Movie of the Month: Strange Days (1995)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Hanna, Boomer, and Britnee watch Strange Days (1995).

Brandon: Long before she was routinely churning out Oscar Buzz dramas about wartime brutality, Kathryn Bigelow had a much more exciting, subversive career as a genre film auteur. Her early catalog of slickly stylized, darkly brooding genre pictures was a fitting evolution from her educational background as a painter, providing her a sturdy canvas for bold visions with evocative themes. The problem was that no one seemed to give a shit. Bigelow scored a surprise hit with the X-treme Sports bromance thriller Point Break, but it was an anomaly among her other underseen, money-losing experiments in stylized genre filmmaking: her 1950s motorcycle gang throwback The Loveless, her neo-Western vampire tale Near Dark, her apocalyptic sci-fi epic Strange Days, etc. As Bigelow’s profile has ballooned in the decades since—thanks partly to being the first & only woman ever to win an Oscar for Best Director—these titles have gradually earned film-nerd prestige as cult classics, but their distribution & cultural clout still remain disappointingly muted considering what they achieve onscreen. For instance, I was only able to see Strange Days for the first time this year because I happened to pick up a long out-of-print DVD of the film at a local thrift store, as it is not currently streaming or available for purchase in any official capacity. That’s absolutely baffling to me, considering that the film plays like a major 1990s blockbuster of great cultural importance, not some esoteric art film that appeals to few and has been seen by even fewer.

Released in 1995, Strange Days is set in the near-future apocalypse of Y2K. Like a (much) bigger budget version of former Movie of the Month Last Night, Bigelow’s film uses the ceremonial end of the Millennium on New Year’s Eve, 1999, to signal a complete societal breakdown and possible end of life as we know it. However, in this case the apocalypse seems to be less of a literal cosmic or technological event than it is a political shift that amplifies the various crises of contemporary mid-90s Los Angeles. Blatantly influenced by real-life cultural events like the Rodney King riots, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the Lorena Bobbitt saga, Strange Days is an allegorical amplification of its own times more than it is a predictor of future events – a time-honored tradition in science-fiction worldbuilding. Yet, its central conflict was incredibly prescient about the way virtual reality technology, misogynistic abuse in the entertainment industry, and documentation of systemically racist police brutality would play out in the following couple decades. Along with her creative partner (and already then-former husband) James Cameron, Bigelow framed the social & political crises of the 1990s as the beginning of the End Times. The scary thing is that it feels like we’re still living in the exact downward trajectory depicted onscreen.

Ralph Fiennes stars as Lenny: a former, disgraced LAPD officer who makes a greasy living selling virtual reality clips of real-world crimes & home-made pornography for a black-market technology known as S.Q.U.I.D. (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device). The Cronenbergian SQUID device allows users to live in the head of the filmmakers who record those clips – feeling their emotions & physical sensations on top of seeing through their eyes. Beyond selling literal memories on the black market, Lenny is also hopelessly stuck in his own past – bitter about being ejected from an increasingly corrupt police force, obsessed with former girlfriend Faith (a routinely abused grunge rocker played by Juliette Lewis, who curiously performs Rid of Me-era PJ Harvey songs throughout the film), and exploiting the bottomless kindness of an old friend who’s obviously in love with him (Angela Bassett, an eternal badass) even though she’s way out of his league. Lenny’s already pitiful existence as a Los Angeles bottom-feeder spirals further out of control once he stumbles into possession of VR clips confirming a conspiracy theory that his former employers, the pigs at the notoriously racist LAPD, executed political-minded rapper Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), who threatened a revolution that would overturn the power structure of the entire city, if not the world. Faced with a rare opportunity to expose the LAPD for the corrupt, racist murderers they truly are, Lenny must decide what’s most important to him: reclaiming the supposed glories of his own curdled past or fighting for a brighter future for others who need his help. The city-wide Y2K celebration rages into a fever pitch around him as he reluctantly follows this conflict to an inevitably violent, Hellish climax. Also, Angela Bassett’s there to kick corrupt-cop ass & save the day whenever Lenny fails to do the right thing – far too often.

