The Video Store Days #9: Strange Days (1995)

Today, on The Video Store Days. we take a look at a film that everyone should at least know exists, and most people should watch, the 1995 sci-fi actioner, Strange Days.

The year was 1995. I was fifteen years old and in love with the movies. I tried to go to the theater whenever I could but the films that I was most attracted to (sci-fi, horror, exploitation) where usually R-rated (back when an R-rating was something that a studio didn’t frown upon, but embraced) and because I was under 17, I had to get one of my parents to take me. They usually would, but they would limit how many they would take me to see, telling me that the ones that were not that important could want for video. By October of 1995, when STRANGE DAYS hit theaters, I had pretty much exhausted my limit of R-rated films for the year. I mean, TALES FROM THE CRYPT PRESENTS DEMON KNIGHT, HIGHLANDER: THE FINAL DIMENSION, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, THE JERKY BOYS, THE MANGLER, CANDYMAN: FAREWELL TO THE FLESH, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, BAD BOYS, CRIMSON TIDE, DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, JUDGE DREDD, UNDER SIEGE 2, and SEVEN all came out before STRANGE DAYS and there were a few more that I wanted to see, so I chose not to go and see STRANGE DAYS. This is despite the fact that Roger Ebert gave the film four stars and said that it was one of the best films of 1995.

I had to wait until the following May to see the film when it hit VHS and Laserdisc. In fact, I saved up the money to buy the film on Laserdisc the day it hit the shelves because I knew that the film was going to be good. It had to be. Ebert gave it a glowing review, the film was co-written and produced by James Cameron, and it had a really cool concept. How could this film not be good?

Thankfully, when the film hit home video, it turned out to a game-changer (at least for me). Here was a film that was so inventive, so crazy, and so well made that I was surprised that it was a bomb at the box office. Looking back, I can see why it was a bomb. 20th Century Fox, who released the film, had no idea what they had on their hands. They didn’t know how to market the film, so instead of trying to sell the concepts of the film, they sold it as a Ralph Fiennes film instead. Nothing against Ralph Fiennes, but he was not a box office draw. He’s a great actor for sure, but not someone who can open a film. If you watch the trailers for the film, you would never guess that there are some really big sci-fi components to it. You would know who was in the film, but you wouldn’t know about the plot or the SQUIDS.

Let’s talk about the SQUIDS for a minute as it is the thing that drives the film. SQUID stands for Superconducting QUantum Interference Device, a terrible acronym for sure. This device allows a person to wear a device on their head and record what they are seeing with full video and sound. You see, feel, and hear exactly what the person who was wearing the recording device did. Of course, this can be used for memorable occasions like your wedding, the birth of a child, or to keep memories of someone who has died. We know that people are using it for that but we also know that people will record anything. There is a scene where Lenny (Ralph Fiennes) is letting a man who wants to buy a device get a taste of what it is like. We see the man’s reactions to what is happening but we never see what he sees. After the man is done, Lenny tells him that he was just an 18-year-old girl taking a shower.

The film rightfully opens with a clip that someone took of them and two other guys trying to rob a Chinese restaurant. We see everything from the point of view of one of the robbers and it is exhilarating. Everything is shot first person and it is something that we have really never seen before. We see the guy’s hands as he shoots at the police and even when he tries to jump from one building rooftop to another. This scene I still consider to be one of the best opening scenes to any film ever. This scene sets up not only what a SQUID is and what it can do, but also sets up the world in which the film takes place (which is very much our world, but we don’t know that yet. On the Laserdisc, there is a separate audio track that acts as an audio commentary of director Kathryn Bigelow giving a speech about the tech used in the film and how it was accomplished. It is very eye-opening how much work and dedication went into creating these scenes.

The film is also VERY violent, especially when you realize that this was a film coming from a major studio. I have no idea how the film got an R rating other than the MPAA just didn’t care. There is a very brutal rape scene that happens about a third of the way into the film. This is done in the POV format as it is being shown to Lenny through the SQUID. The rapist makes the attack even worse by having the victim wear a SQUID as well, then plugging in the device to his own, so the victim feels the attack from her and her attackers POV. By shooting this scene from the POV of the attack, Bigelow has made us the audience, the attacker. This makes for an incredibly disturbing scene inside a film that you would think wouldn’t be this brutal.

One last thing to add about the film. As I said before, STRANGE DAYS was released in 1995, only three years after the trial in which four LAPD officers were acquitted of using excessive force after they were videotaped beating Rodney King. This led the what are known as The L.A. Riots in which the city of L.A. was torn apart by those who felt that justice had not been served and probably wouldn’t ever be served. STRANGE DAYS ups the ante of these racial tensions and has a fictional activist and rapper, Jericho One, murdered by the LAPD. This is, of course, witnessed by someone who is wearing a SQUID device, and its what drives the plot forward. Again, this is something that you didn’t see in a big studio film. Sure, we had films like TALES FROM THE HOOD and HIGHER LEARNING see release in 1995, but those were lower budgeted films. Less risky. STRANGE DAYS cost $42 million, so you would think that the studio would want the filmmakers to play it safe, but the filmmakers use this openness to swing for the fences. I applaud the balls the filmmakers had to make a film that was, and is, so relevant.

STRANGE DAYS is a film that needs to be seen. With all the protests that are happening around the world, STRANGE DAYS is just as important today as it was in 1995. The film was way ahead of its time and proved that Blue Steel and Point Break weren’t just flukes for director Kathryn Bigelow. She knows how to direct action and doesn’t flinch when it comes to shooting the more uncomfortable scenes.

Finding STRANGE DAYS might be a bit hard nowadays. The film is a 20th Century Fix film which means that it is now owned by Disney. Disney will not do anything with it as they have proven with so many other films and if they did, it would probably be censored in some way. There are VHS and Laserdisc copies out there as well as a DVD release that came out during the first few years of the format. This means that it is a non-anamorphic transfer that is taken from the Laserdisc, as well as most of the extras from said Laserdisc. There are blu-rays from other countries as 20th Century Fox didn’t keep the international rights to the film, selling them off to Universal to help with the budget. This means that you can find a blu-ray from Germany that looks great and features all the extras from the Laserdisc. It’s region-locked, but if you have a region free blu-ray player, then these foreign releases are the best way to see the film. The film is not streaming anywhere so a physical release is the only way to see the film.

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