Apocalyptic soothsayers share one logistical difficulty: if the world really were to end at a predetermined moment, in what time zone would the chaos commence? Perhaps a hundred years ago few Westerners would have hesitated to say Greenwich Mean time; the way the world has since changed makes New York and Washington clocks much more plausible harbingers of doom. The movie industry, however, will continue to be based for the foreseeable future – and you know how far that type of phrasing goes – in Los Angeles, California, site of enviable lifestyles and unenviable discord. Discord over what, precisely? Oh, the usual drivel – racial inequality, political hypocrisy, rumored Gestapo-like organizations, virtual reality devices trafficked through a burgeoning black market. How could the world end so untidily? That question and a few others are posed in this film.
It is likely that every single description of the film begins with the ominous date December 30, 1999, which is and isn't the end of the last millennium – but we'll save our hair-splitting for other issues. Strictly speaking, if the world were to combust and the antichrist surface or however you imagine an end of days at the turn of the millennium, all the cast members of Strange Days would have to wait another fifty-two and a half weeks. Rudely disappointing, true enough, but who said we were adhering to flimsy tools such as calendars? In any case, the film's initial conceit is that the end will come first and perhaps only to Los Angeles so that we don't even bother about the rest of the universe. We begin, therefore, with the adrenalin rush that will usher in a new form of virtual reality, and the opening scene of a robbery of a Chinese restaurant and subsequent pratfall off a roof lets us know something very creepy: someone is selling people's memories. The contraption employed is a superconducting quantum interference device – which resembles both a coral fragment and a crown of thorns – and the science should not be dismissed as the habitual futuristic mumbo-jumbo. SQUIDs actually exist, although they are not quite used in the way Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) earns a living.
A former cop and current slimebucket, Nero appears to be the most powerful dealer of the most powerful drug the world has ever known – virtual reality, with the generic name of "playback." His competition, if he has any, is never revealed. The only other source of the wonder drug is an oddball associate named Tick (Richard Edson), who provides him with his raw materials, tapes culled from both living and non-living persons with no questions asked by either Nero or Tick as to how these recordings came into being. So while we can debate whether it is more disturbing that the criminal in the opening scene is wearing a SQUID or whether someone would not hesitate to sell a dead man's memories, the real discussion becomes how to use the device for purposes other than getting high. The obvious answer, of course, is surveillance, and Nero is fully aware of this potential. Yet the fact that an impecunious former police officer in a crime-ridden megalopolis would not dare sell his goods to the organization that could most benefit from them is either a plot oversight or a tribute to Nero's demolished reputation. The third explanation, that of the LAPD's taking the moral high road, is belied by the rampant brutality throughout the film, most notably involving the unsolved shooting of famous rap star Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer).
Appropriately enough, about ninety-five percent of the film takes place with Nero present. That is to say, whether we like it or not, Nero is our SQUID. And while Nero couldn't care less about a politicized hoodlum like Jeriko One, he most certainly does give a damn about the latter's manager and producer Philo Gant (Michael Wincott). Gant exudes the filth and decadence that have always caused civilizations to collapse; even a cigarette proves impossible for him to master without a sinister stoop and grimace. Gant's wealth, which permits him to reside in a hollow urban palace that recalls an abandoned Roman sanctuary, and his promises of fame to young recording artists make him a magnet for girls such as Faith (Juliette Lewis). Why Gant would bother for more than a couple of nights with a floozy like Faith is perhaps less mysterious than Nero's enduring love for a woman whom he could not possibly keep. And why Lewis is cast in such a role is not ours to know: we are exposed to all but four or five inches of her and it is not a pretty sight. Having as our primary romantic tragedy someone of her constitution mesmerizing a witch doctor would only make sense in a world on the brink of ruin. As we learn early on, Nero's favorite SQUID activity involves the consumption of large amounts of vodka and playback, invariably of his relationship with Faith which ended as abruptly as the realities on his merchandise ("You assume you have a life," says Gant in one of his kinder moments to Nero, "because you traffic in the lives of others"). Later in the film we receive some explanation of his obsession, which I suppose has much to do with his previous line of work as anything else. Two more characters of importance in Nero's life should be mentioned: Max (Tom Sizemore) and Mace (Angela Bassett), both of whom are rivals and allies. Mace in particular has had a long past with Nero, and the intensity of her persona is overplayed so much at times as to make her scenes nearly unwatchable (her fitness in comparison to Nero's gigolo flab makes the contrast that much stronger). Risking life and limb, Nero will attempt again and again to win back Faith – the metaphor is terribly unsubtle – which mostly involves sneaking into a hellish disco called Retinal Fetish and getting pummeled by Gant's henchmen. Yet the plot will be triggered by another erstwhile hooker, one with large, sad eyes and the appropriate name of Iris (Brigitte Bako).
Iris used to walk the streets for money, but her current wardrobe and demeanor suggest that only the job title has changed. One night she has the misfortune of witnessing a horrific event that could lead the already unstable city into pandemic riot – and nothing more should be said about the matter. The plot is not evident for almost a good hour, and when it does begin to unwind we understand the outside world as a projection of Nero's inner turmoil. Most films would subvert Nero's personal crisis to the growing dangers outside his tiny sphere, but Strange Days follows the conceit to the full extent of its parameters. What Nero inflicts upon his customers is transformed into the moral downfall of society as a whole, and the consequences of his trade are at once his fault and the natural outgrowth of circumstance. The music in the film, ostensibly a vital component since all good revolutions need a soundtrack, might make you sentimental for those carefree late teenage years when originality and freedom meant singing along to someone else’s cynical lyrics. But then again, there have been few things in human history as addictive as music and clothing. So you might want to pay as much attention to Nero's tie collection as he does.