Strange Days lost tens of millions of dollars at the American box office, a commercial failure that threatened to permanently derail Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial career. It’s only gotten more thematically relevant as bodycam-documented police brutality, #metoo testaments of ritualized sexual assault in the entertainment industry, and advancements in virtual-reality escapism have escalated in the decades since, but I don’t know that it would have been a hit today either. Hell, I don’t know that this movie could have been made today, at least not on this scale. Its production budget, thematic ambitions, and unflinching brutality make it out to be a one-of-a-kind miracle that it was ever greenlit in any era, since these kinds of financial-risk blockbusters are usually not allowed to be this politically alienating or emotionally unpleasant. Hanna, what do you make of Stranger Days’s dual nature as commercial filmmaking and provocative art? Do you think it satisfies more as a big-budget action spectacle or as a seething political provocation? Or is it stuck somewhere between those two sensibilities, failing to satisfy as either?

Hanna: CW: Rape

I was definitely more drawn to the existential and political threads in Strange Days; I am especially always down for the exploration of technology-facilitated escapism and the feedback loop of social decline that inevitably follows. I think it’s totally fitting that Lenny is motivated into action by a cruel corruption of his black-market product– a particularly heinous snuff film which provides a first-person POV of a brutal rape. It reminded me a little of YouTube, starting out as a platform for AFV-esque bloopers and cat videos but being unable keep the thinly-veiled child pornography from creeping past the censors. Eventually the things that help us forget how awful the world is will be corrupted by the awfulness of the world, at which point we have to do something about the real world or (more likely) find a new outlet of escape. I appreciated Strange Days’s unwavering portrait of how brutal the world is for people whose realities are so politically fraught (like Jeriko One) that they can’t afford to slip into the mind of an 18-year-old girl taking a shower for the fun of it, and how important it is for people who can (like Lenny) to reckon with the actual world instead of feeding off of stale pleasures.

The film didn’t quite shine as much as a blockbuster for me, mainly because of how completely grimy and disgusting I felt throughout and afterwards: Lenny is as weaselly as he could be without being totally unlikeable (although I really appreciated his cacophonous silk ensembles); the villains represented and practiced the full spectrum of physical, sexual, and emotional, and political violence; and the first-person rape scenes were absolutely grotesque. I don’t usually have a problem with unpleasant movies, but I like my commercial cyber-noir films to have a little more heart. In that respect, Angela Bassett is Strange Days’s saving grace as Mace – she is a blast to watch in the action scenes, and serves as the only source of real compassion for the movie. I was also deeply in love with the sheer scale (and diversity!) of the confetti-riddled New Year’s party at the end of the film, which wouldn’t have been possible with an indie budget.

I really struggle with the brutality of this movie – on one hand I think it is absolutely thematically critical, and it’s such a relief when the abscess of horrible people is kind-of washed away (although the upstanding moral center of the police commissioner seemed a little too good to be true). On the other hand, two and a half hours of that was a real doozy. On the other other hand, I think Strange Days being difficult to watch is part of the point – it’s like we’re SQUIDing a feature-length tape from one of the extras, or from Kathryn Bigelow’s demented psyche. I’m all twisted up. What do you think, Britnee? Is Strange Days worth the brutality? Do you think there are things Bigelow could have done to make the ride a little smoother without compromising the story?

Britnee: That’s a question that’s been weighing on my mind since we initially watched Strange Days. Suffering through the intense scenes of rape and racial violence was difficult, and that’s the reaction that I think Bigelow was aiming for. This type of brutality is all too common in today’s modern world, and it’s crazy how this Y2K sci-fi movie from the mid-90s remains so relevant. She was onto something for sure. Here we are in 2019, and the same crap is happening. Bigelow really understands how shitty humanity truly is, and that point is made clear in Strange Days. Now, could this point have been made without going as far as she did with the POV rape scene? I think so. The moment it’s made obvious that a rape is about to occur, the scene could have ended. We didn’t need to be subjected to witnessing the rape to understand what was happening.

Even though there are brutal, hard-to-watch moments in Strange Days, I don’t think that should deter anyone from watching the film. The film itself is pretty amazing and thought provoking, so fast forwarding through a few minutes of this over two hour movie won’t spoil the experience one bit. Honestly, other than the POV rape scene, the amount of violence in Strange Days is no different than any other action movie.

I think everyone in the crew would agree with me saying that Angela Basset is the star of the show. Her Mace character is a complete badass, and she completely outshines everyone else, especially Lenny. Boomer, what would Strange Days look like without Mace? Could the film survive the absence of that character?

