Cyberpunk exists in a lot of media, but it’s perhaps best represented in the medium of film. Even though cyberpunk is about computers and technology, there’s something about the visual appeal of movies that makes it a natural fit for cyberpunk themed stories.

In 1995, one of my favorite cyberpunk films was released in the theater: Strange Days. A friend of mine who ran our Shadowrun sessions had heard about the movie and wanted to see it on opening night. I remember the show because the theater added a bit extra to the movie by dropping balloons during the New Year’s celebration scene.

Let’s take a look at some of the interesting cyberpunk elements in the movie. Obviously, this is going to contain spoiler material, so consider yourself warned.

If you haven’t seen the movie, or if it has been a while since you have, you can find a great synopsis on Condensed Cyberpunk Cinema Classics. Let’s take a look at three major elements of the movie.

Disruptive technology: SQUID interface

The movie revolves around this fantastic technology: the SQUID interface, also called “the wire” despite the lack of wires. This records sensory information from one person to be played back (or broadcast) to another person. The technology was originally developed for law enforcement to replace other worn eavesdropping devices and restricted for this use. But as with most technology people use it for recreational uses (as the movie shows, mostly porn). The main character in the movie, Lenny Nero, is a former vice cop, now peddles the device and recorded “clips” for people who want to get away and experience the impossible wherever they are.

Since the technology is still technically illegal, it’s mostly shady types that deal in the trade. Nero’s contacts are a who’s who of low-lives dealing in high tech, the old cyberpunk theme. The people providing the experiences on the clips aren’t exactly the most upstanding citizens, either: the very first clip we see is of a robbery gone bad and that ends with a death, and some of the later sexually-themed clips are produced by the same sleazy guys and empty girls that you see in more traditional pornography.

Of course, it’s not all used for ill. Nero shows his softer side when he gifts an DJ friend who has lost his legs a clip of someone running along the beach. Not only does it show that “cool as ice” Nero does indeed have sensitive side, but that the technology has positive uses outside of recording for law enforcement.

The movie demonstrates how addictive this technology can be, however. During his downtime in his squalid apartment, the otherwise sparkling Nero spends time gulping down vodka and viewing old clips of his time with his ex-girlfriend, Faith. In fact, he has a whole box full of clips dedicated to her. These happy experience contrast sharply with the cold shoulders he gets when he tries to talk to her in “real time”. Faith even gets preachy when he continues to hang around her despite the continual warnings of her current boyfriend/manager, saying that he needs to understand that things are over between them.

But, showing that some women make the same poor relationship choices even in the future, Faith’s new boyfriend Philo is also a user and abuser of the SQUID technology. Faith admits that she worries he’s using it too much, and it’s feeding his paranoia by letting him snoop on others by having people near them wear a wire. Philo uses the technology more than for enjoyment or to keep memories around longer than they’re supposed to last, but to be able to snoop on others without being close himself.

Personally, I’m not sure if the movie showed accurately exactly how addictive this type of technology could be. Imagine what would happen if you had a variety of celebrity sex clips. Just imagine all the imagines on the internet, particularly pornography, that take up so much of people’s time, but now imagine that it’s a full sensory experience. Some people would probably starve to death, sitting in a dark room playing an endless assortment of clips without end. Now add in the internet and ease of distribution of the clips so that you don’t have the bottleneck of relying on meeting with a sleazebag like Nero, and you have the recipe for widespread disaster.

It’s also interesting to consider how such a technology would continue to develop. Assuming that the sensory data is stored on a writable media and copied, it makes sense that the data could be edited. As a game developer, this is what kicks my mind into overdrive. Perhaps the initial attempts at editing would be clumsy and simplistic: like the old-style image editing tools for the computer. But, as understanding and computing power grows, you might have increases in technology to the point where such editing would be hard to identify for most people. Adding an input system and some programming logic and you could create a fully immersive game. Once that happens, humanity would undoubtedly be doomed without a lot of self-control.

Old and outdated: Millennial fear

Strange Days was released in 1995 and set at the very end of 1999, right before the year 2000. It might seem funny to some of the younger people reading this, but 2000 used to be a magical number in science fiction. It used to be the far-off day when the future would finally arrive. Flying cars, weather control, personal jetpacks, food pills, all were promised on that magical date by various stories.

