|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 21 May 2002|
Once in awhile, something comes along to make a reviewer here at Audio Revolution completely lose all objectivity. My audiophile friends who have seen the home version of ‘Strange Days’ agree that, in terms of sound, it may be the single best film DVD released so far. The mix is generally dazzling, combining ambient noise, dialogue and pounding music (characters are often shouting over grunge-rock acts in clubs). However, what makes the audio in ‘Strange Days’ so special are nine separate sequences in which sound travels through the speaker system to mimic the level changes that occur in normal human hearing as the head turns, creating point-of-view for the ears as well as the eyes.
This effect is central to the premise of ‘Strange Days.’ Set in the last 48 hours of 1999, ‘Strange Days’ is not futuristic in any way except one. A new technology, "Squid" for short, exists that allows one person to completely immerse him or herself in the sensory experience of someone else. Little CD-like disks record and play back not only sight and sound but smell, taste and touch. Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), a former cop, deals the disks in L.A., priding himself on supplying clients with whatever they want but drawing the line at snuff. Lenny is pining in the worst way for his old girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis), a former hooker who has moved up the social food chain and now wants nothing to do with him. However, when an anonymous source drops off a clip that contains the rape/murder of Faith’s former best friend, the stunned and appalled Lenny believes his ex is in mortal danger. He’s pretty scared for himself, too, more so when it appears that the murder is somehow connected to the deaths of two rap musicians. Aiding Lenny in his quest for the truth are his sleazy, cynical pal Max (Tom Sizemore) and upright chauffeur Mace (Angela Bassett). Mace’s overwhelming fondness for Lenny is often accompanied by fury at what he continually does to himself, but her anger never stops her from putting body and soul on the line to help him.
The above summary may or may not make ‘Strange Days’ sound any different from all sorts of other films set in the seamy, scummy night life of Los Angeles. Other films, however, don’t have director Kathryn Bigelow’s bat-out-of-hell pacing and kinetic set pieces. Chapter 13 has a car chase with a culmination that leaves viewers blinking and breathless - and this isn’t even the p.o.v. material. The opening sequence in Chapter 1, in which we’re put straight into the head of an armed robber seconds before he and his gang race into a job, is like being dragged forward at 100 mph. The experience lives up to the rush Lenny promises his customers. Chapter 9, from the killer’s point of view, would be impossible to take if it wasn’t presented through the filter of Lenny’s sensibilities as he plays it back; Bigelow cuts away just often enough to his traumatized reactions to enable us to witness it with him. Chapter 14, with dialogue, gunshots, running footsteps and ragged breath all receiving the hyper-directional, point of view treatment, is an acoustical standout, while a helicopter shot of thousands upon thousands gathered in the street below for New Year’s Eve, is visually arresting.
For those curious about the innovative camera and sound techniques deployed in the "clip" sequences, an audio commentary track includes Bigelow’s in-depth examination of how the effects were achieved. Other supplemental material includes two scenes cut from the final version. One is no great loss, but the other contains a beat so crucial for Lenny’s character that it’s tempting to stop the film between Chapter 11 and 12, go to the Special Features section and watch the missing sequence in its proper place in the story chronology.
Writers James Cameron and Jay Cocks, working from Cameron’s story, give us a narrative structure that doesn’t set every element on a tidy track leading to a formula resolution. Multiple viewings reveal new themes, pulsing beneath the several major plot threads. However, thrilling as all this is, what really sets ‘Strange Days’ apart are its characters. The protagonists are people who rarely if ever take central focus in science-fiction films or even standard-issue film noir. Lenny is shown to be terrified. He goes into situations where he knows he will likely get beaten to a pulp not because it’s part of some great strategy but because he’s has promised to proceed and can’t imagine what else to do. Mace has a lot more physical confidence and a lot more fight skills - Chapter 11 contains a breathtaking brawl that starts with one arm suddenly shooting out of the darkness - but she is likewise stuck trekking into Hell because she vowed she would. There’s a lovely scene in Chapter 16 that illustrates the parallels between the two characters. Fiennes and Bassett both give performances of enormous feeling, humor and vitality, playing off one another as if (like their characters) they really have been friends for years.
It’s worth sitting through the closing credits for Peter Gabriel’s haunting contribution to the score, while earlier on, Ray Manzarek and his band do a floor-shaking rendition of the title track, a cover of the Doors song. Other notable assets are the ace supporting cast led by the genially shifty Sizemore, Matthew F. Leonetti’s beautiful cinematography that finds glowing colors surrounded by darkness and Howard Smith’s lightning-swift editing.
I believe ‘Strange Days’ to be one of the best (and certainly most underrated) movies of the ‘90s, but that’s just an opinion. I know for a fact it’s one of my favorite films ever.