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See...I can get you what you want, I can. I can get you anything, you just have to talk to me, you have to trust me. You can trust me, 'cause I'm your priest, I'm your shrink...I am your main connection to the switchboard of the soul. I'm the magic man...the Santa Claus of the subconscious. You say it, you think it, you can have it.
Memories are meant to fade, Lenny. They're designed that way for a reason.
Lenny Nero (Fiennes) is a grungy ex-cop eking out a lonely, miserable existence in the urban nightmare that is 1999 Los Angeles by dealing in dreams. He sells illegal "SQUID" recordings that allow the user to directly experience moments from people's lives as if they were actually there, living every sight, sound, thought and feeling that the person doing the recording experiences. This allows the user to experience anything - sex, drugs, and even death. Although charming and suave on the surface, Lenny is deeply unhappy and pathetic, addicted to his own product and desperately reliving the happy moments from his long-dead relationship with his ex-girlfriend Faith (Lewis), a rising punk musician whom he saved from the gutter only for her to discard him when she began to make it big. The only one of his few remaining friends who doesn't regard him as a washed-up loser is Mace (Bassett), a bodyguard and chauffeur, and Max, a PI with ambiguous morality.
Lenny's life, such as it is, begins to completely fall apart a few days before the millennium celebrations, when he anonymously receives a snuff recording that depicts the agonizing rape-murder of a prostitute he is acquainted with, whom he encountered hours before her death. Because she attempted to warn him of something concerning Faith, Lenny begins to suspect that Faith is the next target...
- Action Girl: Mace. It pretty much takes an entire police SWAT team to kick her ass. Also an Action Mom.
- Actor Allusion: In one of the more pornographic SQUID recordings Lenny trafficks, one of the girls involved is played by actual porn star Kylie Ireland.
- Alternate History: Didn't start out as one, but History Marches On.
- And I Must Scream: A SQUID deck fitted with a special amplifier can virtually lobotomize people. Since the victims are left technically alive, such incidents aren't treated as homicides, even if foul play is suspected.
- Angry Black Man: Jeriko One, an outspoken gangster rapper and social activist.
- As You Know: A radio talk show caller explains how the country has really gone down the toilet in the last few years.
- Aw, Look — They Really Do Love Each Other: Nero and Mace.
- Ax Crazy: Officer Steckler is clearly not a very well adjusted individual. Neither is Max, it turns out.
- Bald of Evil: Max, after it's revealed he's a psychotic rapist who wears a wig fitted with a SQUID recorder.
- Betty and Veronica: Played with: Mace, the ass-kicking Action Girl, is the Betty; Faith, the flaky, emotionally unstable backstabber, is the Veronica. Mace wins, partly because Faith slept with Lenny's best friend and conspired with him to frame him for murder, and partly because she's, well, awesome.
- Bullying a Dragon: Jeriko One really should have kept his mouth shut after the cops pulled him over. Granted, Steckler probably still would have shot him anyway.
- Concert Climax: Everything comes to a head during Los Angeles' 1999 New Year's celebration.
- Concert Kiss: Lenny and Mace, at the stroke of midnight, January 1st 2000.
- Coolest Club Ever: Retinal Fetish. A Cyberpunk movie, indeed.
- Crapsack World: The 1992 Los Angeles riots set a trend toward increased crime, anger and police brutality, to the point that by 1999 America is practically a warzone.
- Cyberpunk: The film is a cyberpunk story notable for being set in the very near future, with only minor advances in overall technology.
- Dark Action Girl: One of Gant's three thugs is a muscular woman.
- Disney Villain Death: Max.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: Lenny comes off as a cross between a drug-dealer and a pimp at the start of the movie. You'd never think that he was an ex-cop (ex-vice, for that matter).
- Deus Ex Machina: The riot started when Mace gets beaten on by a SWAT team dissipates almost immediately just because the Police Commissioner tells everyone to calm down. To be fair, he does have a large SWAT team and National Guard unit backing him up when he does this.
- Dirty Cop: Steckler and Engelman.
- Evil Versus Evil: Crooked cops Steckler and Engelman vs. sleazy music producer Philo Gant. They both want Iris's SQUID recording for their own different reasons. And, of course, Max is playing the whole situation to his own advantage.
- Fake American: British Ralph Finnes as Lenny.
- Fake Brit: Canadian Michael Wincott as Philo.
