bassett is strong, vulnerable, and stunning, rocking her fit-as-a-fiddle body earned while making the Tina Turner biopic WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT. She never gets trapped in the stoic role, breaking free with the pain and fear that encloses her when the plot draws her deeper into Nero’s mess.

“The toughest decision was not wanting to shy away from anything, trying to keep the truth of the moment, of the social environment. It’s not that I condone violence. I don’t. It’s an indictment. I would say the film is cautionary, a wake-up call, and that I think is always valuable.” – Kathryn Bigelow

After the murder of a famed rapper (Plummer), the already turbulent “1999” of the future is about to boil over, although what we see of that is mostly people running in the fiery streets of L.A. while tussling with cops in tanks. It’s never really explained what the big issue of the “future” is, but rather assumed that we just accept that “shit’s f*cked up.” The new drug of choice, however, comes from a SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device), which sits on top of one’s head and captures experiences directly from the cerebral cortex onto a recording device (in essence capturing a first-person experience), which is the critical centerpiece that drives the film's plot forward.

There are a number of POV sequences in the film, which may seem like nothing special today, but in 1995 there weren’t hand-held mini cameras to capture that kind of footage, making it innovative for that time period.  And, in many ways, it’s a parallel to what society has become in the Internet age, where social media and YouTube videos have become our real drug of choice, recording the best and worst of humanity and putting it on display in every digital venue available. In that, STRANGE DAYS is a unique predictor of our present state.

“We didn’t want to do tech and glitz. We wanted to do street. And we wanted to give a very vivid sense of a city in terminal social disorder. And a society really on the razor’s edge. I came to this from more of a Raymond Chandler angle than a William Gibson angle.” – Jay Cocks (screenwriter)

The murder/mystery aspect of the film plays off many of the societal issues of that timeframe, most notably the Rodney King beating captured on video and the L.A. riots that followed. STRANGE DAYS pulls from that event and creates a conspiracy tale that becomes a mild-mannered (by today’s standards anyway) morality tale, but never at the expense of the characters. It’s one of the few films that works on two levels; plot and character. Sounds like a no-brainer, but how often do the two work hand-in-hand?

After the death of a witness, in a particularly violent and brutal POV rape sequence, Nero and Mace go into high gear to find the truth about what’s going on, running into a pair of vicious cops, played by the always reliable Vincent D’Onofrio and a young William Fichtner. Both are cold, ruthless killers and their involvement in the plot raises the stakes even higher. Toss in Nero’s best friend, played by a long-haired Tom Sizemore as a private detective, the plot drives with urgency, never settling down too much to get monotonous, but never going so fast that you can’t follow what’s going on. It’s a deftly edited affair, thanks to Howard Smith and Cameron, who was uncredited for his role in chopping the film.

STRANGE DAYS isn't perfect and won’t suit all tastes, but it’s unique enough that it stands out, even if just for its ambiguity. Bigelow takes some great risks in the film, especially with the POV sequences, which are compelling and innovative for the time, yet still resonate today. Now, they’re the norm, rather than the new. The movie is chock full of violent interludes and ripe with nudity (Lewis’ nipples should get second billing), and has some large-scale sets that must’ve been a nightmare to coordinate. For that alone, Bigelow earned her props, but ultimately for making a smart, engaging, and thrilling sci-fi pic that is arduous in ideas and executed with a sharp focus and strong characters. The payoff ranges from justice to social commentary to sentimentality, which is a sweeping range for a niche genre pic that has heartily earned a place in the halls of obscure classics.

