Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: It’s 1995 Week here at The A.V. Club, which means we’re shouting out some of the forgotten or underrated triumphs of that year.
The best science fiction transcends the time and cultural moment of its creation, living on and assuming whole new unintended levels of meaning in years to come. It does so by being, once and always, fundamentally true. Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days has seen strange days of its own in the 20 years since its release, receiving mixed reviews at first, then quickly becoming irrelevant in its concern after the immediately archaic late 1990s Y2K hysteria, only to gradually emerge as an increasingly potent allegory for 21st-century internet culture. Most recently, its unflinching, incisive, yet optimistic perspective on the relationship between black Americans and the police has come into focus, with the greater public attention to police brutality and oppression in the 2010s.
Before all that, though, Strange Days was a cyberpunk-inflected murder mystery whose first hour almost ignores its story in favor of a sensual limousine ride through the heart of a fin de siècle Los Angeles night lit in bright primary colors. A slick-talking, seductive Ralph Fiennes offers paying customers the opportunity to be someone else. As it is for many seducers, this is all a means of temporary escape from the realities of his own life: He’s a disgraced ex-cop in denial of the fact that his rock-singer girlfriend isn’t coming back. But with that reality at arm’s length, he owns the night.
Bigelow, meanwhile, maintains an almost paradoxical balance of looseness and intensity throughout, reveling in the pleasures of sights and sounds, and (partially through ingenious camera mounting) invests all of the first-person POV virtual-reality footage with the thrilling immediacy experienced by the characters in the movie. Strange Days as a whole feels a bit like an expensive leather jacket, a thing to slide on and luxuriate in.
Though quite easy to forget about when immersed in such sensual delights, the story is one of the most modern things about the film, which inadvertently (and inexactly) predicted the process by which information travels in the 2015-vintage internet, especially by way of social media. The escalation of the story’s tension—stemming, as we eventually find, from a cold-blooded murder at a traffic stop, inadvertently recorded by a sex worker—happens seemingly at random, in a quite similar fashion to a viral video’s spread via Vine and Twitter. In Strange Days’ world, that spread is contained within the film’s characters, who can only imagine the chaos the recording (painfully reminiscent of recordings of police malfeasance in our world) would wreak if they failed. This is how science fiction trickles into the pop culture of succeeding eras and achieves timelessness.
Availability: Strange Days is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented digitally through Amazon and is currently streaming on Netflix.