Strange Days Blu-ray Review
The James Cameron-produced sci-fi thriller Strange Days flopped on release and nearly derailed Kathryn Bigelow's filmmaking career but, in retrospect, is a future-noir gem.After dipping into vampiric horror for Near Dark, cop drama in Blue Steel and action thrills in Point Break, Zero Dark Thirty's Kathryn Bigelow - in partnership with former husband Cameron, who wrote the story and script - embarked upon her biggest budget, most audacious feature. Driven by its sci-fi premise - SQUID technology which enables 'viewers' to replay other people's experiences (the then-daring POV shots which nearly broke the bank) - Bigelow found inspiration in the 1992 LA riots and ensuing Rodney King verdict, fashioning a then-prescient reflection on police corruption, conspiracies and misuse of power, wrapped around a noir-esque anti-hero thriller glistening with the marvel of innovative future-tech and bolstered by some excellent lead performances. Indeed the basic story might as well have been something from a 40s pulp crime novel, were it not for the tech, despite the fact that it's that very same tech which remains one of its most unusual elements.Ralph Fiennes plays against type as Lenny, an ex-cop turned black market dealer pining after Juliette Lewis' odd singer Faith. Lenny stumbles into a conspiracy over a recording which two cops want to retrieve at any cost, and seeks help from Tom Sizemore's grungy PI, Max, and Angela Basset's bodyguard, Mace, who is particularly protective towards him, despite his bad choices. Bigelow takes the urban drama of a then-future LA about to erupt into violence on the eve of the millennium (mimicking the LA riots) and manages to generate genuine tension from the then unusual POV shots used for the SQUID tech (now celebrated in actioners like Hardcore Henry and The Villainess). Fiennes is an aptly pitiful protagonist, whilst Basset shines as one of the most underrated action heroines of the time - powerful yet maternal, and possibly the best thing about this great little genre mix. Whilst it may not have struck a chord at the time, Strange Days endures as a distinctive 90s gem.
Picture QualityStrange Days makes its UK debut courtesy of the Mediumrare label, who deliver it on a Region B-locked UK Blu-ray complete with a 1080p/AVC-encoded High Definition video presentation framed in the movie's original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1 widescreen. Although it's the film's UK debut, it's not its first time on Blu-ray, with Germany having already had two Blu-ray releases, the latter of which to celebrate the film's 20th Anniversary. Unfortunately it would appear that, rather than use this most recent version here, Mediumrare have sourced their own HD master, which looks to be culled from the same old source that the UK's old DVDs utilised, and therefore still has the same cuts the BBFC imposed upon it decades back for its original home video release. Rather than re-submit it to the BBFC, who would undoubtedly pass it uncut these days, Mediumrare have - either through sheer laziness or mere obliviousness (likely the former because it would have been easier to license the German remaster than source a cut HD version) - just delivered unsuspecting UK viewers an old cut copy instead. Not only is it cut, it is also one of the worst looking 1080p High Definition Blu-ray presentations released in recent times.
Mediumrare have, through sheer laziness, just delivered unsuspecting UK viewers an old cut copy
Detail fluctuates dramatically, but tends to fall down on the softer side of things. Sure, there's a pervasive, intentional smoky haze to Bigelow's portrait of a future noir, but beneath it the image is painfully soft, with rampant DNR seemingly robbing it of most natural grain and texture, and some striking(ly bad) enhancement in some shots. Indeed, Mediumrare manage to nail the UK debut for this gem with just about every single form of digital defect you could have hoped for from a Blu-ray presentation - crush, DNR, dodgy edges from sharpness correction, the whole nine yards. Even the colour scheme struggles to look like a faithful presentation of the palette, and you're left wondering whether it's Bigelow's 90s style that leaves everything looking this way, or the inadequacy of the colour timing. There are a few - yes, a few - close-up shots which actually do look passable, and perhaps even borderline impressive, affording finer observations of Lenny's facial hair even in the variable lighting, but these moments are few and far between in what is a very disappointing presentation / version for a multitude of reasons.
Sound QualityThe audio is thankfully a little more consistent
The film's accompanying DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is a little more impressive, or at least a little more consistent, although it would be no surprise to find that this was culled from a very old source too, as the audio track had to be cut to match up to the video cuts, leaving this not the same new tracks afforded for the German Blu-ray releases either. Still dialogue is delivered with some manner of priority and is never unintelligible, afforded space across the frontal part of the array, whilst effects - which nominally include a few gunshots, and even automatic gunfire, although never anything that really rings out with any genuine weight - tries its best to give the surrounds some active participation in the proceedings. The score is clearly the highlight, boasting some great, eclectic tracks (from The Doors and Marley to Tricky and Skunk Anansie, and even Juliette Lewis - who sings better than she acts - doing some surprisingly good work with PJ Harvey's lyrics), which at least makes for an engaging backdrop.
ExtrasThe extras may well be the only real reason fans would keep this UK edition as well as the German release they will undoubtedly have to get for the better - and uncut - video presentation, as this is the only Blu-ray afforded Bigelow's partial Commentary and the 20 minute Documentary (which, rather hilariously, is also cut by the BBFC) in English. There's also the original trailer.
Blu-ray VerdictStrange Days was a Box Office disaster on release, but has since grown a more deserved and appreciating following; the future-noir themes (from writer/producer James Cameron), juxtaposed with a reflection on the LA riots (which her recent Detroit shows is more up director Kathryn Bigelow's street) make for a heady, intoxicating mix, and the great lead performances drive the film. It's been long awaiting a UK (or US!) Blu-ray release (along with other Cameron classics, The Abyss and True Lies, ironically) but unfortunately Mediumrare's offering is a wasted opportunity to do the film any kind of justice.
Fans would be better off seeking out the German 20th Anniversary Blu-ray
Not only has the film not been resubmitted to the BBFC, meaning we're still left with the same cuts that have plagued this film for over 20 years, but this has left Mediumrare with little choice (given they didn't bother to seek a resubmission) of source and, without the option to use the superior (uncut) German Blu-ray sources, the presentation here appears to be based on little more than the original cut video source used for the decades-old DVD. It's barely HD, suffers from rampant problems, and looks pretty ropey. Even the audio, whilst more competent, is still lacking, and only the English-friendly extras remain a vague selling point for this release. Despite waiting so long for a UK release, fans would be better off keeping - or seeking out - the German 20th Anniversary Blu-ray edition, which is uncut and reportedly has far superior video.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £13.99
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