Boomer: This is such a good question. This movie lives and dies based on Angela Bassett. In fact, despite never having seen the movie before, there are two particular images from it that are permanently lodged in my subconscious: Mace in her bodyguard/chauffeur uniform (a style I think I’ve been unconsciously trying to emulate for most of my life) and her face as the colorful confetti falls around her like so much technicolor snow. I concluded that those two shots must have been included in a promo for the film’s airing on the Syfy (ugh) channel back when it was still Sci-Fi (much better); digging through the TV archives, it looks like there were four airings in November 1998, two in May of 1999, and one in September of 1999, all of which line up perfectly with the timeline in my mind of when these images would have found their way into my brain and gotten stuck there. And before you ask–yes, there was an airing on New Year’s Day 2000, smack dab in between the thematically similar Until the End of the World and the generically titled The Apocalypse (presumably this one), which was itself followed by Night of the Comet, a personal favorite. That promo (which I can’t find anywhere) may even explain my lifelong obsession with and adoration of Angela Bassett although that could also be chalked up to seeing What’s Love Got to Do With It at a very young age.

There’s essentially no film without Mace, at least not one with a character with whom the audience can sympathize and empathize. I found it difficult to identify with Nero, despite the fact that he’s our viewpoint character and the ostensible protagonist. We’ve all been on the blunt end of a relationship that ended badly, finding ourselves in a situation wherein we still care deeply about our ex after they’ve moved on, but Nero’s ongoing obsession with and attachment to Faith, above and beyond being an unsubtle metaphor, is off-puttingly pathetic. Sure, he cares about her, and she’s undoubtedly gotten herself into a bad situation with the abusive Gant, but she’s a big girl and making her own (truly terrible) decisions; given the revelation at the end about who else she’s been sleeping with and why, Nero comes across as even more of an idiotic galoot. The “Faith” that lives in his mind (and his clips) is pure artifice, and for all his charisma and supposed worldliness, his inability to comprehend his own myopia makes him pitiful, not pitiable. In contrast, Mace is a total badass; she doesn’t have to feint at cowardice in order to get close to those she fights and then fight dirty like Nero, she just stands tall (and stylish) and refuses to flinch in the face of mad dogs, burning cars, and raging Pris cosplayers. Without Mace in his life, Nero may have made it to Retinal Fetish unharmed, but he for sure would have been killed at the hands of Steckler and Engelman long before the final villain got a chance to enact his plan.

There was only one thing about Mace that I didn’t like, and that was the fact that she and Nero ended the film with a kiss. I understand the symbolism and all, especially given that the fact that the film’s chronometer keeps ticking even after the new year, showing that the world didn’t end and life does, in fact, go on. It’s sweet, but I would have preferred an ending in which their relationship remained platonic. I understand that her affection for him comes as a result of his tenderness with her son (even keeping him in a different room while the kid’s father is taken out in handcuffs so he doesn’t have to see his father being arrested) in spite of the racial tension between the LAPD and working class people of color, but her devotion to him as a result of a single (admittedly important) act of kindness despite a years-long friendship characterized by his selfishness makes her seem, in some ways, no better than Nero in his continued allegiance to Faith. In a movie that is otherwise ahead of its time with regards to social commentary and exhilarating visuals, their final kiss feels like a concession to the discourse of the time (I felt much the same way in the film’s final minutes, which move from an “all cops in this system are corrupt” to showing that the middle-aged white commissioner is actually sympathetic to the plight of the downtrodden). What do you think, Brandon? Is this a concession for a mainstream audience, or am I being too hard on a movie that I genuinely loved and enjoyed?

Brandon: That kiss played as more bittersweet than crowd-pleasing to me, but mostly because I never saw their relationship as platonic to begin with. The parallel between Nero’s unrequited obsession with his ex and Mace’s unrequited obsession with Nero is a tragic presence throughout the film, one that mirrors the SQUID technology’s commodification of dwelling on past & memories. Nero and Mace are both emotionally stuck in place in a way that makes them ineffective human beings, not to mention ineffective heroes. The difference between them is that Nero knows exactly how much heartache that unrequited desire causes, but still uses it to his own petty advantage. He knows from his own experience that Mace’s love for him means she would do anything for him, and nearly every exchange they share in the movie involves him exploiting that devotion to accomplish his own small-minded goals. It’s up to Mace to hold him accountable to be a hero in the one instance where he can make a positive effect on the world, since his natural impulse is to use the Jeriko One tape to yet again shoehorn his greasy self back into his ex’s life, unwelcome and uninvited. He’s the ultimate toxic dirtbag crush in that way, so when Mace kisses him at the end it feels like she’s only sinking deeper into a romantic pattern everyone else knows is bad for her – despite the swelling triumph of the moment.

