Strange Days, Cosmopolis, VR and cyberpunk: what we’ve learned in the past 20 years

Warning: This post has spoilers.

Is it a common place to say that David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis (2012) looks like Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995)? Maybe not. I have spotted a couple of people who had the same impression. On the other hand, it is indeed a common place to say that the Canadian director has dedicated part of his career to give us an approach to virtual reality.

Either throughout the bizarre ritualistic film Videodrome (1983) or later in the remarking eXistenZ (1999), Cronenberg has been into exploring new worlds mediated by technology. That seems to be the same for Bigelow’s movie, as you can see a suggestion of a VR gadget working in a network that is not the Internet, but an underground and illegal system of recordings that could be close to Gibson’s SimStim — in this case, it was named SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device).

As a portrail of a decadent Los Angeles, Strange Days offers us the story of a former police office who works now as a SQUID dealer. Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) fills in the stereotype of the 90s antihero as he is a criminal, but you can still relate to his pain and have fun with his tricks and chinning. By having the tongue as basically the only developed muscle in his body, he uses his cleverness to sell his good stuff and to get rid of trouble. In one of the first scenes, you can see Lenny in action when he is trying to sell a MiniDisc to a man who wanted to feel like a woman. Pretty much like the project “The Machine To Be Another”, isn’t it? But 20 years ago. And still, shouldn’t it be considered as an early attempt to say how technology (or, in this case, virtual reality) could help transgender people?

Besides that, SQUIDs have been used for other reasons. As Lenny can’t deal with the end of his relationship with Faith (Juliette Lewis), he is constantly checking old records from the days when the couple spent sunny afternoons together. Now Faith dates a big guy from the music industry, who has been giving her the support she needed to become a singer. Both in denial with Faith’s decision to leave him, Lenny seems to be, according to his best friend Mace (Angela Bassett), also in denial with reality. She never used SQUIDs and she doesn’t like them, but she is always looking after Lenny.

EEG systems Emotiv Epoc and Neurosky Mindwave sensors by ENTD and Co-de-iT. Source

Maybe Mace doesn’t like SQUIDs because of creations such as “blackjack” MiniDiscs: snuff recordings that provide experiences described as able to make you “jack into the big black”. On the other hand, the way we are presented to these features in Strange Days is something to be mentioned. The movie allows you to see what the SQUID user is seeing by filming all the action in a first person point of view. This makes an approach to FPS videogames that were already in trend by that time, although I’m not sure if SQUID users can choose their actions and/or angles or just experience the action the same way the actors recorded/perceived it. In this sense, we could understand them as passive spectators, although Lenny says, in one of his most memorable quotes: “This is not like ‘TV-only-better’… this is life.”

Speaking of which, for this year we can still wait for a new and intriguing release as the movie Hardcore by Ilya Naishuller. Pointed as the world’s first action film to be shot 100% from the hero’s perspective, it’s not really about virtual reality, but it could perfectly be a footage for VR devices, as the premise seems to be providing an immersive visual experient to the viewers — the same way Gaspar Noé did once with Enter the Void, for instance. In addition to that, there’s also a Ghost in the Shell VR teaser to be released as part of the marketing for the FPS game by Nexon.

As much as it seems to be Hardcore’s case, Strange Days has also offered violent scenes for us in a first person point of view. In Bigelow’s movie, the prostitute Iris (Brigitte Bako) is almost caught by the police while recording the pursuit with a SQUID headset. She tries to leave a disk inside Lenny’s car, but it is towed away before the dealer can find it. However, he later receives another recording, where Iris appears to be raped and murdered by someone. This is probably one of the strongest scenes of the movie. And I even remember talking to a French artist who told me that, in his opinion, even Irreversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002) didn’t feel as overwhelming as this rape scene, where the perpetrator uses a SQUID device on his victim, in order to make her feel what the abuser was feeling while murdering and raping her. A combination of death and pleasure, Eros and Thanatos, in a sick and short footage that was also Mace’s first experience with SQUID. Strong, raw, cruel and brilliant enough to be summarized in a quote featured in Grendel’s song Timewave Zero.

