STRANGE DAYS DOESN'T JUST SIT THERE ON the screen and invite you to watch. It instantly yanks you into a dazzling opening sequence, a frenetic heist in which the careening camera makes you one of the heisters, breaking through doors, lurching down stairways, whacking people around. Director Kathryn Bigelow comes closer than any other filmmaker to turning movies into a virtual reality trip. In "Strange Days," virtual reality has become a digital drug, mainlined straight to your brain through a SQUID, a kind of electronic hairnet that records an individual's sensations onto discs. SQUID "playback" has become the ultimate vicarious experience: "Feel it, see it. This is a piece of someone's life," pitches Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), an ex-cop who's become a SQUID pusher.
This Nero squiddies while Rome burns --or, in this case, Los Angeles. It's New Year's 1999, and L.A. is a millennial mess, streets seething with violence, gasoline at $50 a gallon. "It's the end of the world,"says Lenny's pal Max (Tom Sizemore). "Everything's been done, every kind of music, every government, every breakfast food. We've used it all up." Lenny is pretty used up, a scruffy hustler who's hooked on his own discs, the ones showing his ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis), a punk-rock singer who's left him for a vicious record mogul. When a killer starts sending Lenny horrifically violent discs of rape and murder, his vicarious life turns frightening-ly real. To the rescue comes Mace (Angela Bassett), a security specialist who's trying to cure Lenny of the playback plague.
The script, by coproducer James Cameron and Jay Cocks, is a mixed grill of film noir, whodunit and cyberspace-out. But essentially the movie is a smart bomb detonated by the sensibility of Bigelow. The director has staked her turf in male preserves: Hell's Angelic bikers ("The Loveless," 1981), cowboy vampires ("Near Dark," 1987), tough cops ("Blue Steel," 1990). Originally a painter and conceptual artist, Bigelow, working with cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti, galvanizes every inch of the screen with vibrant detail, capturing the images and rhythms of urban paranoia.
Despite her extravagant gifts, Bigelow has never made a major statement as a movie artist. "Strange Days" seems at first as though it's going to be the one. For about an hour the writing, acting and direction coalesce in a prismatic, hyperkinetic ode to end-of-century doom. And then the two-hours-plus film starts to subside into genre convention. As the New Century approaches in an eruption of racial conflict, murderous cops and battered heroes, the movie screeches into reverse and love conquers all. It's not that a happy ending is bad, it's that it comes from nowhere but a failure of nerve by . . . whom? It's as if Orwell had ended "1984" by having Big Brother say, "Aw, heck, why am I such a mean creep? It's silly to keep torturing and killing these nice people. Let's have a ball!"
Among other things, this cop-out subverts Fiennes's performance as the most riveting sleazeball since Tony Curtis's maggoty press agent in "Sweet Smell of Success." Fiennes's eyes, like the dying embers of idealism, and his perverted salesman's smile, as he hawks his slices of other people's lives, carry the human message that the film compromises. Bassett is Bigelow's trademark figure of female power rising above male inanity. Stunning, rippling-muscled, Bassett turns a pulp persona into a heroic archetype. Bigelow needs a little heroism herself. She may take heart from her next project--Saint Joan, a woman in a man's world who didn't compromise her vision.