For me, the crowd-pleasing Hollywood Ending element at play is the police commissioner’s last-minute turnaround, which has already been referenced briefly a couple times above. It does seem odd that a film so allegorically tethered to the systemic racism of the Rodney King-era LAPD in particular would backpedal in its final moments to downplay the problem as a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. Hanna, you mentioned that the appalled police commissioner saving the day seemed to good to be true for you as well. How much do you think that Hollywood Ending undercuts the film’s commentary on the racism & brutality of the LAPD? Does it ultimately feel soft on cops as a societal menace or is the criticism of police as an institution earlier in the film strong enough to survive the “happy” ending?

Hanna: I absolutely think it was too soft on cops; it definitely felt like a “bad apples” ending when I was hoping for a “bad apple tree” ending. One of key elements of horror in race-based police brutality– before, during, and after the Rodney King riots – is that there is little to no possibility of justice for victims, family, or community members; the system works to protect itself above all else, resulting in acquittals or minimal sentencing for acts of outrageous violence performed by police officers. The institutional preservation of racist cops has been so critical to the existence of our law enforcement system that it seems kind of ridiculous for a film documenting the depravity and moral perils of Y2K urban life to leave it out. Sure, it would have been heartbreaking for the commissioner to double down on the scumminess of law enforcement by ordering Mace’s arrest or refusing to arrest his own officers, but it would have felt more true to life and to the nihilistic Strange Days universe. Maybe Bigelow wanted the ending to reflect the type of justice that the United States should work towards in the next millennium (in which case I would have at least appreciated a nod to institutional rot in the higher ranks); maybe she wanted to shoehorn a shred of optimism into Strange Days. I also imagine that a corrupt commissioner taking down the only ray of light in this movie might not test well with audiences.

One thing that really stood out to me about Strange Days, and crystallized its pre-Y2K identity, is the aura of derision surrounding the SQUIDs. In Strange Days the SQUID tech seems to be purely black-market outside of the police force, and SQUID addicts (called “wireheads) are publicly scorned. In 2019, documenting and sharing every aspect of life for the sake of others in multiple modes of media has become ubiquitous, as has living vicariously through the videos and posts of people living glamorous, exhilarating lives. The only missing component is the simultaneous sensory experience, which honestly doesn’t seem too far off. Britnee, what did you think of the SQUID and pre-Y2K tech anxiety in Strange Days?

Britnee: When reminded that this film did come out in 1995, the SQUID technology in Strange Days does have a speculative sci-fi vibe. It just seems like the ridiculous type of futuristic tech that could only be made up in movies. Yet, it turns out that it’s not too far out there when considering the direction our modern world is going with tech. As Hannah mentioned, there’s a widespread obsession with having every waking moment of life recorded, and it’s becoming deadly. Take, for instance, Facebook Live. At first, it seemed like the only people using the platform were old high school classmates selling crap from pyramid schemes during Facebook Live “parties,” and all of a sudden, this technology was being used to live-stream shootings from the POV of actual killers. Even those obnoxious gender reveal videos are becoming deadly. Recently, a plane crashed while dumping a punch of pink water over a gender reveal party and a grandmother died during a gender reveal explosion. The age-old “keeping up with the Joneses” attitude is being amplified by modern tech, and everyone wants to do something wilder than the next person to get viral video fame. I swear, one day some idiot is going to make a gender reveal weapon of mass destruction and nuke us all. That’s exactly how the world is going to end. The trajectory of livestreaming and everyday video documenting does remind me of the SQUID. It started out as innocent fun and blew up into something totally dangerous.

The look of the SQUID and its mechanics honestly freaked me out so much. The idea of giving up control of my body and feelings to experience someone else’s is very unsettling. And the risk of being lost in a permanent brain fry like the black market dealer Tick (aka Sonny Bono’s long lost brother) really does a number on my blood pressure. When sensory SQUID-like tech starts to hit the market, I am going to stay so far away from that shit. Memories and feelings are private, and the idea of sharing them, much less having someone experience them without consent, is, for lack of better term, icky. Boomer, if Bigelow were to create Strange Days in 2019, what would the SQUID look like? How would it be used/distributed?

