Millennial Malaise 01: Strange Days

In Which the Future is Divined With MiniDiscs

Science fiction has always served as a great predictor, with pieces speculating on things like cyberspace, mobile telecommunications, and AI with shocking prescience. The amusing thing about those speculations are the limits of understanding from technology at the time: the Internet was a physical location you had to travel to, the phones of the future were blocky bricks with SD video abilities, and AI were walking and talking robots instead of the malignant codes and algorithms that lurk in the sewer lines of the web.

But such are the dangers of postulation, that all consideration will be limited by the information and structures at hand. But as the speed of technological change has increased, the half-life of these archaic systems has cratered. Barely a dozen years have passed since smart phones hit the market, and it seems hard to comprehend a world without them.

The prescience/out-of-date-tech divided is strong with Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 cyberpunk thriller Strange Days. A movie that smartly notes things like easily shareable video, police brutality, consumer grade VR, increased racial tensions among American citizens, tech used to exploit women, and how the turn of the millennium would not completely rearrange the world. All of this thematic material hinges on the concept of MiniDiscs being the wave of the future.

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While this point may seem laughable in hindsight, in the mid 90s moment it makes sense. For the last twenty years computers were shrinking from basement sized behemoths to tabletop personal units. Based on the look of things betting big on the MiniDisc concept seems completely reasonable. The course of recording had gone from film to tape to disc, and had gotten smaller and more compact at each move, why wouldn’t things just continue to get smaller and compact? The idea of digital file sharing still seemed like a long off dream in ’95, as absurd as the tiny discs used here do today.

But this odd piece of technical obsolescence is used to service a story that cuts right to the thematic heart of this series. In a reworking of the LA noir Bigelow casts Ralph Fiennes as an ex-cop SQUID (the illicit VR system that uses said MiniDiscs for storage) dealer Lenny Nero. Nero spends his day slinging those MiniDisc headsets that can capture the experiences of the wearer with video, audio and tactile sensation. As he tells a perspective customer at one point, “this is not like TV but better. This is life.” It’s New Year’s Eve 1999 and Lenny’s life is more than falling apart. LA is on the verge of collapse and police sanctioned violence, he’s scamming his way around town, his ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliet Lewis) is hooked up with a scuzzy record producer, his car got impounded, and a former underground contact, Iris, is begging him for help from police officers who are chasing her.

As all this swirls around Lenny he gets dragged into a conspiracy that involves the LAPD, slain political activist and rapper Jeriko One, and snuff MiniDiscs being sent to him from a mysterious source. To help with his problem he hooks up with kick ass limo driver Mace (Angela Bassett) and scummy private eye Max (Tom Sizemore) to root out the problem before the entire city implodes on New Years.

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As these two block paragraphs of plot underline this movie has a lot on its mind. It feels like Bigelow and company took a survey of mid 90s LA (from the Rodney King Riots, the Lorena Bobbitt and OJ Simpson trials, the meteoric rise of Tupac, the new forms of digital video and VR, and the continued exploitation of women in the world of film and music) amplified events by a factor of ten and sent it to the future. In the dizzying hyper color nightscapes of Bigelow’s LA one will uncover every fear and prediction about the oncoming millennium.

In fact an early sequence serves as the sort aesthetic apotheosis of what this series is interrogating. Lenny cruises down Hollywood Boulevard on NYE listening to the radio. He drives by absolute and normalized mayhem: cops senselessly beat the citizenry, people dressed for raves toss Molotovs and fire crackers at burned out cars, random adolescents break store windows to scavenge for goods. Each one of these actions takes place under blearing neon and Christmas lights, casting everything in nauseating saturated hues. A radio station is taking calls: one speaker says nothing will change in the New Year and the chaos of now will continue, another promises a new world in the new millennium lead by political and social awareness, and the final one says that the rapture will strike the City of Angels at the stroke of midnight.

All of the anxieties of the time boiled down to one scene. The sense of not knowing what happens next, questioning what purpose we serve in world where we have seemingly gone through it all already. What the future holds can’t even be defined by the current moment. As Sizemore’s character says a little later, “You know why people think it’s the end of the world? Because everything has already been done.”

These fears sneak like tentacles through every major movement of the plot, and frequently hit the viewer with a surprise smack from the future. The biggest example of this is the story and set up of the death of Jeriko One. You see Jeriko is an outspoken opponent of the LAPD, he sees them as nothing more than as a tool of oppression by the government, so when he gets pulled over by a couple of nasty officers things go south quickly.

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The sequence, shot from the first person POV of Iris, shows Jeriko’s car being pulled over by the cops for no reason. Jeriko is then summarily executed by the officers, a chilling premonition of the now standard footage of a modern police shooting. You have the black men in the car minding their business only to be pulled over by the police, you have the grandiose displays of power by the officers, and then finally the total disregard for the black body as they are senselessly killed for voicing opposition.

It’s haunting for two reasons: one is that we have real life versions of this fictional facsimile, and the other is that it’s not a strange occurrence in contemporary life while its treated as an extraordinary event in the film. In fact the greatest failing of Strange Days is that it treats the problems of its world as kind of in their own pockets of tragedy, isolated from the more overbearing systemic issues in society. The climax, while magnificently shot and staged, shows that the cops were merely bad eggs. That once the truth of the situation was known by the right people in power (this time the police commissioner) the world will right itself.

And for all its fear and trepidation about the oncoming millennium, it ends on a strangely optimistic note. After the bad guys are dead and apprehended, and the truth fully revealed, the clock strikes midnight and everyone remains alive and well. We made it. Nero and Mace breath a sigh of relief and share a New Years kiss as the camera dreamily drifts through the confetti and fireworks as a time displays the year 2000. No great event changed the world, but the possibility of making amends is put forth.

It’s moving stuff, and in the period it probably played better. But time makes many good intentions seem naïve in retrospect, and that is certainly the case here. For all of the grime and terror in Bigelow’s nightmare LA, it still believes that technology can provide an out, that checks and balances will reassert, that the new millennium would be some sort of new slate. Not a complete reinvention of society, but an opportunity to move forward and make right the world out of balance.

Where Bigelow doesn’t whiff is with the idea that portable high quality video would completely change culture. In big ways and small the simple concept of seeing the world clearly from any perspective might actually short circuit how people act and conduct themselves. We have seen that videos of police violence haven’t stopped, but a recognized movement has developed around them. We have seen how online spaces have become viable for those trying to explore new identities and push the boundaries on their sense of self. Heck the style of shooting in the SQUID sections in Strange Days almost perfectly match the video of GoPros.

So while the tech of MiniDisc based VR may seem like the punch line for some Youtube video to make about movies in the 90s being dated, Bigelow did provide an actual tangible vision of the future that has outlived both the time and ideas of the pre-millennial world.

Odds and Ends

  • While Strange Days digs deep into the skewed tech and aesthetics of the time its interesting that the Internet isn’t mentioned once; in this world digital videos are only shared by analog people.
  • This movie has way too much going on to completely cover everything, but I should mention there is one incredibly horrifying rape scene shot from a first person perspective. If you feel at all turned off by that I would say it’s okay to skip over it.
  • Despite being a very “serious” movie a lot of the world building and set design stuff has become hilariously dated. My favorite bit is the rave club that character frequented is called Retinal Fetish and features such acts as caged leather dancers, fenced in neo-Nazis burning books, and human shooting galleries.Screen Shot 2019-01-09 at 11.45.43 AM
  • Some other amusing background details: A news anchor predicts that Gaddafi will have a Nobel prize and there will be two women presidents by 2025, a mime is a focus of the big finale New Years Eve party.
  • I highly recommend reading about the production of the film. Bigelow had to basically reinvent rigging equipment for the cameras to shoot the POV sections, principle photography happened almost exclusively at night, and the final sequence was shot at an actual rave that the production set up in downtown LA.

Next week: The incredibly smart, and delightful, 1992 heist film Sneakers.