“… I saw a way to draw one possible future, think about it and maybe derail it; imagine it and feel it as you watch. Is this the end of the world or the beginning of another one? That’s the core of STRANGE DAYS and what moved me –compelled me — to make it. Those themes, and these characters: a hustler with an undiscovered conscience and a guide through the underworld who has the strength, and the love, to survive. The interlocking story of Lenny and Mace becomes a parable in noirish disguise, a story about the pervasive need to watch, to see. It calibrates the fragile balance between viewer and viewed, screen and audience, spectacle as medium and subject. It puts us all in the picture.” – Kathryn Bigelow

MEMORABLE SCENE:

Aside from the ample nudity and violent throwdowns sprinkled throughout, I think the scene with the biggest impact is the final confrontation between Angela Bassett's Mace with the two psychotic cops in the middle of the New Year's Eve party. It's the final statement and ultimate finale of the film's main plot, which underlies the bigger social issue at hand; corruption and the power of what we see vs. what is actually true. Without spoiling the end result, this is a powerful moment, punctuated by the massive undertaking it was to film such an immense scene.

WATCH IT:

STRANGE DAYS is (sadly) only available on standard DVD. You can get it here! Hopefully, Fox will give this the proper blu-ray upgrade it deserves in the future.

PARTING SHOT:

STRANGE DAYS does three things that will make it a cult film. It creates a convincing future landscape; it populates it with a hero who comes out of the noir tradition and is flawed and complex rather than simply heroic, and it provides a vocabulary … At the same time, depending more on mood and character than logic, the movie backs into an ending that is completely implausible.” – Roger Ebert

Extra Tidbit: The line "Right here, right now" spoken by Angela Bassett to Ralph Fiennes is sampled in the famous Fatboy Slim song of the same name. Be sure to Like, Share, Tweet, and Comment below on The Best Movie You Never Saw!
Source: JoBlo.com

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+11
11:07AM on 07/05/2013

This Film Is Damn Good

Hell, I even own the soundtrack. This is a really good film. My sister loves it as well. I remember seeing it in the theater and being the only person there. I enjoy it a lot.
Hell, I even own the soundtrack. This is a really good film. My sister loves it as well. I remember seeing it in the theater and being the only person there. I enjoy it a lot.
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11:49AM on 07/05/2013
Damn, that film-loving sister of yours again. She single?
Damn, that film-loving sister of yours again. She single?
1:23PM on 07/05/2013

Love It

This is my second favorite Katheryn Bigelow film ('Near Dark' being my favorite), and I love it so much! The opening POV chase is stunning and an amazing way to introduce you to this world.
This is my second favorite Katheryn Bigelow film ('Near Dark' being my favorite), and I love it so much! The opening POV chase is stunning and an amazing way to introduce you to this world.
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1:18PM on 07/05/2013

YES!

I seriously can't believe this hasn't received the special edition treatment at least! One the most complex and suspenseful movies of the 90s.
I seriously can't believe this hasn't received the special edition treatment at least! One the most complex and suspenseful movies of the 90s.
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11:49AM on 07/05/2013
I frakkin' love this movie! It has science fiction, noir detective story, and all kind of actions and thrills. This is one underrated action sci-fi of the 90s. Too bad this movie doesn't receive as much recognition as it should. If you guys haven't watched this movie, I can't recommend this movie enough.
I frakkin' love this movie! It has science fiction, noir detective story, and all kind of actions and thrills. This is one underrated action sci-fi of the 90s. Too bad this movie doesn't receive as much recognition as it should. If you guys haven't watched this movie, I can't recommend this movie enough.
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1:08AM on 07/06/2013
Very good movie. And Angela Bassett is badass here.
Very good movie. And Angela Bassett is badass here.
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12:21PM on 07/05/2013
This is my joint favorite film of all time. I've loved it since I saw in the cinema on original release. It deserved to be successful, but perhaps its violent content and crazy concept put people off. I find it also to be one of the most romantic films ever.
This is my joint favorite film of all time. I've loved it since I saw in the cinema on original release. It deserved to be successful, but perhaps its violent content and crazy concept put people off. I find it also to be one of the most romantic films ever.
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+7
4:28PM on 07/05/2013
Good film, especially for this article. Dark City might be a good one to do as well.
Good film, especially for this article. Dark City might be a good one to do as well.
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12:04PM on 07/05/2013

One man's technicolor

Simply awesome. I don't know if it's the sci-fi/mystery angle or just the quality of the cast but I really love this movie.
Simply awesome. I don't know if it's the sci-fi/mystery angle or just the quality of the cast but I really love this movie.
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7:03PM on 07/05/2013

Cyberpunks forgotten magnum opus.