Boomer: The SQUID is ridiculous looking, but at least it doesn’t have the nauseating aspects of the things from Existenz, so that’s something, at least. We’ve already seen some level of VR in our world with the rise of the PS4 VR system and the Oculus Rift, but for something that is as fully immersive as the SQUID appears to be, it is definitely going to be something that requires access to more than just the eyes and ears, and it won’t be as interactive as the programs designed for those systems. It’s not like anyone playing back the Jeriko One cartridge or the opening robbery footage would be able to alter the outcome, so it’s not really a “game,” it’s more of a movie that you experience (despite Nero’s admonition that it’s “not ‘like TV, only better;'” it kind of has to be). Although you can gather all the information that you would need to create a purely audio/visual experience from external equipment that we have now (glasses with cameras, microphones), and those things could eventually be minimized even further (contact lenses that feed to a video, in-ear aids that could actually record what one is hearing), neural access would still require something that’s not too dissimilar from what we see on-screen, although the transmission of it would probably include the internet and not mini-discs. And, hopefully, one would be able to wear one without a horrible wig that screams “villain” from the first moment one appears on-screen (ahem). The real question is how Nero is able to sell the experience of being a woman taking a shower. No way is the SQUID water safe.

Lagniappe

Brandon: I love that the SQUID technology is so new & low-tech that the black-market equipment is still prohibitively bulky. In order to “secretly” record someone with the device you have to accessorize your outfit with a fanny pack & an obnoxious wig to conceal the device, so the price of violating other people’s privacy it is that you look like an absolute jackass. Considering how the disastrous PR for Google Glass played out just a few years ago, that ended up being yet another prescient detail from this eerily accurate premonition of the shithole future we’re currently living in.

Hanna: I think it’s a little ironic that Strange Days was able to perfectly predict a cellphone-equivalent tool for citizens to use against institutional abuses (including police brutality), but was unable to predict the continued apathy of police commissioners in the face of damning video evidence.

Boomer: While checking to see if there was anything else that might have sparked my lifelong Angela Bassett fascination, I learned that she played Betty Shabazz in two separate, unrelated films (notably in Malcolm X, but also in Mario van Peebles’s Panther). Let’s also all take a moment to note how deeply fucked up it is that the main IMDb image for Brigitte Bako, the actress playing Iris, is taken from this film and is in fact the shot directly after her killer opens her eyelids?

Britnee: The few moments that we get of Tick’s pet lizard are some of my favorite parts of Strange Days. I wish the little guy would have had more screen time. Apparently, I’m not the only person that recognized his prominent role in the film as I found a fantastic little webpage for this Eastern Collared Lizard.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2019
February: The Top Films of the 2010s

-The Swampflix Crew

The Arrival (1980)

Lately, I’ve been finding myself increasingly fascinated with self-published outsider art. Discovering the insular communities of Matt Farley, Doris Wishman, Justin Decloux, and Don Dohler – each with their own endless back catalogs & stables of recurring players – is a thrilling alternative to the franchise filmmaking behemoths of modern mainstream cinema, where months of publicity & advertising can often make a film feel overly familiar before it even arrives to theaters. Finding something new that hasn’t already been talked to death in your online social circle takes a little obsessive crate-digging but can be intensely rewarding when you unearth something far out & exceptional. I daresay The Unarius Academy of Science is the most niche filmmaking community I’ve tapped into so far in this pursuit, something that worries me that I may have wandered off the ledge of our Flat Earth and fallen into the deep end of cult cinema. That’s not to say that I’ve personally discovered anything previously unseen or unexplored in Unarius. The Californian UFO cult has been publicly broadcasting their films to the world at large for nearly four decades solid now, something I discovered myself through one of many online articles detailing the history of their self-published propagandist cinema. Even if it was well-charted territory, though, something many Californians discovered themselves through public access broadcasts, there was something truly perverse & transgressive about ordering a Blu-ray copy of the cult’s most popular title directly from them that made me question whether this crate-digging impulse of hunting down niche outsider art was ultimately a healthy one. I feel like I’ve finally crossed a line here, not least of all because I was genuinely pleased by the product that arrived at my doorstep (accompanied by propaganda literature attempting to recruit me into the cult, naturally).

The first and most widely discussed film in the Unarius canon, The Arrival, is a brief hour-long religious manifesto that feels as if it lasts for a thousand past lives. As the film operates more as a meditative religious indoctrination piece than a traditional narrative entertainment, its sense of pacing is cosmically glacial – to the point where it almost triggers a genuinely psychedelic response. According to the Blu-ray cover, “A true story of the first contact with another world is reenacted by individuals reliving their past lives on the continent of Lemuria, 162,000 years ago.” We get no introductory establishment of what life in the fabled Lemuria was like before space alien contact the way we would in a more traditional narrative feature; instead we meet our caveman protagonist in the exact moment he confronts the crew of a UFO that lands before him in 160,000 B.C. It’s like the space alien equivalent of a Christian Passion play in that way, assuming the backstory & context of the event is well-known mythology for anyone who would be watching. The Arrival also subverts typical alien invasion narratives we’re used to in science fiction by making the alien force a calm, consciousness-raising source of enlightenment for the Lumerian caveman rather than evil, Earth-conquering warmongers. Dressed in bald caps & colorful religious robes, they trigger a spiritual epiphany within the caveman that allows him to recall “the past lives recorded in his spiritual body” that he cannot normally access in his physical form. From there, he confronts humanity’s follies of “ego, lust, and materialism” in a backwards trip through his soul’s thousands of years’ journey in various past lives. A brief detour into a past life where the caveman was a militaristic combatant on a Star Wars-type spaceship feels like a glimpse at more narratively traditional sci-fi story, but for the most part The Arrival is a meditative search for philosophical “truths.” It places much more emphasis on its walk & talk conversations with cult-leader Archangel Uriel than the caveman’s deep space laser battles, for instance, and it’s all the more fascinating for it.