- Fan Disservice: A rape-murder scene featuring nudity is still a rape-murder scene. Lenny's reaction pretty much conveys the feelings of the audience.
- Fan Service:
- Juliette Lewis spends quite a bit of her on-screen time with her panties visible and her top off.
- There's also a scene demonstrating the more pornographic applications of SQUID via a brief girl-on-girl scene featuring genuine porn star Kylie Ireland.
- Then there's Angela Basset in an incredible - and incredibly short - cocktail dress at the end. Also, for those who enjoy women in power suits, she wears one - and well - throughout much of the movie.
- Femme Fatale: Faith
- Forced to Watch: Iris' killer uses a SQUID recorder with a signal splitter to force her to see and experience her own rape and murder from his perspective.
- Friends All Along: Max's introduction plays out this way. It doesn't last, though.
- Gambit Pileup: At one point, it looks like everyone except Lenny, Mace and Max are running some kind of complicated scheme, which are all crashing together to cause chaos. Turns out that most of them aren't, but Max is running his own Evil Plan.
- Giving Them the Strip: Lenny cuts his necktie to avoid being pulled off the balcony along with Max.
- Hand of Death: Seen during the murderer's POV tapes. His identity is spoiled by his sleeves rather early for astute watchers.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Lenny manages to kill Max using the switchblade Max sticks in his back.
- I Can't Believe It's Not Heroin!: "Jacking in" is analogous to drug use, and unlike most examples of this trope, it is illegal.
- Informed Ability: Jeriko is supposed to be the best rapper around, but the one song we hear from him is (argueably) laughably bad.
- Inside a Computer System: An interesting twist on this trope, the SQUID puts the user in someone else's memories.
- I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Played with - Mace evidently does not give a toss about Faith and is quick to remind Lenny that it's all over between the two of them, but nevertheless ultimately ends up helping him in his efforts to protect / win her.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Lenny.
- Killer Cop: Again, Steckler and Engelman.
- Last-Minute Hookup: Lenny and Mace
- Let's Get Dangerous: Lenny spends most of the movie as an ineffectual, much-disdained Butt Monkey punching bag. Then, towards the end, he seems to remember he used to be a cop and decides to reminds everyone else of this:
- Firstly, when approaching one of the Mooks who'd previously used him as a punching bag, he delivers his usual smarmy "Can't we talk about this like two reasonable human beings?" Catch Phrase — and not even giving the guy a chance to respond before punching him out, handcuffing him and taking his pistol.
- Secondly, when fighting Max, he not only holds his own against a complete psychopath, but manages to win out by pulling a knife that had been stabbed into his own back out and cutting his tie — which was the only thing keeping Max from plummeting to his death. Also, we see him worying before about his tie when he was going to a probable trap. It turns out to save his life.
- Additionally, in a cut-scene, he is seen as being able to manipulate his way into gaining exclusive passes to the giant End Boss party in under 5 minutes, smiling the whole time.
- Little Black Dress: After spending the entire movie in suits and high-collared shirts and looking badass, we see Mace in a tiny, strappy black minidress. The effect is remarkable. It's even hotter that she comes strapped, too.
- Malcolm Xerox: Jeriko One is a combination of Malcolm X and Tupac Shakur.
- Meaningful Name: Nero, Mace, Faith, Iris, Jeriko One.
- Murderer POV: Iris' rape-murder. Subverted and made creepier in that the murderer has the victim share the POV of herself getting raped, and the whole other layer of the murderer sending Nero the tape so he can share the victim's POV of the murderer's POV of her getting raped.
- Names to Run Away From Really Fast: Let's face it; would you mess with a woman called "Mace?"
- Never Bring a Knife to A Gun Fight: While trying to get into a party, Mace beats up on Gant's thugs before finally pulling a gun on the knife-wielding female thug. She shrugs and says, "Enjoy the party!"
- Nietzsche Wannabe: Max is constantly coming out with rather pessimistic pre-millennial statements of this nature. It's a pretty big clue pointing towards his true nature.
- Not on the List When Lenny Nero tries to get in to the Retinal Fetish.
- Not with the Safety On, You Won't: Mace pulls this on the bald thug. It distracts him long enough to get punched.
- OOC Is Serious Business: Lenny spends most of the film wearing loud, obnoxious suits. For the climax, he changes to a relatively conservative black pinstripe suit with grey tie to fit in.
