Today's My Year Of Flops entry, 1995's Strange Days, takes us back to the halcyon days of the Clinton Administration, when the soothing sounds of Bush (the band) taught us all to love again, Newt Gingrich's Contract With America propelled our country to unprecedented heights, and James Cameron still made movies instead of sailing around the world in a giant yacht made entirely out of thousand dollar bills while wearing a diamond tuxedo. Oh I know, Cameron still ventures into the director's chair on occasion, but I'm talking about real, substantive, important movies where killer androids travel back in time and aliens menace Sigourney Weaver, not IMAX documentary wankfests with titles like Look At This Neato Sea Creature I Found!, This Camera Can Film Things Underwater And In 3-D, How Cool Is That?, Look, What's That Weird Floaty Thing Over There?, and Let's Explore an Underwater Cave!.
In case you think I'm exaggerating Cameron's underwater obsession, here are some genuine projects Cameron has produced and/or directed since Titanic: Expedition Bismarck, Aliens Of The Deep, Last Mysteries Of The Titanic, and Ghosts Of The Abyss. Of course it's possible that Cameron's stint on Entourage as the make-believe director of Aquaman left him pining desperately for a leading man with the chops and Brando-like magnetism of a real-life Vinnie Chase. But pretending to direct movies is no substitute for the real thing.
In his '80s and '90s heyday, Cameron was bursting with ideas. They weren't all winners. For proof, check out the mind-boggling alternate ending to Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in which Linda Hamilton, buried under layers of unconvincing old-age make-up, enthuses about how Judgment Day has definitively been avoided (no more sequels for you suits!) in some of the most agonizingly awkward dialogue Cameron has ever written. For the guy who wrote Titanic, that's saying something.
Imagine if Star Wars ended with Mark Hamill waking up in his parents' wood-paneled basement in San Diego wearing a KISS t-shirt and Bermuda shorts and marveling, "I just had the most amazing dream! And you were in it, Uncle Vader, and Guidance Counselor Chewbacca, and you were in it too, Area Insurance Adjuster Boba Fett!" (For the sake of this example, all three would hover creepily at the end of Hamill's bed waiting for him to wake up.) That ending would probably enrage sci-fi purists about as much as T2's alternate, almost inconceivably shitty conclusion.
Cameron co-wrote and produced Strange Days, but left directing duties to ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, a director who seems to specialize in muddled ambition and interesting failures. Bigelow directed a flat-out masterpiece in 1987's Near Dark, a hypnotic vampire movie set in a redneck milieu of lurid neon and backwater honky-tonks and infused with an unmistakably Goth romanticism. She subsequently went on to make the kind of films that made even her most ardent supporters concede, "Eh, at least it was going for something," from the exploration of masculinity and gun fetishism in 1990's Blue Steel to the Zen surfer philosophizing of 1991's Point Break, a movie I inexplicably have never seen despite its unassailable reputation as the most awesome movie ever (according to Hot Fuzz at least). Bigelow's fascinating, maddening films are almost always going for something. They don't always get there.
In that respect, Strange Days represents the apex of Bigelow's ambition, if not achievement. It's a wildly audacious sci-fi epic plugged into a rich vein of pre-millennial tension. In grand sci-fi tradition, it's as much about where we are as a culture as where we're headed, as much about the neurotic present as the uncertain future.
A film that's prescient and mind-bogglingly ill-conceived in roughly equal measures, Strange Days casts Ralph Fiennes as an ex-cop turned "Santa Claus of the Subconscious," a down-and-out dealer in technology that allows virtual thrill-seekers to experience other people's memories and experiences, from lesbian romps to armed robbery. By 1995, Fiennes was well on his way to usurping Jeremy Irons' position as Hollywood's go-to guy to play haunted Europeans whose default mode is profound existential anguish or at least mild constipation.
Fiennes gets high on his own supply reliving nostalgic, sepia-toned memories of his relationship with Juliette Lewis, a self-destructive rock star who left him for Michael Wincott, a sneering bad guy who manages a 2Pac-like rapper (Glenn Plummer) whose violent death at the hands of the L.A.P.D. makes him into a modern-day folk hero, an instant icon.
When Fiennes begins receiving "black jack" discs–documenting gruesome rapes and murders–from an unknown source, he begins to fear for his life. With the help of friend and wildly overqualified sidekick Angela Bassett, Fiennes returns to his roots by investigating who is behind the sinister discs and their possible relation to Plummer's murder.