If you’re not a member of the Unarius Academy of Science (and perhaps even if you are), the most immediately rewarding aspect of The Arrival is going to be the visual splendor of its handmade costumes & sets. The 2D-animated patchwork of the UFO, the regal space alien garb of Archangel Uriel, and the psychedelic screensaver flashes of its visualized spiritual awakening are the exact kind of high-ambition D.I.Y. effects work you’d most want to see from a sci-fi oddity on this scale & budget. Just don’t go into the film expecting to laugh at its camp value or to recoil in horror at its cult indoctrination tactics. This is an overall calming, meditative piece from what appears to be a relatively harmless UFO cult who claim to have achieved a supernatural level of spiritual enlightenment and have accidentally stumbled into making primo outsider cinema as a result. The serene, enlightened tone of the piece is alarmingly convincing; I could easily see myself being lured into its extratextual philosophy if I were stoned & lonely enough in the early 80s and caught this picture on late-night public access. As is, I already feel like I’m allowing The Uranius Academy of Science too much space in my head & wallet, as I’m tempted to order more of their films from their online store to get a better sense of their far-out filmmaking niche. I doubt one of these propaganda films will trigger a genuine trip into a spiritually recorded past life for me, but I took enough pleasure in its D.I.Y. microbudget craft & meditative energy that I’d like to further explore their back catalog anyway. Rarely does being lured into a hidden corner of “cult cinema” feel so literal & potentially unhealthy. It’s an impulse that’s making me question past decisions & current gluttony in my pop culture consumption, which in a roundabout way was The Arrival’s exact stated intent, so I suppose it’s a total success.

-Brandon Ledet

High Life (2019)

Oddly enough, two nights after I went and saw Knife+Heart, I took in a screening of High Life, the new English-language sci-fi horror film from French director Claire Denis, the visionary behind Un beau soleil intérieur and Beau travail. When asked by a friend how I liked them, I said “I loved Knife+Heart! It’s so French!” followed immediately by “I hated High Life! It’s so French!”

CW/TW: Discussion of on screen sexual assault. That’s way more of a warning than this movie gives you. Also, you know, there’s a scene in this movie where a female character rapes a sedated man to acquire his ejaculate, then squats and drips it out into her open palm so she can impregnate someone else. You know, for science.

In its defense, High Life is not a bad movie. It’s beautifully framed and edited, and the extended lingering shots of both the macrocosmic and the microcosmic–from the depths of space and all the beautiful delights and terrors that it contains to close-ups of eyes and protracted shots of delicate droplets of water on leaves—make for a beautiful experience on the big screen. But there’s also sexual assault aplenty, shot with the same cold indifference, not to mention flat performances from almost every member of the cast, all of whom you’ve seen give stronger, bolder performances in other things.

High Life tells (in non-chronological order) the story of Monte (Robert Pattinson), a mostly unwilling astronaut on a damned voyage. A convict serving a life sentence, he and other young prisoners in the same situation are placed aboard a utilitarian space ship for the purpose of determining if black holes can be used to provide a source of renewable energy. The captain, Chandra (Lars Eidinger) is the only person who is not a felon, and the life support on the ship demands he make a log entry every 24 hours, or the crew will die. The real authority, however, is Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a medical officer who killed her own children and now oversees the regulation of sedatives among the crew and is engaged in her own side experiment to try and create a perfect offspring, although her efforts have largely been in vain and none of the children survive, even if they make it to term. Members of the crew use “The Box,” a masturbatorium, to relieve their pent-up sexual frustrations, and Dibs collects DNA from all aboard as part of her “scientific” enquiry, most notably Ettore (Ewan Mitchell). Other crew members/prisoners of note include Tcherny (André Benjamin/3000) and Boyse (Mia Goth, of Suspiria); Tcherny is Monte’s only real friend, who reminisces about life on earth and the family he left behind, while Boyse is a deeply troubled and unpleasant woman who is the first and only mother on the ship to successfully bear a child, as the result of two separate sexual assaults.