Just finished watching it on Netflix and absolutly loved it. Loved the blending of all themes making it a gritty near apocalyptic future mixed with a noir-styled crimestory. The thing is fast paced and unpredictable, the last half hour had me at the edge of my seat. A great choice for "The best movie you never saw".

I can also recommend Bigelows Near Dark from the 80s that is as cool as a vampireflick can get.
Just finished watching it on Netflix and absolutly loved it. Loved the blending of all themes making it a gritty near apocalyptic future mixed with a noir-styled crimestory. The thing is fast paced and unpredictable, the last half hour had me at the edge of my seat. A great choice for "The best movie you never saw".

I can also recommend Bigelows Near Dark from the 80s that is as cool as a vampireflick can get.
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+5
2:42PM on 07/05/2013

Good call for this article

I discovered this one around the same time as Dark City, both amazing films. Although I admire Dark City more for its ideas, and this one more for its execution of said ideas. For future installments of the article how about showcasing The Lookout or Brick?
I discovered this one around the same time as Dark City, both amazing films. Although I admire Dark City more for its ideas, and this one more for its execution of said ideas. For future installments of the article how about showcasing The Lookout or Brick?
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2:11PM on 07/05/2013
Great film,lucky to have got myself a Blu Ray Copy from Germany and it looks great.
Great film,lucky to have got myself a Blu Ray Copy from Germany and it looks great.
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+5
2:10PM on 07/05/2013

Spot on.

Another under appreciated early Bigelow classic. I saw this in the theater as an early teen and was blown away by it. Still holds up. Can't wait for a blu-ray.
Another under appreciated early Bigelow classic. I saw this in the theater as an early teen and was blown away by it. Still holds up. Can't wait for a blu-ray.
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12:02PM on 07/05/2013
This movie is on Netflix instant streaming. May have to watch it sometime this weekend. Thanks for the suggestion.
This movie is on Netflix instant streaming. May have to watch it sometime this weekend. Thanks for the suggestion.
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+4
9:14PM on 07/05/2013

Good pick...

Remember seeing it when it came out. Loved Fiennes 'magic man, Santa Claus of the subconscious' pitch in the movie. Prong's version of the song Strange Days is killer as well....
Remember seeing it when it came out. Loved Fiennes 'magic man, Santa Claus of the subconscious' pitch in the movie. Prong's version of the song Strange Days is killer as well....
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+3
7:45PM on 07/05/2013

This movie fits perfectly in here, it's in the right place at the right time !!!

What an underrated movie !!! It feels almost as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford of the 90's... Kathryn Bigelow's work has always been underrated IMO, and this movie probably stands as the most unappreciated piece of her work. For anyone who likes dystopian movies this one is a must-see.The cast does an outstanding job, especially Fiennes. Too bad it was a box office bomb when it was released, because that affected its "magic" (a hell of a great ride for 2 and a half
What an underrated movie !!! It feels almost as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford of the 90's... Kathryn Bigelow's work has always been underrated IMO, and this movie probably stands as the most unappreciated piece of her work. For anyone who likes dystopian movies this one is a must-see.The cast does an outstanding job, especially Fiennes. Too bad it was a box office bomb when it was released, because that affected its "magic" (a hell of a great ride for 2 and a half hours) and made people prejudice it, without even giving it a chance. This time you totally nailed it Paul... Cheers !!!
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12:33AM on 10/14/2013

It predicted 2Pac!

