Film * Kathryn Bigelow * The Real Y2K is Social Collapse * 1995
At the time, the concept of “Y2K” was just the lamest possible apocalypse. If you’re too young to recall, there was a brief uptick in end-of-the-world murmurings surrounding the end of the 20th century. Big round numbers do that to us, I guess, and the new millennium was the biggest and roundest anyone alive had ever seen. 2000! That’s a big number! All those zeroes. Anyway, as the end of the decade and the century and the millennium inched closer, speculation about what the year 2000 would bring ran rampant. Many people, myself included, were kind of hoping for a radical change in how the world works. There were some worried murmurs about Jesus riding down on a flaming thunderbolt and razing the Earth with a sick trident or something, but for the most part that kind of thing was relegated to the dark corners of the infant internet. For the rest of us, all we had to worry about was Y2K, which even at the time was stupid. If you’re unfamiliar, it was basically the idea that the world’s computers couldn’t handle the date going from a prefix of “19” to one of “20.” Everything would crash and the world’s governments would collapse and the economy would evaporate and oh the horror. Thinking about it now, that’s not even the plot of a low-budget, third-tier Netflix original, you know? Weak.
Since my brain is poorly wired, I’m way into the idea of social unrest leading to the collapse of civilization and a hard reboot of human social structures. That’s why I keep writing about things like Strange Days. It will not surprise you that I watched the ever loving bejeezus out of this thing when I was a teen. First of all, I had a weird thing about Juliette Lewis when I was 16/17. Now that I’m older and wiser, it’s obvious that in a movie starring Angela Bassett, who is a fucking badass, as well as like, Voldemort, she’s not really the focal point of hotness. Secondly, I was just starting to get into sci-fi in a big way, specifically the kind of grimy cyberpunk that Strange Days is adjacent to. Mostly, though, I was impatiently waiting for the downfall of civilization, because just a couple of years before this movie came out, the ’92 LA riots happened, and for whatever reason, that shit really resonated with me. The promo materials for this film promised me hot rioting action, alongside cool cyberpunk tech and the sinewy, lithe antics of a topless Juliette Lewis. There was no way I wasn’t going to love this movie.
Oh right, the movie. The plot is rather convoluted, and is actually two different stories that are running alongside one another. One story is a murder-mystery, the other is a larger story about social injustice, and the small one fits neatly inside the larger one. It’s an intriguing set-up which ultimately leads in disappointment, although it’s not enough to deter me from continuing to like the film. Strange Days takes place in the extremely near future of nearly twenty years ago, December 30, 1999, which is a scant four years after the film was released. The film is a long one, and takes its time introducing characters and concepts. The big technological advancement has been a thing called “playback,” which is a contraption you can put on your head to experience other people’s memories. It all looks like it was shot with a prehistoric GoPro, but you get the idea. The protagonist is Ralph Fiennes playing the perfectly cyberpunk named character “Nero,” and he’s a dealer of illegal memories. I keep saying “cyberpunk,” but really Strange Days is more of a proto-cyberpunk movie. It’s too near-future to be anything else, but you know, people still “jack in.” It’s cool.
Anyway, Nero is a fucking mess. He gets high on his own supply, because he’s hopelessly hung up on his ex, the aforementioned Juliette Lewis, whose name is Faith. She sucks. She sucks so much! But Nero’s all pathetic and oblivious to the scorching hotness of his friend Mace (Angela Bassett) and as the movie progresses we learn all manner of backstory about these people. Then a friend of his is murdered and there’s conspiracy whispers as Nero ends up targeted by the killer. Meanwhile, civilization is falling apart, and that’s why I’m here. Kathryn Bigelow just can’t keep from showing these long, loving shots of urban decay, and I love her for it. The Los Angeles of Strange Days is a character in itself, and we’re constantly seeing riot police and random acts of aggression and it all kind of looks like April 29th, 1992 never ended. This all sets up the larger, social aspect of the film. There’s a high-profile rapper named Jeriko One, who’s like a weird mix of Tupac and Malcom X, who ends up dead and the city is real mad about it. I can’t really get into specifics without spoiling story beats, and since this is a relatively plot-heavy story, let’s get past the break so I can ruin everything.
I’m disappointed in the ending of this movie now for different reasons than I was disappointed back then. Back when I was a moody teen, listening to all my gritty 80’s punk and lamenting society, I wanted to watch Los Angeles fucking burn. Part of this is basic teenage stupidity. Obviously if civilization collapsed and anarchy reined, I would be fine. I’d thrive, even! I wouldn’t have to worry about stupid college, and a stupid career, and all that other mediocre, modern, American shit. And look, I’ll level with you, a part of me still, way deep down, feels this way. Just hit the reset button on society, man. Of course now I realize what a massive pain in the ass that would be. I like sitting in my warm house posting things to the internet and streaming music and podcasts and whatnot, you know? Plus, my cat would hate it. Anyway, Strange Days promised me a glimpse of a possible future where Los Angeles finally collapses under the weight of rot and corruption and social injustice. Of all those images, my favorite shot is at the very end of the film. It’s only a couple of seconds long, but the camera hovers over an angry crowd. In the middle is a cop in full riot gear, just hammering this woman with his fuckin’ cop baton, and then the crowd breaks and swarms him. The riot is on.