I’m really not quite sure what to make of this movie. Were it directed by a man, we could call this film troublingly sexist and degrading and call it a day, but with Claire Denis at the helm, it’s not so easy. A lot of this is bound up in the treatment of Boyse, and the questions that revolve around her. She is utterly unlikable in every imaginable way, which speaks to Goth’s range, considering how much I enjoyed her turn in Suspiria. There’s something to admire in her declaration that “[her] body obeys [her]” after Ettore sexually assaults her, but we never learn what her crime was that landed her in prison and thus on this shit detail in the first place, and her willingness to kill Nansen (Agata Buzek), who attempted to come to her defense, further obscures any possibility that we could really understand Boyse. She’s more than just an animal running on instinct, but she’s wild in a way that makes it impossible to understand her actions or desires.

In addition to being non-linear, the film is deliberately obtuse and obscure when revealing details. No one on the ship ever recounts why they ended up there; we only learn of this from a brief scene aboard a train in which a young reporter interviews a man credited only as “Indian Professor” (Victor Banerjee). Very little takes place planetside: this Professor rides inside of a train, two children play with a dog that later dies, and Ettore and Boyse are also seen riding on the tops of a train (presumably not the same one but who knows) while Monte discusses what it was like to be a societal castoff and outcast. The traintop scenes are shot in the first person, but the audience is never given clarification of whether these are Monte’s memories or not, or if they are projections of his assumptions; after all, we later learn that the crime for which he is incarcerated occurred when he was a child, so it makes very little sense for him to be free and enjoying the lifestyle of a crusty wanderer as a young adult. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it shouldn’t matter. But to me, it does.

At a very cursory glance, the film seems to be attempting to create a narrative about the dehumanizing treatment of the incarcerated, perhaps weaving that together with a statement about overpopulation or resource allotment, or even eugenics. As a statement about any of these topics, the film is fairly shallow. Is the film about the fact that all human progress in some way relies upon exploitation of the labor of a lower class? Is it about historical precedent of experimentation on prisoners? Is it about countering the idealized speculative fiction narratives of Star Trek and its cohort that point toward a lofty future of post-scarcity humanitarian egalitarian utopiae by showing that space travel and technological advancement will really only show us our true, animalistic selves? Yes! To all those things! Maybe(?)! It’s also about 110 minutes long, but that still doesn’t really tell you anything, does it?

That’s what I mean by the film being “too French.” High Life is has awful lot of Big Ideas, but not much in the way of Big Statements. It would be intellectually dishonest to say “This film does not demonize the prison system,” because it clearly wants to and expects the audience to fill in those gaps; at the same time, it would be a more straightforward lie to say “This film demonizes the prison system,” because it never really does. We see that there are outright dangerous people in the system, like Dibs, as well as seemingly good people like Monte (it helps that his crime was one of passion that was in defense of a helpless animal, which is almost laughable in its lack of subtlety), and others who were perhaps decent but were pushed beyond their limits as the result of the dehumanization of incarceration, like Boyse and perhaps Ettore (I’m not saying that Ettore’s aggressive assault of Boyse isn’t morally reprehensible or that it’s an unavoidable consequence of being involuntarily celibate, just that the film might be making that argument). Is Denis’s thesis that even good and moral people will become monsters in a captive prison state? If so, it follows that murder and rape are inevitabilities in such a broken system, absolving the individual from both agency and responsibility, which is grotesque. The only person that we see rise above these moral lapses is Monte, whose only stated difference from his shipmates is the fact that he is voluntarily celibate, going so far as to even abstain from the dubious pleasures of “The Box.”

I’ve never seen any of Denis’s other work. The friend with whom I saw this movie is very pro-Denis; when I asked if he wanted to check this one out, he cited her as his favorite living director. He was rather pleased with this cinematic experience, noting that she had directed his favorite movie about cannibalism, which led to me asking about Raw (we also saw that one together), and he made the statement that Raw wouldn’t exist without Denis. That’s all well and good, but as my first foray into her oeuvre, I’m not sure that I’m impressed. The musical score is haunting, every actor gives a great performance, and many of the visuals are pure visual art, but on the whole, this is a film that I’m not sold on, and I’m not sure I’m sold on Denis. Looking back over her filmography, she’s made multiple films with Vincent Gallo, and even wanted him to star in this one, which makes me question a lot about her instincts (if you’ve ever accidentally swallowed something that had a label on it that says “Induce vomiting if consumed,” here’s a self-aggrandizing, Trump-worshipping essay by Gallo to get you started; my favorite commentary on it came from The Playlist, which wrote “[we] reached out to Roger Ebert for comment, [then] remembered that Roger Ebert passed away in 2013, and that Gallo is picking a fight with a dead film critic.”).