Strange Days is a sci-fi mystery that doubles as an extended meditation on the Rodney King riots. The film imagines what would happen if the L.A. riots never entirely ended but survived indefinitely as a low-simmering form of never-ending social unrest. It also seems to predict the death and martyrdom of Tupac Shakur and the huge symbolic role he'd go on to play as an enduring symbol of black promise snuffed out at its peak.
Strange Days is the cinematic equivalent of trip-hop, a shadowy realm of atmosphere, mood and suggestion with a decidedly drugged-up, post-apocalyptic feel. But the many things Strange Days gets right are negated by the things it gets wrong.
At the risk off being controversial, I am going to very humbly suggest that it may, in fact, have been a miscalculation to cast Juliette Lewis–a thespian who rivals Robin Williams for sheer, consistent annoyingosity–as the most the desirable woman in the world. Lewis and I go together like nails and chalkboard.Fiennes will do anything to relive his memories of life with Lewis. I, on the other hand, would happily pay a modest sum to purge every memory of Lewis and her goat-like bleating from my psyche. Heck, I'd pay fifty bucks just to forget that I ever saw The Other Sister or heard Lewis braying "You look good wita gun Bryyyyyuhhhn!" in the commercials for Kalifornia. If Lewis' role were played by Jennifer Connelly or Angela Bassett–a stone-cold fox and a smart, uncompromising actress to boot–I'd find the film much less problematic, but this central miscasting goes a long way towards reconciling Strange Days to the purgatory-like nowhere land of interesting failures.
When Fiennes waxes rhapsodic about the seductive allure of Lewis' voice, I found myself desperately hoping he was being bitterly ironic. It doesn't help that with her emaciated figure and bright orange-red hair Lewis looks disconcertingly like Ronald McDonald's crack-whore younger sister. It's never a promising sign when a film's ostensible sex symbol takes off her shirt over and over again and your default reaction is "No! God no! Hide your shame, devil woman!".
But Lewis' egregious miscasting is hardly the film's only major miscalculation. The scene in which the film's 2Pac surrogate (Glenn Plummer) is killed by the LAPD should be a harrowing, visceral, and tragic. Instead it borders on camp, and not just because the film's 2Pac doppelganger is played by the guy who tells Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls that what she does on the dance floor ain't dancing, it's teasing his dick. Also, is there any reason the posse member Plummer dies with is dressed like a MC Hammer back-up dancer? Cameron and co-screenwriter Jay Cocks have the foresight to predict the cult of 2Pac, but otherwise don't seem to know much about hip-hop.
Strange Days eventually turns into a sci-fi version of those hacky John Hughes teen romances where the lovesick white-bread protagonist takes an entire fucking film to realize that he should forget about the glamorous dream girl he's chasing and settle down with the soulful best friend who's been there for him all along. In this case, Bassett plays the soulful best friend who just happens to be a bazillion times more attractive and appealing than the impossible dream girl. I wanted to reach into the screen and slap Fiennes long and hard for being such a dopey schmuck.
Bassett utterly dominates the film, but it'd be great if she got to do something other than selflessly get Fiennes out of one boneheaded scrape after another. And when the plot kicks in, the film turns into a rote mystery intermittently enlivened by moody atmosphere and kinky sci-fi window dressing. (SPOILER ALERT) Who could have guessed that a character played by Tom Sizemore would turn out to be a sleazy creep? Oh wait, anyone who's ever seen Sizemore appear in anything, ever. That includes his reality show Jeez, They'll Give Anyone A Show These Days, Won't They?
It's all too easy to lay Strange Days's failure at Lewis' feet, but I'm going to do it anyway. Actually I'm going to blame lots of things on Lewis. You know the mess we're in Iraq? That's all Lewis' fault, as is global warming, inflation, and the popularity of "Celebreality" shows. I don't know why, but Lewis is somehow behind it all. And she's a Scientologist. So she's got that going for her.
You can tell Strange Days is a science fiction film because a white cop in it actually seems interested in solving the murder of a controversial, cop-baiting hip hop superstar. It's not hard to see why Strange Days failed at the box-office. It's got a trippy premise, a cast notably lacking in big box-office draws, and runs a bloated 145 minutes long. I can't say I'm at all surprised that audiences didn't go nuts over a trailer that begins with Fiennes asking, "Have you ever jacked in? Have you ever wire-tripped?" (No, but thanks for asking.) Yet it's a distinctly noble failure all the same, a sci-fi epic of ideas with vision and audacity, however misguided.
Strange Days ultimately recalls the work of Philip K. Dick both in its ingenious, reality bending premise and in its utter failure to find a satisfying resolution to its provocative tangle of fascinating but half-formed ideas.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco