Kathryn Bigelow's 1995 cyberpunk thriller perfectly captures its moment while looking towards a more fraught future.
n November 21, 1999, NBC’s airwaves were graced by the broadcast of a TV movie billed as Y2K. As its grabbier DVD-release title Countdown to Chaos suggests, the program foretold the imminent arrival of the new millennium as a global meltdown in the grand tradition of Irwin Allen. As the clock hits the rolling series of midnights across Earth’s time zones, billions of dollars vanish in a blink, planes fall out of the sky, New York plunges into a mass blackout, and hospitals start turning away patients. At the time, critics and scientists alike denounced the film’s panic-mongering, but the worries of stoked anxieties also proved that the executive producers, who were “astonished nobody else [had] pitched” the idea, had tapped into a real sociological undercurrent. In one subplot, our hero’s teenage daughter sneaks out of the house to attend a New Year’s bash. “I’m so sick of Y2K!” she says. “‘Is my nail polish Y2K-compliant? Is the world gonna end? What about the embedded chips?’ Blah, blah, blah. They’re just machines!”
For all its liberties with the facts, this forgettable artifact captured a heady fin-de-siècle mix of hedonistic abandon, petrified anticipation, and tech-sick disillusionment that had already been predicted more artfully earlier that decade. In 1995, Kathryn Bigelow booted up and jacked in to a pessimistic vision of the near future with her lesser-seen Strange Days, currently enjoying a spike in popularity due to its belated streaming premiere on HBO Max. Set over the last 48 hours of the 20th century in a Los Angeles on the brink of total anarchy, her audacious fusion of sci-fi and film noir pictured Y2K as a massive cataclysm of obliteration and regeneration. But rather than a fanciful failure of the computerized power grid, it’s the social framework that shatters at 12:00. Under duress from the public, the airing of Y2K added a disclaimer up top clarifying that nothing depicted therein would actually come to pass. Strange Days ought to have the opposite: a post-mortem title card stating that its prophetic person-to-person apocalypse will never stop repeating itself.
James Cameron had spent nine years tinkering with a script built around the conceit of the “Superconducting Quantum Interference Device” (SQUID), a doodad allowing the user full sensory replay of another person’s memories stored to a disc, when he brought the idea to his ex-wife Bigelow. She whittled a politically conscious edge from his narrative outline of an ex-cop teaming with a woman who loves him to save the one who got away, well aware of the unavoidable topicality inherent in Angeleno policing during the ’90s. No-nonsense limo driver Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett) chauffeurs Ralph Fiennes’ rangy-haired Lenny Nero—as in the emperor who had his own thing going on while Rome burned around him—through streets flooded with violence against and perpetrated by the LAPD, echoing the riots in the wake of Rodney King’s murder. (Bigelow herself participated in the city-wide cleanup.) Everyone’s worked up over the recent death of bridge-building rapper Jeriko-One, murdered under suspicious circumstances, a plot point conceived one year before the comparably enlightened Tupac Shakur would be shot to death in a drive-by. What might seem an astonishing coincidence scans more like an inevitability considering the grim outcomes of militarized law enforcement.
Across this citywide pressure cooker, a knotty conspiracy ensnares Mace, Lenny, his pal Max (Tom Sizemore), his sex-bomb chanteuse ex Faith (Juliette Lewis), her new manager Philo (Michael Wincott), and a pair of bloodthirsty boys in blue, all of whom are after a SQUID disc containing the eyewitness truth behind Jeriko-One’s death. This gadgetry emblemizes a spirit of national decay that hangs in the air like tear gas. As David Foster Wallace warned us in Infinite Jest, the evolutionary course of media reaches a stage so sophisticated that it engenders addiction no different from narcotics. The slackened body language and half-baked discretion with which Lenny plugs in to a memory of Faith from the back seat of Mace’s car is no different than that of a heroin user who’s found a sufficiently private spot to tie off. Faced with the non-zero possibility that the end of days may soon be upon them, everybody makes a choice either to self-destruct or destroy everything else.
That’s the furious, volatile vibe among the attendees of Philo’s NYE blowout denouement, which occupies multiple blocks around the towering Westin Bonaventure Hotel as well as the last hour of the film’s run time. The sprawling scope of the confetti-strewn celebration represents a resourceful feat of planning and crowd control: Bigelow stretched the $750,000 allotted for the segment by staging the rager as a mini-music festival with appearances from Aphex Twin, Deee-Lite of “Groove Is in the Heart” fame, and all the techno musicians that rave promoters Moss Jacobs and Philip Blaine could book. Inside, the progressively left-field musical acts hint at globalization as a major 21st-century trend, from an African folk band to a group of Japanese taiko drummers to a corps of bagpipers. Instead of the production paying the extras, ten thousand revelers forked over ten of their own dollars just to get in, a windfall that defrayed the cost to reserve half of the Bonaventure’s 1,300 rooms. In wide shots teeming with action, the night looks like the wildest soiree ever thrown because it pretty much was, the shoot wrapping one hour early after five participants required medical attention due to overdoses on ecstasy.
As the gigantic digital-readout clock strikes twelve, the revelry reaches a fever pitch that coincides with the final confrontation between Mace and the policemen rushing to silence her, both triggers igniting the crowd’s simmering collective rage. A riot being the language of the unheard, it’s bracing to see the anonymous masses raising their voice in righteous fury, even as the overly tidy resolution undercuts that gesture of solidarity. Just as Mace gets the drop on her pursuers, LAPD backup arrives to subdue what they see as another Black woman attacking an on-duty officer. It seems like all hope is lost, until in swoops the scrupulous commissioner to announce that he’s seen the incriminating memory-tape, Mace is free to go, and the crooked cops will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. (By the film’s end, Vincent D’Onofrio’s face has been caked with blood casting him in a monstrous light, a clear bad apple distinct from his non-psychopath colleagues.) The notion that institutional corruption in the police force can be resolved by that same institution is laughably naive, and forcing Mace to be saved by her harassers does a grave disservice to Bassett’s performance of bruised dignity.
This parting faux pas betrays Strange Days as a product of the ’90s, when making an outright anti-police movie was an unthinkable proposition to 20th Century Fox — though it’s not like things have changed so radically since then, going by the measured collaborationist compromises of The Hate U Give (2018) or the not-all-cops caviling of Bigelow’s own Detroit (2017). And so her future-imperfect megaflop is ultimately most dated in the unwieldy sweep of its making, squeezing in just as the window was closing on original, imaginative mid-budget genre pieces at the studio level. In an interview with Artforum, Bigelow described her film as “this great emotional matrix,” unwittingly foreshadowing the last gasp of big-swing sci-fi before it would be displaced by IP and relegated to Euro-co-pros like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017). Perhaps all the nail-chewing over Y2K wasn’t entirely misplaced after all—something certainly ended as the new millennium began.
Strange Days is available to stream on HBO Max.
Charles Bramesco is a freelance film and TV critic living in Brooklyn. A former staff writer for Rolling Stone, he's been featured in the New York Times, New York Magazine, the Guardian, and many other fine publications. His second book, Colors of Film: The Story of Cinema in 50 Palettes, is currently available for purchase in the U.K. and will be published in the U.S. on March 14, 2023.