I’m not here to pick fights with anybody. Honestly, I’ve given a lot of other films credit that they didn’t deserve. But this one? Not so much. Its unimaginative plot is given the semblance of originality through an irregular nonlinear narrative structure, but that doesn’t make up for making a film that is a sad slog through human misery.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Captive State (2019)

I don’t know what the production or distribution history of the mid-budget alien invasion thriller Captive State indicates, but this seems to be a movie that no one really wants. Director Rupert Wyatt’s only major credit is a Planet of the Apes reboot released nearly a decade ago. The film itself feels like it wrapped production so long ago that it missed an opportunity to boost the screentime of single-scene actors who’ve blown up in the years since – Madeline Brewer (Cam) & KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) to be specific. Most damningly, it’s a film that’s near-impossible to market, as it’s an alien invasion thriller that’s more interested in the political machinations of humans surviving under intergalactic rule than it is in exploiting the commercial potential of its creature-feature payoffs. A smarter, artier movie like Arrival can get away with that kind of obfuscation, but cheap nerd-ass sci-fi like this generally needs to be more accommodating to wide audiences in its minute-to-minute payoffs. As a result, both pro-critic reviews and box office numbers have been tepid for this underdog sci-fi pic, which has essentially been orphaned by its marketing & distributor. It’s a shame too, since Captive Sate is actually a solid little sci-fi thriller for anyone with an enthusiastic interest in the alien invasion genre.

The reason I say a little sci-fi nerd cred is required to fully engage with the film is that Captive Sate is much more adept at action set pieces & world-building lore than it is at dialogue or meaningful pathos. Set nearly a decade after first contact with invading alien species, the film is set in a post-apocalypse Chicago that’s politically torn between acceptance & resistance. Few characters are allowed any nuance as the film sketches out the two warring factions: a marshal law surveillance state government (represented mostly through John Goodman as a fascist brute) and an underground resistance aiming to topple it (represented by Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders as a low-level street hustler). The movie isn’t especially interested in the emotions or political maneuvers of their personal struggle, though, despite their unlikely social bond that bridges the gap between both sides of the civil war. It’s much more interested in establishing a larger “off-the-grid” future defined by analog equipment like wiretaps, reel to reel recorders, vinyl records, polaroid cameras, in-print newspapers, and carrier pigeons. Nothing typifies this old-world future better than the bird-swarm murmurations of surveillance drones that flutter throughout the city, keeping citizens in line with the threat of facial recognition tech. So much thought went into that establishment of a lived-in world and the political clash & chase scenes staged within it that very little time was left for establishing fleshed-out characters, which is something you just have to be okay with to get on its wavelength,

So what, exactly, is Captive State trying to say with all of this world-building & freshman-year Poli Sci pontification? Its major theme seems to be a contrast between active political resistance & mindless cooperation. Although the roach-like alien beasts (who feel like cousins to the space-bugs of Starship Troopers) are largely off-screen, their presence is felt in the submission & cooperation of a human government that cows to their intergalactic authority. As the film focuses on real-world issues like facial recognition software and exponential wealth disparity over defining the players in that conflict, it does appear to have a “Silence is complicity” ethos when it comes to living under the fascist rule of modern ills like The Trump Administration. It establishes a world where “You must pick a side,” having no patience for the cowardice of political apathy. More practically, the world it establishes is essentially just a playground where it can execute carefully-considered thriller sequences: the surgical body horror of tracking device removal, the heist-planning rhythms of a political assassination, a few spare moments of creature-feature confrontation, endless police chases, etc. I may have a few minor quibbles with its paper-thin characterizations (mainly, how it manages to have immensely talented women like KiKi Layne, Madeline Brewer, and Vera Farmiga on staff, but for some reason affords much more dialogue & screentime to dudes as lowly & uninteresting as Machine Gun Heckin’ Kelly than all of them combined), but I was mostly on board with the picture as a nerd-ass, overly serious sci-fi thriller. It’s just a shame it couldn’t also inspire that enthusiasm in its own distributor.

-Brandon Ledet