- The Oner: All of the SQUID recordings are portrayed as one long unbroken shot from a POV cam.
- Pet the Dog:
- Lenny isn't a bad guy, but he is presented as a pretty scummy, sleazy loser for a good part of the movie, until we finally learn why Mace is so devoted to him against all odds. He was the cop who comforted, took care of her son after his father murdered a man while he was in the house. Apparently even going so far as to sheltered him in another room so he wouldn't see his father being dragged off in handcuffs. Considering that Lenny is a white cop, Mace and her family are working-class blacks and racial tensions are that high in LA...Yeah, it's a big deal.
- Lenny's gift for his amputee techie friend (a SQUID recording of running along a beach) also counts, though it also goes toward showing how people can develop an unhealthy fixation on SQUIDing what they can never have.
- Audience reaction on this moment appears to be mixed, with half seeing the act as cruel and the other half believing it's Pet the Dog.
- POV Cam: All of the SQUID scenes.
- As noted in the film commentary, Strange Days pioneered new, up-close POV Cam techniques for using headcams.
- Properly Paranoid: Max, when revealing the existence of the LAPD death squad: "It's not a question of being paranoid, it's whether you're paranoid enough." Subverted: Max turns out to have made the whole thing up on the spot to cover up his own part in the Gambit Pileup that seems to be crashing all around them.
Philo: Paranoia's just reality on a finer scale.
- Punch Clock Villain: Philo's bodyguard Wade. He's genuinely flattered when Lenny recognizes him as a former football player. Still beats the stuffing out of him, though.
- The Rule of First Adopters: Guess what civilians do with the SQUID technology once it gets out?
- Sampling: Mace's quote, "Right here, right now!" would later be sampled in Fatboy Slim's song also called "Right Here, Right Now."
- Sex by Proxy: The SQUID allows you to share the recorded experience of another person, leading to the obvious conclusion that it can be used to record sex. Lenny deals in a lot of smut as well as some other related merchandise, such as a teenage girl taking a shower.
- Part of his sales pitch involves asking a potential customer pointing out another of the bar's patrons with a sexy girlfriend and asking how'd he like to be that guy for 20 minutes..."The right 20 minutes."
- Snuff Film: "Blackjack" vids, in which the user jacked in actually experiences the SQUID wearer's death.
- Spiritual Successor: To Brainstorm.
- Talent Double: Averted; Juliette Lewis does the vocals for each of her songs in the film (all of which are originally by PJ Harvey).
- Tanks for The Memories
- Title Drop: One of the songs in the club scene.
- Also another track on the soundtrack is a cover of The Doors song "Strange Days."
- Twenty Minutes Into the Future: More like five minutes into the future. The film takes place less than five years after its release date, yet the world has become a surprisingly futuristic and dystopic place, with burning cars on every corner, assault rifle-toting convenience store owners, and constant patrols of riot police and National Guard troops in armored vehicles.
- Vasquez Always Dies: Averted; both Mace and Faith survive. Mace even gets the guy.
- Villainous Breakdown: After being exposed as Jeriko One's murderer, being arrested and seeing his partner blow his own brains out rather than be arrested while they were handcuffed together, Officer Steckler is not happy with Mace.
- Steckler and Engelman's Ho Yay did not hurt matters.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Lenny assures Mace that getting into an exclusive New Year's party is "what he does." The next scene, they're already in the party. Apparently the scene where we find out how they got inside was left on the cutting room floor.
- Woman in Black: Mace is a black woman who wears black while on the job.
- Woman in White: Gant's Dark Action Girl has bleached white hair, pale skin, and a pale wardrobe.
- World Half Empty: Summed up by the radio talk show at the beginning of the film, describing how everything had gone to hell in the last few years.
- Xanatos Speed Chess: Max's story about the LAPD death squad turns out to be one of these.
- What Do You Mean Its Not Symbolic: Max stabs Lenny in the back both figuratively and literally, and to defeat him, Lenny must cut the tie that connects them. Also, note the quip Max makes when Lenny discovers his color-blindness.
- Zeerust: Leaving aside the fact that SQUID hasn't made an appearance yet, some of the film's fashions look pretty absurd, and there's also a moment with a voice-transcribing answer machine that raises an eyebrow these days. Also, the kind of outspoken gangster rap that the film portrays as part of a major social movement had gone out of style by 2000. Nor was Los Angeles quite the borderline-anarchic urban warzone the movie depicts it as either.