To be other than we are

STRANGE DAYS Kathryn Bigelow (18); Kathryn Bigelow's new action thriller is a noisily complex take on a society in terminal throes. It is by no means a snuff movie. By Adam Mars-Jones

With Strange Days, Kathryn Bigelow continues her rampage through the film genres. The Loveless was a biker movie, Near Dark was a (horribly effective) horror film. Blue Steel was a woman-with-a-gun melodrama, and Point Break was Bigelow's contribution to the tiny genre of the surfing/ skydiving/ detective thriller/ buddy movie. Strange Days is another hybrid, a futuristic thriller with an unusually complex agenda, based on one piece of imaginary hardware rather than a whole fictional world. The story, by James Cameron, is a great deal better than the one he last chose to direct - True Lies - or, by the sound of it, his next project, Spiderman.

The advance publicity for Strange Days has been negative, with Ralph Fiennes (excellent in the film) being interviewed as if a nice English boy who should have waited for the phone call from Merchant-Ivory had gone and spoilt it all by making a snuff movie. For the record: Strange Days is less violent than, say, Casino, and certainly less offhand about violence than Robocop or Total Recall.

Not only that: the film is largely preoccupied by the morality or otherwise of vicarious experience (which is one definition of art, or of pornography). The gizmo at the heart of the plot is the Squid - a little headset that records and plays back a person's sensations, originally developed as a refinement of the "wire" that undercover police wear to obtain evidence. In 1999 the Squid is illegal for civilian use, but there is an underground and a vocabulary: users "jack in", a sly mixture of the druggie (jack up) and the sexual (jack off). And the hero sells tapes, of sex, of crime. You want a nun to tie you up? It's all do-able.

The first conversation we see that involves Lenny Nero (Fiennes) is precisely about the limits of entertainment. He agrees to buy a tape (a "clip") which, disorientatingly, we have seen without knowing what it was - but haggles over price, because he's going to have to edit out the end, where the Squid wearer falls to his death. He doesn't do snuff. Everyone knows that. He's got ethics here. His supplier just says, "Yeah, when did that start?" He seems to be standing in for the director when he says, "You ask for excitement, for what's raw, and then you can't take it. And you blame me."

In 1999 Los Angeles is a few steps further along the road to collapse. Lenny drives through streets where the police rely on tanks and where teenage girls beat up Santa Clauses. Some of this background is cartoonish (like the violence in Godard's Weekend, for instance), but Bigelow is also making a formal point. Lenny keeps changing stations on his car radio, and the streets look different with each style of music. Lenny filters reality as he goes along, as if the windscreen was just that: a screen. It's also a good joke that people should feel so bizarrely safe in their cars, according to the long-standing principle of LA life that nothing good can come of being a pedestrian.

Strange Days is a thriller not a lecture. Yet behind Bigelow's exemplary kinetic control of a complex plot, the hero keeps being offered moral choices, for all the world as if this were an episode of Star Trek. He can choose the past, and the used emotions associated with Faith (Juliette Lewis), his ex-girlfriend now making it as a rock star (sensibly Bigelow buys in some fierce PJ Harvey songs for her to sing). Or he can wake up to the present and the future, to the disapproving love of his old friend "Mace", played by the magnificent Angela Bassett, who has one of the most stylish martial-arts routines since the heyday of Emma Peel.

Lenny always makes the right choice, but the argument for substitute experience gets a fair shake. Early in the film we see a new client of Lenny's being given a taste, only we don't see the clip, just the reaction to it. What we see is a fully dressed lawyer, eyes closed, slowly running his hands over himself in a trance of wonder. He's an 18-year-old girl in the shower. Lenny is smirking, but that's partly because he made a good guess when it came to giving this new customer a test-drive, and the lasting impression of the scene is pathos: the sadness of our hunger to be other than we are.

Later on, Lenny drops off a clip for a friend, who's in a wheelchair. When he plays it, we simply see footage of legs, legs reliably pumping down there at the water's edge. An early morning jog by the ocean - is that a pornographic experience for someone who can't walk? Or is it consolation, a work-out for phantom limbs?

In the past, Cameron's screenplays have moved towards thunderous but linear climaxes: in the Terminator films it was merely a question of waiting for a dismantled cyborg to get its act together one more time. Strange Days has a more complex resolution, as a seeming sub-plot turns into the real thing after all. Cameron credits Bigelow with wanting to emphasise the race relations aspect of the story, but it's a bold move all the same. As the countdown to a new millennium starts - 2K, as people call it in the film - the world's biggest party could just as easily be the world's biggest riot.

Who would have expected a sympathetic black character in a mainstream Hollywood picture to say the line, "Maybe it's time for a war"? When was the last time a rap artist was positively presented in such a film? As Strange Days moves towards its ending, it is filled with memories of the Rodney King beating, and the knowledge that in a racially polarised society riot is always in the wings.

Strange Days is loud and dazzling. It will take audiences a little while to get up to speed with it, but it is a stirring and surprising piece of film-making. Any apocalyptic vision of Los Angeles tends to look like Blade Runner, but Kathryn Bigelow styles the city confidently. A more important influence on the screenplay is certainly Michael Powell's Peeping Tom: the sequence in Strange Days that has been seized on as outrageous - of the rape and murder of a woman made to see her own death by being wired up to her attacker's Squid - is clearly modelled on the more low-tech sadism of Powell's murderer, who had only a film camera (with added stiletto) and a parabolic mirror to achieve the same goal.

Peeping Tom is an extraordinary film, but sometimes it seems the director has forgotten that it is a horror movie rather than an allegory of the artist's doomed attempt to fix beauty. Strange Days, for all its noisiness, doesn't gloss over the suffering of its victims. In its consideration of voyeurism, too, it is a lot less hypocritical than, say, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

The hostile reception to Peeping Tom, famously, killed Powell's career. An Englishman should know better than to dabble in such Americanised filth. Kathryn Bigelow's position looks secure, but it certainly seems that being a woman film director makes you a sort of honorary Brit, expected to take the genteel route at all times, and regarded as a traitor for making an action picture that offers no special exemption to your gender.

n On release from tomorrow

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