I've been a vocal fan of Kathryn Bigelow since 1987's great vampire movie Near Dark. She is the only director of ten or more movies where I have seen every one of those pictures. She was stuck in the "cult film" genre for too long. Point Break was a real financial success, but Strange Days, which followed it, was a colossal flop ($8 million box office on a budget of $42 million). She didn't direct another feature for five years, and when she did, it was The Weight of Water, her worst picture (and another box office failure), and then K-19: The Widowmaker, which lost money despite a cast headed by Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. It was another six years before a Bigelow-directed film was released, and long-time fans like myself were delighted when that film, The Hurt Locker, made Bigelow the first-ever woman to win a Best Director Oscar.
Bigelow is a grand stylist, and I'm not generally a fan of style over substance. She has never made a perfect film, not even my beloved Near Dark. But a movie like Strange Days is very much in the Bigelow tradition of movies that look great, look interesting, and are just a bit off-kilter in appealing ways (for her fans, at least). It's too long, and the plot is muddled at times, but there is definitely something going on. It was released in 1995 after a long gestation that involved a lot of input from James Cameron, for a couple of years Bigelow's husband ... his name is all over the credits, most notably as writer. (In a fine irony, when Bigelow won her Oscar, one of the other nominated directors was Cameron.) It's fascinating that the film, made largely in the early-90s, and taking place on the end of the 20th century (it culminates with a huge celebration on New Year's Eve as 1999 turns into 2000), offers a society in upheaval, with racial tensions aggravated by the actions of cops. Usually, a dystopia looks some years into the future, but for the Strange Days filmmakers, dystopia was just around the corner. And while some of the film feels dated, its depiction of violent cops attacking people of color is sadly too close to home in 2023.
In the world of Strange Days, people get "jacked in" via a kind of virtual reality that allows them to experience the actions of others as they were happening, as that other. There can be a sweetness to this, as when a dealer gifts a tape of a person running on the beach to a man with no legs:
But mostly, those virtual experiences turn ugly, with one in particular being so revolting, critic David Denby wrote, "Conceptually, this is the sickest sequence in modern movies". The problem, as is so often the case with Bigelow, is that while she appears to be offering a violent world accompanied by disturbing virtual realities, she is in fact so good at creating these scenes that you can't help but be impressed. It's like a Cecil B. DeMille movie ... oh, we don't approve of immorality, hey, look at this orgy! Bigelow critiques the violence in such as stylish way that she makes us love it, no matter the intentions.
Still, it's got a remarkable cast. The three leads all had Oscar nominations by the time the film was made: Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, and Juliette Lewis. It's fun seeing how everyone looked almost 30 years ago, especially Vincent D'Onofrio and Tom Sizemore (the latter has long, stringy hair). Lewis sings a couple of PJ Harvey songs, including "Rid of Me". There are plenty of other fun names in the cast: Michael Wincott, Glenn Plummer, Richard Edson, William Fichtner.
Strange Days has also been very hard to see for a long time. It's been out of print forever. It recently turned up streaming on HBO Max, which is where I caught it (I hadn't seen it since it first came out). It's not the place to start with Bigelow ... that would be Near Dark and The Hurt Locker. But like almost all of her work, it's compulsively watchable.