The Future’s Not Set: “Strange Days” and the 90’s Cyber Thriller

The year of 1995 was esoteric for fans of genre cinema with a variety of sub-genres and trends brought to a boiling point: the buddy movie (Bad Boys, Money Train, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Tommy Boy, Friday, Top Dog), the revisionist western (The Quick and the Dead, Wild Bill, Dead Man), neo-noir (Se7en, Heat, Devil In a Blue Dress, Kiss of Death, Jade, Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead) all got their due but the most singular, and eerily prescient, sub-genre trend was the cyber thriller.

Rooted in the more personal computer focused genre cinema of the 1980s (Looker, Wargames) the cyber thriller of the 1990s would start at the home computer and establish an element of paranoia based around the advent and saturation of the internet, amongst other creeping technologies (VR, surveillance tech, mobile phones, etc). The trend really kicked off in 1992 with a triple dose of tech thrills thanks to the very loose Stephen King adaptation The Lawnmower Man, the government hacker conspiracy crime/comedy Sneakers and the data trafficking of Albert Pyun’s Nemesis. Between 1992 and 1995, the horror genre would get a cyber fix with Pyun returning for the VR terrors of Arcade, the personal computer slasher The Ghost In the Machine and the melding of hypnosis and technology in Brainscan. All of these films render the tech – either as hardware or software – as an evil entity, addressing new fears in the public with each, seemingly far at the time, leap forward. And when 1995 would roll around, the end would seem near.

It would take nearly half the year until the cyber thriller class of ’95 would begin releasing to the public. The first of which was the critical disaster Johnny Mnemonic, a misguided attempt by William Gibson to adapt his shorty story to a feature film, from a director mostly known for R.E.M. music videos. Quality and box office receipts aside, Johnny Mnemonic sets the stage for what is to come, taking place in the then distant future of 2021 where data can be carried within the human body – more specifically, by micro chip inserted in the brain. Naturally, the titular Johnny has data in his head that a bunch of very bad people want and the cost is his life. Entering the hot summer month (in temperature as well as box office business) of July – Steven Seagal would star as Casey Ryback again in Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, this time aboard a train held hostage by an ex CIA agent with a weaponized satellite dish aimed at the US. Only two weeks later, Sandra Bullock would star in The Net as a computer programmer who happens upon a conspiracy (and a really outdated means of ordering a pizza online). In August, the trend of rendering technology explicitly evil would return in the Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe sci-fi action spectacle Virtuosity, with Crowe playing a VR manifestation of several serial killers. And in September, just in time for back to school, the high school set imminently quotable hacker opus Hackers would release and would inspire fashion trends for the next two decades.

But 1995 would have one more cyber thriller to doll out to the public that fall and it would be the most (unfortunately) prescient of them all: Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days. In a way, a patchwork of Johnny Mnemonic and The Net – with the headset tech of the former and the political paranoia of the latter – Strange Days would unravel a conspiracy via trafficked memories. Unlike the data trafficked in Johnny Mnemonic, the “data” in Bigelow’s film are directly related to brain matter in that the content itself is recorded memories. Naturally, much of the recording and subsequent trafficking is related to sex – in both consensual homemade sex “tapes” as well as memories of heinous sexual violence. Two acts of shocking violence are the integral to Strange Days’ narrative: a POV rape sequence and the murdering of a rapper by the LAPD. This pushes Strange Days into the urban myth of snuff territory – something that would be covered more in the 90s in films like 8mm and Thesis – an intersection of graphic violence and porn, both of which are heavily viewed/played when moving image and video game technologies change.

Out of the cyber thrillers of ’95, Bigelow’s film remains the most potent and troubling – not just because of the graphic sexual violence, though it is still shocking – thanks to the racial component. Releasing only a few years after the 1992 LA riots following the beating of Rodney King at the hands of the LAPD, Bigelow’s film is noticeably politically charged (and a topic she would later, more historically, explore in 2017’s Detroit) and has a sense of urgency that the other, more escapist, films of the sub-genre that year don’t have. It works as much as a part of the discourse on new media at the time as it does on the militarization of the police, racism in America and the role of women in genre cinema – with Angela Bassett as a not-to-be-fucked-with heroine who removes her heels when being chased by the police in the film’s climax. Setting the film during the last days of 1999, as the new millennium (the ever foreboding Y2K) approaches, feels like a rallying call for viewers to fix their country before time is up.

Strange Days – like a lot of the other cyber films of ’95 – was very expensive to make yet didn’t earn much of that cost back at the box office. Despite this, the genre continued into the new millennium with the following year seeing a sequel to The Lawnmower Man in The Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace, the surveillance paranoia of Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State and the 1999 triple threat of The Matrix, eXistenZ and The Thirteenth Floor – announcing the arrival of the actual Y2K. The cyber thriller in the past two decades has been rather tepid, with the evil entity of the tech of the 90s mostly absent in favor of corrupt tech industry businessmen, hackers becoming just another generic character class and the most relevant technological advancement of the past twenty years – social media – surprisingly not being capitalized on for genre narratives. Still, we have had films like Unfriended, The Circle, Gamer, Nerve, Snowden, Trust, Open Windows and Ingrid Goes West to remind us to always be wary of our technology – even, and perhaps most, when we accept it as something completely harmless.

 

 

Justin LaLiberty holds degrees in film preservation from the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation and film studies from Keene State College. He is a regular contributor to Paracinema Magazine, writes the Geek Weird column for Geek New Wave and is currently writing a book on XXX parody films. He is a Creative Associate at Alamo Drafthouse Yonkers and regularly haunts NYC movie houses showing any type of genre/trash cinema.

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