Except that it’s not, it’s not at all, and that’s the disappointment. Back then, I was robbed of my full-blown riot scene, the visceral thrill of fires and looters and chaos. Such a scene would have been exploitative and gross, especially in light of what happened in 1992, but I was 16 and didn’t care. It just felt like one of those songs that builds and builds but never hits the apex, never just thrashes out, and simply ends. The “riot” is short-lived and is brought under immediate control. The New Year’s Eve party that is the setting for the final scene carries on, and that’s that. If it wasn’t for all the other cool shit that happens throughout, Strange Days would have been a huge bummer. But that was 1995/1996. In 2018 it’s a different kind of disappointment, a different way in which Strange Days simply doesn’t go far enough. There’s a gesture of nuance to the ending as it is, but there’s also not much in the way of resolution, which ends up supporting the status quo as a sustainable model of society. First, let’s circle back to what actually happens, in case it’s been a while since you’ve seen the movie.
Jeriko One, the political rapper, is killed in what is first described as a gang-related murder. We find out most of the way through the movie that we were lied to. Jeriko One was actually straight-up executed by two members of the LAPD. Given the atmosphere in the city, such news would surely end up with the city on fire again. Of course, this scenario is reminiscent of what happened in 1992, or much later what occurred in Ferguson, Missouri. In both instances, the trigger for unrest was systemic and targeted police profiling and brutality toward the African-American community. Strange Days harnesses that disaffection, and to its credit creates a scenario that is not only plausible, but kind of inevitable. The film is obviously sympathetic to the affected communities, and it’s clear that the social structures that are in place to keep these systemic injustices going are falling apart. After all, most of the principal characters are ex-cops. They aren’t any longer for various reasons, but a big part is because the very institution of the LAPD is rotting out. When the recording of the murder of Jeriko One is found by Nero and Mace, it should then go on to be the catalyst of change. It doesn’t.
Back to the instant the would-be riot sparks off, Mace is sprawled on the street, bloody and beaten, because she finally decided to take matters into her own hands. Previously, she had taken the copy of the Jeriko One killing to Nero’s old boss, a straight-laced, old school cop. Nero had assured her that he’s so by-the-book that he would respect the law and hold the murdering cops accountable. Mace comes off as a little too intense, though, and they confiscate the recording and kick her out. So she tracks down the two asshole racists and basically kicks the screaming fuck out of them, because she is dope as shit. But they’re dressed like cops and she’s an angry black lady, so when the riot police show up, guess who they believe when they both start pointing fingers at each other? So. The beating commences, and then a pissed off little kid jumps on the offending cop, and the crowd swarms. To be fair, there is a little chaotic rioting, but before shit get too real, here comes the commissioner to intervene. The murderers protest their innocence, but this old white guy just angrily shoves the mini-disc (a hot new technology you can purchase now!) in his dumb racist face and womp-womp, you lose, fucko. And then… the movie just kind of peters out.
There’s a moment of debate about what to do with the damning evidence that the LAPD was culpable in multiple homicides, but specifically of Jeriko One. Mace just wants to release the footage, and to hell with the consequences. Nero, a white guy, argues caution. Argues, do you really want to be responsible for the ensuing chaos and violence and loss of life? Eventually Nero convinces his strong, black friend to prosecute the murderers rather than incite a riot. And I still don’t know if that’s the right call. Because look at what happens. Ideally, for this decision to work out and for there to be actual, concrete change, which is what Mace is actively pushing for, there needs to be a trial. The LAPD needs to confront its own racism, corruption, and practices in the courtroom. It needs to assume responsibility for the actions of its officers, and in this case find these two fuckers guilty and be willing to throw the fucking book at them. Which, incidentally, never actually happens when the cops kill people, regardless of the circumstances. Anyway, this hypothetical trial never actually happens because the two killers commit suicide. One just caps himself in the head, the other commits suicide-by-cop. And that’s just the end of it. Nero and Mace have a nice kiss and we’re out. Crisis averted.
Except that if you think about it for nine seconds, it’s absolutely not averted at all! The entire movie is one shot after another of income inequality and social injustice and unrest and discontent and decay and nothing that transpires changes any of that! Doesn’t even challenge it, really. In the end, the social order is upheld because of the fear of short-term violence. And maybe that’s a valid stance, but it’s not really explained all that well by what happens in the movie. Narratively speaking, having your two villains escape public scrutiny by killing themselves is cheap. It’s a quick and dirty attempt at closure, a blatant easy end to a movie. And fine, maybe it’s asking too much of James Cameron to write a better ending, to risk the audience feeling momentarily robbed of a typical clean Hollywood ending of the bad guys getting theirs. But it would have been so much more fulfilling as a story if any attempt were made to grapple with the situation that’s been created. Either the city goes up in smoke or some kind of positive change is enacted. As it stands, LA is still on the brink of collapse with no real change to the status quo, but at least we get to watch a couple of hot people make out for a bit before the credits roll.