The characters in Strange Days a science-fiction thriller set in the last 48 hours of the 20th century, keep placing small, squishy-wired virtual-reality devices on top of their heads, and we see just what they see: jolting scenes of crime, sex, and mayhem, all done in hypnotic long takes, like the killer's-eye-view shots in a slasher film. Up till now, movies have generally depicted virtual reality with fanciful solemnity (remember the climax of Disclosure, set inside the world's trippiest filing cabinet?). The nifty thing about Strange Days is that the director, Kathryn Bigelow, understands that if virtual reality ever did become a mass phenomenon, there's every likelihood it would be as sleazy, violent, and opportunistic or worse as the edgiest current movies and television shows.
The hero, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), is a disheveled, motormouthed Los Angeles hustler who hawks virtual-reality ''clips'' on the black market. In essence, he's a high-tech drug dealer, peddling discs that are actual psychosensual recordings of other people's experiences. He gets his clients to ''jack in,'' and they, in turn, get hooked on fantasy. When you consider that the root of all addiction (be it booze or heroin or pornography or movies) is the desire to replace the reality in your head with a different, more intoxicating one, this is a witty and resonant idea for a thriller. Strange Days is set in 1999, but the world it's about is, of course, our own. The movie, which is staged as a countdown to the millennium, creates a darkly logical extension of our media-wired culture of vicarious sensation seekers. It's as if Philip K. Dick had recircuited Brian De Palma's brain.
In the bravura opening sequence, we're taken on a criminal joyride gone bad: a vicious breaking and entering, then a chase, then a rooftop showdown culminating in a vertiginous plunge to death all done in one wizardly point-of-view shot. Whenever Strange Days stops to draw us into one of these clips, the movie is feverish and exciting. We never know quite where we're going, but, like the people on screen, we know we want to go there. Lenny, the ''Santa Claus of the subconscious,'' serves his clients so well because he's a virtual-reality junkie himself: Night after night, he replays his sexy clips of Faith (Juliette Lewis), the willowy punk singer who dumped him. Bigelow, a poet of cheap thrills, turns the audience into eager voyeurs. I only wish she'd stayed with her premise. Strange Days has a dazzling atmosphere of grunge futurism, but beneath its dark satire of audiovisual decadence lurks a naggingly conventional underworld thriller.
Lenny, who draws the line at dealing ''snuff,'' is in possession of two scandalous clips, both of which have a shadowy connection to Philo (Michael Wincott), the music mogul who stole his girlfriend. The first clip reveals the back-alley execution of Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), an incendiary rap star who was Philo's client. The second is a gruesome sex murder in which the killer recorded his victim's ordeal while simultaneously feeding the image back to her (a variation on the grisly premise of Peeping Tom). For plot purposes, Strange Days uses the two incriminating clips simply as if they were videotapes, with Jeriko's murder presented as an uglier variation on the Rodney King incident. This, I think, was a major mistake. As the film's vision turns contemporary and ''sociological,'' its voyeuristic intrigue America as a nation of thrill-happy image addicts becomes almost incidental. It doesn't help that the picture is overloaded with snazzy action scenes. Bigelow, we know, can play this sense-jangling game as well as the boys can. But why bother when, in the first half of Strange Days, she seemed to have found a better game?
It's nice to see Ralph Fiennes as a caffeinated hipster sleaze. There's a mad comic energy about him when he's hustling, but Lenny's jittery narcissism also rebounds off something soft and generous in Fiennes' nature. (You get the feeling he truly wants to turn on his clients' pleasure centers.) The terrific Angela Bassett, on the other hand, is wasted in the abstractly conceived role of a tough chauffeur who happens to be Lenny's devoted soul mate. If anything, Strange Days belongs to the rotters hovering around its edges: Michael Wincott, a vision of Drano-throated malevolence; Tom Sizemore, who, as Lenny's bikerish pal, suggests Judd Nelson if he'd let the corruption ooze a little further out of his pores; and the wonderfully weaselly Richard Edson as an underground software techie. It's easy to believe these three would get sucked into their own virtual dark head trips. The movie was better when it made the audience toy with joining them. B-