As the date got nearer, though, the hopeful promise started turning toward fear, as it has during previous millennial changes. The promises of the future were nowhere to be seen; to quote a TV commercial “where is my flying car?” Even the cyberpunk promises of shining chrome and implantable computers is no longer eagerly anticipated. Added to this the threat of the Y2K bug that could cripple computers, and fear was the more common sentiment. Strange Days captures this and puts it on screen with visual impact. The Los Angeles of the movie is as near to apocalypse as you can get: burning cars, police forces out in riot gear, and young punks chasing down a poor Santa Claus. It’s grim out there.

A decade later, we have some perspective on this. Los Angeles didn’t turn into a warzone (at least, no more than it usually is). The Y2K bug was either averted due to the hard work of talented computer programmers or an overblown threat used to bilk money out of companies, depending on the perspective. But, we still have no flying cars.

I think most good cyberpunk has to get something like this wrong due to the nature of stories. The movie was a reflection of the times it was released in, not necessarily an accurate anticipation of what would really happen. The movie had fear in it because that was the underlying sentiment of the time.

A strong female character: Lornette “Mace” Mason

One of the enduring aspects of the move to me is the character Mace. She’s a rare thing in many movies: a strong female character that manages to remain feminine. All too often women are still portrayed as either passive, or they lose their feminine aspects when put into strong roles.

Mace is a professional driver and one of the few real friends Nero has in the movie. In the beginning, we see her as a strong professional woman who arrives to bail Nero out when his car gets repossessed. She walks into the sleazy lounge where Nero is waiting for her, but she obviously doesn’t belong there: she’s a cut above the rest. We learn that she used to be deep in the shit: she met Nero when he was just a cop with a team who busted her ex-husband; Nero was considerate enough to take her kid into a back room and read him a story rather than forcing him to watch the police haul away his father. It’s obvious that Mace has been with Nero for a long time and has watched his slide downward since the very beginning. Over the course of the movie we find out that she’s fallen in love with him, but she feels frustrated just watching from the sidelines as Nero swims in the cesspool he calls a life.

In fact, Nero doesn’t make it very easy to be his friend. When Mace goes to pick up a client, Nero uses it as an opportunity to peddle his wares. Mace gets angry that he’s interfering with a client, and loses control in front of the client which makes the situation worse. She drags Nero out and threatens to abandon him. Nero convinces her to let him back in (primarily by riding on the hood of her car for a while), but still turns things to his advantage by convincing the client to go to the club Nero wanted to go to. Yet, Mace still returns to pick him up later.

Mace is portrayed by actress Angela Bassett; the character being black is an added layer given that the main plot of the movie deals with racial violence. Plus, an interracial romance was still controversial in some conservative areas when the movie was released, so it was pushing a few boundaries there.

As I said above, the beauty of the character (beyond Angela Bassett’s own beauty, of course) is that she is a strong, feminine woman. She fills the traditional roles of mother and a caretaker. She does what she must to take care of her son since she is the only parent he currently has, and she spends most of her time with Nero lecturing him about the life he’s leading and trying to save him from his own darkness. But, when the weapons are drawn she’s not a shrinking violet: she knows how to handle herself in a fight and has the strength and courage to do so. In fact, she’s more capable than Nero, an ex-cop, is at defending against assailants.

Too often strong women lose that feminine touch in stories, especially if they’re called on to get into a fight. Sometimes it’s so bad that they become women in description only: their actions and behaviors are more masculine (likely similar the male authors that write them). Mace’s character is a testament to the acting, directing, and writing that went into this movie.

A worthy cyberpunk classic

Strange Days is perhaps one of the less commonly known cyberpunk movies. Ghost in the Shell and The Matrix get a lot more attention in cyberpunk discussions, while Strange Days is discussed much less often. But, I think the fascinating technology, the glimpse into the millennial fears of the era when the movie was released, and one of the best portrayals of a strong female character make it a movie that should be on every cyberpunk fan’s list.