I love this movie. I watched it several times back in the 90s. Just recently rewatched it after more than 15 years and it was as awesome as always. Kathryn does a great job to maintain the tension even for someone like me who had watched it already. I would like to add that the movie kind of predicted 2Pac assassination. 2Pac was what JerikoOne was in this movie. The biggest rapper in the country and one with a lot of social weight and whose death shocked the nation.
I love this movie. I watched it several times back in the 90s. Just recently rewatched it after more than 15 years and it was as awesome as always. Kathryn does a great job to maintain the tension even for someone like me who had watched it already. I would like to add that the movie kind of predicted 2Pac assassination. 2Pac was what JerikoOne was in this movie. The biggest rapper in the country and one with a lot of social weight and whose death shocked the nation.
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2:52PM on 07/07/2013
I guess I need to get out more, so far I have seen every "best movie I've never seen"
I guess I need to get out more, so far I have seen every "best movie I've never seen"
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+2
8:57PM on 07/06/2013

Awesome Movie

I lLove this film. Good story, great acting and a badass soundtrack 2 boot. rent or buy this asap. And they really need to upgrade this to blu.
I lLove this film. Good story, great acting and a badass soundtrack 2 boot. rent or buy this asap. And they really need to upgrade this to blu.
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1:17PM on 07/06/2013
Didn't realise this was a relatively unknown or forgotten movie, but it's a great movie - Juliette Lewis never looked so good.
For a future part of this column, you should review Dobermann.
Didn't realise this was a relatively unknown or forgotten movie, but it's a great movie - Juliette Lewis never looked so good.
For a future part of this column, you should review Dobermann.
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6:17PM on 07/05/2013

Never seen it

Going to check it out this weekend!
Going to check it out this weekend!
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5:03PM on 07/05/2013
Good Choice
Good Choice
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11:00AM on 07/08/2013

I have to re-watch this

Saw this when it came out when I was in middle school at the time, I remember loving it, but I haven't seen it since.

The POV shower scene in the beginning is really the only thing I remember about it... teenage boys always remember the nudity
Saw this when it came out when I was in middle school at the time, I remember loving it, but I haven't seen it since.

The POV shower scene in the beginning is really the only thing I remember about it... teenage boys always remember the nudity
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2:56AM on 07/08/2013
Seen it, love it and its soundtrack
Seen it, love it and its soundtrack
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11:28PM on 07/06/2013
Love this movie!! Sizemore and Wincott are both quite good in this.
Love this movie!! Sizemore and Wincott are both quite good in this.
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+0
2:22PM on 03/31/2015

Cool Futuristic movie.

This film stands out from many films that try to deliver a believable or exciting future scenario..
Ralph Fiennes is excellent (one of my all time favorite actors), he walks a fine line between pathetic and sleazy with gleamses of defiance. The main theme also works totally for me (experience life through the eyes of another) and I truly expect to see it live some time in the future..
This film stands out from many films that try to deliver a believable or exciting future scenario..
Ralph Fiennes is excellent (one of my all time favorite actors), he walks a fine line between pathetic and sleazy with gleamses of defiance. The main theme also works totally for me (experience life through the eyes of another) and I truly expect to see it live some time in the future..
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11:17PM on 07/07/2013

Never seen it but I've always meant to check it out

the fact that Kathryn Bigelow directed it makes a huge difference for me. I like her work.

Next up: go with a complete change of pace and try ENCHANTED APRIL. Not usually a 'chick flick' fan but I really liked this one.
the fact that Kathryn Bigelow directed it makes a huge difference for me. I like her work.

Next up: go with a complete change of pace and try ENCHANTED APRIL. Not usually a 'chick flick' fan but I really liked this one.
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3:45PM on 07/07/2013
.
.
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-8
8:01PM on 07/05/2013

Meh.....

Best movie??? I've seen it several times and it's not bad for a free flick when you're bored, but the writer is trying WAY too hard to make it something more than it was.

I will say that any movie that has Brigitte Bako appearing sans clothing is worth watching just for her.
Best movie??? I've seen it several times and it's not bad for a free flick when you're bored, but the writer is trying WAY too hard to make it something more than it was.

I will say that any movie that has Brigitte Bako appearing sans clothing is worth watching just for her.
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