That record was actually a warning to Lenny. He would still receive another MiniDisc where he sees house being invaded by someone that puts a knife on his neck. In the end, both Mace and him discover that Iris’ tape was related to the murder of the rapper Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), after caught by two renegate police officers. Since the beginning of the movie, we are aware of this public figure that sings about racism and social inequality in a music video. Like Gibson’s Rastafari, Strange Days gives black people a special highlight as some of the few conscious individuals in a world of absurdity — both Jeriko One and Mace are the main characters when it’s about pointing and dealing with tragedies.

Back to Cronenberg, if you have seen Cosmopolis (2012), you might remember that this was a trope featured there, as much as other ones also found in Strange Days. The film tells the story of a billionaire youngster named Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), while in his path to the hair saloon his father used to go to get a haircut. Inside his high tech limo, he crosses the city that is slowly falling appart due to at least two major incidents: the visit of the president and the funeral of the rapper Brutha Fez.

As Eric and his special guests, including Samantha Morton as the chief of theory Vija Kinsky, discuss several things such as technology, life and economy, we see his vehicle being vandalized by anti-capitalist activists that wave rats as the new currency: “A spectre is haunting the world: the spectre of capitalism”. The mood is basically the same of the New Year’s scene at the end of Strange Days: a confusion of people in a rebellion fed by the words and the ideas of a dead black rapper.

Jericho One, from Strange Days

Strange Days has given voice both to a black rapper and a black woman — and it seems that this was the first role that Angela Bassett didn’t need to interpret a victim. With Mace, she got the opportunity to show her fierce acting skills and a strong personality that some of you may have seen in her latest roles in American Horror Story series. As a bodyguard, Mace is trained to combat and she is a survivor that is always getting Lenny’s shit together to the very end of the movie, when she finishes the two renegate police officers that killed Jeriko One.

Bigelow’s movie is full of teasing. They might not be featured as the biggest stories, but then they are as subtle as they are important and relevant. In the end, the director didn’t need to ask people to pay attention to what she did with her movie. She didn’t need to change the sound effects or the angle of the camera to take the viewers out of their trance and say: “Hey, look! I’m adding strong females, because I want to please feminists. Also, check this black character. See? I can feature black people and gays in my work too.”

Maybe this needs a side note, because I don’t get this. I don’t like when movies (especially contemporary ones) do that, because it feels cheap and artificial, as much as it felt when I watched the new Mad Max. I didn’t feel I needed to be reminded that women can be strong in a dystopia in the middle of the desert. I’ve seen Tank Girl before. I mean, cyberpunk fans should be used to this, as we have several strong female characters in the genre: Motoko Kusanagi, Lain Iwakura, Molly Millions, Aeon Flux, Chell, Faith, Trinity, Alita and so on. Are they all perfectly portrayed? No. Are they enough? Never. In the end, it’s like George R. R. Martin said when asked about writing about women well and different: “You know… I’ve always considered women to be people.” I don’t really know his work to say if that sounds fair, but this quote feels pretty explanatory anyway.

Samantha Morton as Vija Kinsky, in Cosmopolis

In Cosmopolis, many of the characters that interact with Eric are women too. Although they are mostly connected to him in a sexual way, they are the interlocutors of some of the best conversations in the movie, such as the one with Vija.

Vija Kinsky: What is the flaw of human rationality? Eric Packer: What? Vija Kinsky: It pretends not to see the horror and death at the end of the schemes it builds. This is a protest against the future. They won’t hold off the future. They want to normalize it, keep it from overwhelming the present. The future is always a wholeness, a sameness, we’re all tall and happy there. This is why the future fails. It can never be the cool and happy place we want to make it.

With all that being said, I guess Strange Days is one good example of a movie that aged well. Even after 20 years of its release, it’s still relevant and not completely outdated, besides being an inspiration until these days — like it probably did to Cronenberg 3 years ago. Also, the soundtrack is really one of the best while featuring artists such as Skunk Anansie, Lords of Acid and, of course, Juliette Lewis singing a cover of PJ Harvey’s song Hardly Wait. A must see at least twice, so you can give the proper attention to the details, which is where the gold actually is.


Originally published at www.neondystopia.com on September 29, 2015.

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