In the last two days of 1999, Los Angeles has become a dangerous war zone. As a group of criminals rob a Chinese restaurant, the event is recorded by a robber wearing a SQUID, an illegal electronic device that records events directly from the wearer's cerebral cortex, and when played back through a MiniDisc-like device, allows a user to experience the recorder's memories and physical sensations. Lenny Nero, a former LAPD officer turned black marketeer of SQUID recordings, agrees to buy the robbery clip from his main supplier, Tick. Elsewhere, a prostitute named Iris, who is a friend of Lenny's ex-girlfriend Faith Justin, is being chased by LAPD officers Burton Steckler and Dwayne Engelman as she flees to the subway. Iris manages to escape on a rapid transit after her wig is pulled off by Engleman, revealing a SQUID recorder headset.
Lenny pines for Faith and relies on his two best friends, bodyguard and limousine driver Lornette "Mace" Mason and private investigator Max Peltier, for emotional support. Mace has unrequited feelings for Lenny from the past, from when he was still a cop and stepped in as a dependable father figure for her son after her boyfriend was arrested on drug charges, but disapproves of his SQUID-dealing business. While Lenny and Max are drinking together at a bar, Iris drops a SQUID disc through the sunroof of Lenny's car, but his car is towed away before he sees it. He is then picked up by Mace, who eventually agrees to take him to a nightclub where Faith is going to sing. In the club, Lenny receives a SQUID disc from a contact and then tries to get Faith away from her new boyfriend, music industry mogul Philo Gant, but to no avail.
While in the car with Mace, Lenny plays the disc the contact gave him and watches Iris being brutally raped and murdered by an attacker at the Sunset Regent hotel. As they approach the hotel, Iris is taken out on a stretcher. The next day, Lenny and Mace take the disc to Tick, who cannot identify the source of the recording, but recalls that Iris was looking for Lenny. Mace deduces that Iris may have left something in Lenny's car, and the two go to the impound and find Iris's disc. Steckler and Engleman appear and demand the disc at gunpoint, but Lenny and Mace escape in her car before being forced to stop at a dock. Steckler pours gasoline on the car and sets it on fire, but Mace drives it into the harbor, extinguishing the flames. When they reach the surface, the cops have left.
Mace takes Lenny to her brother's house and watches Iris's disc. They discover that her death is tied to a cover-up of the murder of rapper Jeriko One by Steckler and Engleman, who disapprove of his politically-charged music. Lenny, Mace, and Max also learn that Tick has been rendered brain-dead from forcefully being exposed to highly amplified SQUID signals. Lenny concludes that the assault on Tick was committed by the same person who killed Iris and fears Faith will be next. Back at the nightclub, Lenny and Mace confront Faith, who tells them that Philo hired Iris to spy on Jeriko. As midnight approaches, Lenny and Mace sneak into a private party at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel that Philo is hosting for the city's wealthy elite. Lenny also gives Iris's disc to Mace so that she can deliver it to deputy police commissioner Palmer Strickland.
Upon entering Philo's penthouse suite, Lenny finds another SQUID disc and Philo's body on the floor, whose brain has been damaged in the same manner as Tick's. After watching the disc, Lenny discovers that Max and Faith have become lovers and that they forced Philo to run an amplified recording of them having sex. Max and Faith then enter the room, explaining that they set Philo up because he wanted to have Faith killed for what she knew about Jeriko's death, and that he now intends to frame Lenny for Philo's murder. After a hand-to-hand fight, Lenny throws Max off the balcony to his death. Meanwhile, on the street, Mace is pursued by Steckler and Engelman, but she manages to subdue them with the help of Strickland, who saw the proof behind Jeriko's death. Lenny then finds Mace and the two share a passionate kiss as the crowd celebrates the turn of the new century around them.
The story of Strange Days was originally conceived by director James Cameron around 1986. He eventually presented it to his former wife and director Kathryn Bigelow, who immediately found it impressive. According to her, "These two characters on the eve of the millennium, with one character trying to get the woman who loves him to help him save the woman he loves. It's this great emotional matrix." After a series of dialogues, Cameron and Bigelow developed the film's society and political element. Cameron focused more on the romantic side, while Bigelow centered more on "the edginess, the grit" part of the film, which was something she was always interested in. Cameron later wrote a 90-page treatment based on these dialogues, stating that "It was practically a novel, but it was unwieldy; it needed structure." The treatment was then presented to screenwriter Jay Cocks, who turned it into a script. Cameron felt that the resulting script was very well structured and only did a dialogue polish on top of it.
