The 1995 Ralph Fiennes sci-fi thriller Strange Days, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by James Cameron, just landed on HBO Max.
Ralph Fiennes has never quite fit into the role of a Hollywood leading man. The massive success of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (and his critically acclaimed performance as Nazi commandant Amon Göth) unexpectedly made the Shakespearian theater actor a viable commercial draw in 1993, cemented by Quiz Show in 1994 and The English Patient in 1996. However, in between all those movies, he starred in the terrifying Kathryn Bigelow science fiction thriller Strange Days, which just began streaming for the very first time on HBO Max.
Strange Days stars Ralph Fiennes as Lenny Nero, a former Los Angeles vice cop turned high-tech drug dealer in the then-near future of 1999. As with many films of the 1990s, Los Angeles is portrayed as an utter war zone of rampant crime, police brutality, and immorality; in fairness, L.A. is rarely depicted otherwise in film, just the window dressing of sci-fi tropes and predictions vary. In this case, Bigelow made Strange Days just a few years after the 1992 Rodney King riots that made the city a national focus of pent-up rage, social disorder, and corrupt institutions, and it shows.
The highest concept sci-fi element of Strange Days is Ralph Fiennes’ stock in trade, an illegal electronic device called a “SQUID,” a neural interface that allows a user to virtually relive recorded experiences. For some people, that means experiencing cheesy porn-style sex, for others, the thrill of an attempted robbery. The real plot of Strange Days kicks in when Ralph Fiennes unexpectedly comes across a clip that appears to show revolutionary rapper Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) being executed by two LAPD officers (Vincent D’onofrio and William Fichtner).
Strange Days was written by Kathryn Bigelow’s former husband James Cameron back in 1986 and gestated for years in his typical slow development process, but its depiction of an unarmed Black man being cold-bloodedly murdered by police officers is sadly as evocative and incendiary now as it was then. Ralph Fiennes quickly finds himself drawn into a noir-like conspiracy of a mysterious LAPD death squad executing social revolutionaries with impunity, the involvement of his rock star ex-girlfriend (Juliette Lewis) and her record exec boyfriend (Michael Wincott), who also managed Jeriko One, and a serial rapist and murderer who records their victims via SQUID and forces them to experience their own violations and deaths in real-time.
In short, Strange Days is a bleak and dark movie, which makes it no surprise that it tanked hard at the box office. It grossed a mere $8 million in theaters (not even coming close to recouping its $42 million budget) and received mixed reviews for its stark violence, social messaging, and perceived nihilistic themes. It also may have been crowded out of the cyberpunk (or, as James Cameron likes to call it, “tech noir”) by other 1995 releases like Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Mnemonic, Angelina Jolie’s Hackers, and Sandra Bullock’s The Net.
1995 was a big time for grimy, street-level futurism, and Strange Days disappeared without a trace in all the background noise. Up till now, it has been nearly impossible to find in North America, but HBO Max is suddenly a popular place to check out dark Ralph Fiennes movies. Maybe Strange Days might finally get its due.