Bigelow was motivated to start work on Strange Days shortly after a series of cultural incidents that occurred in the United States in the early nineties, such as the Lorena Bobbitt trial and the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the Rodney King verdict. Referring to the latter, she noted, "I was involved in the downtown cleanup, and I was very moved by that experience. You got a palpable sense of the anger and frustration and economic disparity in which we live." She also developed the character of Mace from Cameron's original script to make "valuable connections between female victimisation and racial oppression." Both Strange Days and Cameron's 1994 action film True Lies were part of a multimillion-dollar production deal between Lightstorm Entertainment and 20th Century Fox. However, the financing was unevenly divided between the two films, with Strange Days being initially budgeted at $30 million and True Lies at $70 million.
Although the script for Strange Days was completed in 1993, the lead characters were not secured in the cast list until May 1994. Originally, actor Andy Garcia was a potential candidate to star in the film, and Bono of the Irish rock band U2 was rumored to star as Faith's love interest Philo Gant. Ultimately, Academy Award nominees Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, and Juliette Lewis were chosen as the leads. Fiennes' role in the Schindler's List impressed Bigelow enough to want to cast him as Nero, stating that the role "required somebody who had a tremendous amount of intelligence, complexity, depth, a series of qualities that I really felt only Ralph could supply." Cameron, however, felt that a "glibber and slicker" actor would be better for the role, but admitted that Fiennes made Lenny "a sexier character—a guy you can care about very much." In contrast, Bassett was already suggested by Cameron since the beginning. The fact that Lewis was able to sing was appreciated as the producers wanted to avoid lip-synching.
The shooting for Strange Days was originally intended to start on May 12, 1994, but was delayed to June 6, 1994 because the full cast list was incomplete. Bigelow said that the O. J. Simpson murder case "[echoed] the film events", adding that Strange Days was filmed during the Summer and Fall of that year. The film was entirely shot in the Greater Los Angeles Area over a period of 77 nights. Producer Steven-Charles Jaffe said that the city was generally very cooperative, except for the subway scene as the team only had four hours a night to film it. Jaffe, however, remarked that Bigelow "was so well prepared that what would have taken another director several weeks to do, she did in a matter of days." The production team also received permission from the West Hollywood film commission to film on Sunset Boulevard for a two-day period, which required the shut down of several lanes of traffic.
The scene where the crowd celebrates the turn of the new century at the end of the film was shot at the corner of the 5th and Flower streets, between the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and the Los Angeles Public Library. Over 50 off-duty police officers were hired to control an assembled crowd of 10,000 people, who had to pay $10 in advance to attend the event. The film-makers also hired rave promoters Moss Jacobs and Philip Blaine to produce performances featuring Aphex Twin, Deee-Lite, as well as "all the cyber-techno bands they could garner". It was reported that a total of $750,000 was spent on the event, and half of the 1,300 rooms in the Bonaventure were rented out. The event started at 9 p.m. on a Saturday night and ended shortly before its scheduled end at 4 a.m., as five people were hospitalized for suffering overdoses of the drug Ecstasy.
The film's SQUID scenes, which offer a point-of-view shot (POV), required multi-faceted cameras and considerable technical preparation. A full year was spent building a specialized camera that could reproduce the effect of looking through someone else's eyes. Bigelow revealed that it was essentially "a stripped-down Arri that weighed much less than the smallest EYMO and yet it would take all the prime lenses." Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti was also hired to help Bigelow film the scenes, which were choreographed weeks in advance. The opening sequence, which features a 16-foot jump between two buildings by a stunt performer without a safety harness, took two years to co-ordinate. According to Cameron, "It's a major set piece. For the jump alone, we built special cameras, special rigs. We designed transitions that would work seamlessly. It was a very technical scene that doesn't look technical."
International music was chosen as the primary music style of Strange Days due to its variety of sounds and instruments. According to music supervisor Randy Gerston, who previously worked on True Lies, this type of music helped the film-makers create a futuristic atmosphere, noting that "the world is shrinking and people are getting acclimated to strange languages being part of the pop vernacular." Musicians featured on the soundtrack also included French duo Deep Forest, British trip hop artist Tricky, and British alternative rock band Skunk Anansie. The latter was encouraged to jam between takes at the film's New Year event so that Bigelow could record them live and give the rave a greater authenticity. Although the band would have a live sound on the film, they ultimately had to lip-sync. A soundtrack album was released shortly before the film's opening. In addition, 60,000 promotional CD-ROMs, which contained production material from the film and music clips from the soundtrack, was made available only through the "College Special" issue of Rolling Stone magazine that was sold at record stores.
Although Strange Days is generally classified as a science fiction thriller, the film uses multiple dramatic and narrative elements, including film noir conventions like the femme fatale (Faith Justin). The terms "techno-thriller", "tech-noir", and "futuristic erotic thriller" have also been used. In 2001, cultural critic Steven Shaviro compared Strange Days to Cameron's earlier films, stating that the film "has characters that the viewer is supposed to identify with, and a plot full of thrills, exciting action sequences and unexpected twists. But at the same time, Strange Days is very much an experimental film, one that questions and inverts the traditional and Hollywood structures of identification and involvment, in ways that are consonant with the ideas that have been put forward by feminist film criticism over the last thirty years." The film's dystopian society and use of SQUID technology, which has been compared to the "simstim" technology in William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer, were also considered cyberpunk concepts.
The film explores controversial themes such as racism, abuse of power, and rape. Voyeurism is also a major element due to the protagonist's extensive use of SQUID technology. The fact that the film was directed by a woman was even more controversial, with film critic Michael Mirasol noting that had Strange Days been directed by a man, these scenes would likely have been criticized as sexist and misogynistic. Nevertheless, Bigelow insisted that the film does not glorify violence and that it has a positive purpose. According to her, "I wanted to treat 'the system' fairly, because if it's the enemy, then we're the enemy, since by not changing it we're reproducing it... The film ends in a strong insistence on hope. Ultimately it's humanity - not technology - that takes us into the next century and the next millennium."
Mace was seen as a strong yet very feminine female character, as she often rescues Lenny in dire situations and shows maternal concern for him. Both characters represent a significant contrast: Mace is the film's hero and moral center, whereas Lenny is the antihero; Mace is black and Lenny is white; and finally, Mace represents the "hard-edged, reality-based" component, while Lenny is dominated by fantasies. This is especially notable when Mace yells to him, "This is your life! Right here! Right now! It's real time, you hear me? Real time, time to get real, not playback!" The film's white characters also tend to be nihilistically concerned with the present, while black characters are generally future revolutionaries. Bigelow considered Strange Days as her most personal film, claiming that "It's a synthesis of all the different tracks I've been exploring, either deliberately or unconsciously, ever since I started making art."
Strange Days was given a limited release on October 6, 1995 in only one theater and grossed $31,062 on that weekend. It expanded a week later on October 13, 1995 in 1,691 theaters and grossed $3,656,012 on its opening weekend. The film's poor performance at the box office was compared to Jade and The Scarlet Letter, which opened at the same time and had a similar budget. Overall, the film went on to make $7,959,291 in North America, little more than a sixth of its $42 million production cost. As a result, Strange Days was considered a commercial failure, due in part to the poor marketing strategy and lack of audience understanding. The film almost derailed Bigelow's career, as five years would pass before she directed her next film, The Weight of Water.
Upon release, Strange Days polarized film critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and described it as "a technical tour de force... The pacing is relentless, and the editing, by Howard Smith, creates an urgency and desperation". He also highlighted the film's astute use of SQUID technology, stating that "Bigelow is able to exploit the idea of what is happening; she forces her audience to deal with the screen reality, instead of allowing us to process it as routine 'action.'" In a mixed review, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B-" rating, concluding that Strange Days "has a dazzling atmosphere of grunge futurism, but beneath its dark satire of audiovisual decadence lurks a naggingly conventional underworld thriller." Edward Guthmann of San Francisco Chronicle criticized the film for failing to commentate its violence, saying that "Bigelow's style is so visceral [...] that her movie reminds us of a snuff film, rather than a well-reasoned cautionary tale about our animal instincts." New York magazine writer David Denby stated similar cons and called the rape scene "the sickest sequence in modern movies".
The performances of the lead characters were generally praised, especially Basset's. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin said that "Mr. Fiennes gleefully captures Lenny's sleaziness while also showing there is something about this schlockmeister that is worth saving, despite much evidence to the contrary. As for Ms. Bassett, she looks great and radiates inner strength even without the bone-crunching physical feats to which she is often assigned." Similarly, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called Strange Days Bigelow's "magnum opus", and added, "In a film of striking performances, Bassett's is the standout—she is fierce, funny and heart rending". In contrast, Sizemore and Lewis were considered miscast in their roles. At the 22nd Saturn Awards, Bassett won Best Actress and Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director award.
Retrospectively, the film's critical standing has improved. Roger Ebert's correspondent Michael Mirasol felt that Strange Days had some obvious weaknesses, including a dialogue that is too polished for its setting, but nevertheless judged its "devotion to its characters, its remarkable use of POVs to create its consistent atmosphere of apprehension and excitement, and most of all, its fearlessness." In 2009, Drew Morton of the Pajiba website considered Strange Days an "extremely underappreciated film" and "the best piece of cyberpunk to grace celluloid since Ridley Scott's Blade Runner." Strange Days also garnered a small cult following, who felt that the film has been overlooked by a casual mass audience and misguided critics. Overall, the film has a 63% "fresh" rating from 41 critics on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
Strange Days was released on DVD format on August 21, 2001 by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The DVD's special features include a 1-hour lecture about how the opening scene was filmed, both the original teaser trailer and theatrical trailer, and two deleted scenes.