The Movie(s) That Streaming Services Won’t Let You See

Harrison Whitaker
4 min readDec 29, 2020

This story is part of my not-so-weekly “Have you seen …” series where I highlight movies that I think are under-appreciated, misunderstood, or simply worth talking about. NOTICE: Spoilers follow.

I never know what to ask for for Christmas — I’m a 22 year old man; my material needs are few — but the unintended consequence is that I often end up with an abundance of least-common-denominator gifts as a result: socks, sweaters, and other clothing items my dad steals from me 6 months later.

This year I decided I would be proactive and actually ask for something — what that something would be I did not yet know. Looking through lists I had made on my phone for inspiration, I came across a brief compendium I had made a few years back: Movies I Cannot Watch.

I am a frequent user of video streaming services of all kind; as a movie lover, it’s hard not to be. The abundance of choice at your fingertips is immense. Especially if you’re willing to dish the cash to rent certain titles, it can seem like every film you’d ever want to watch is out there somewhere. For many, this probably is the case.

Not for me, however, and I imagine not for a number of other movieheads as well. I’ve run into speedbumps in the past, most of which were solvable through a little illicit activity. 1972’s Sleuth, for example, is entirely absent on American streaming services but serendipitously present in the internet’s darker corners.

Some are not. It’s no surprise that not every film makes it online in a permanent way, but there’s one film I encountered that seemed far too large to be as absent as it is: Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 anomaly Strange Days, the entry sitting atop my list.

The movie was a flop at the box office, a disappointment to audiences, and a divisive work for critics: all the makings of an instant cult classic. While the film has definitely achieved a kind of status since its release, thanks in part to its disturbing and prescient subject matter, the cult that it deserves is largely invisible — not because people aren’t compelled by it, but because they simply cannot watch it.

My copy of Strange Days came as a used DVD shipped to me by an eBay seller out of Minnesota. Within hours of its placement under the Christmas tree, I dusted off the old Blu-Ray player and gave it a whirl.

Most of the film is great: this way made years a head of Bigelow’s famous quasi-documentary style, meaning that Strange Days bears more of the high-octane hallmarks of Point Break than it does the pseudo-even-handedness of Zero Dark Thirty. Almost every corner of the movie’s landscape is laudable: Ralph Fiennes turns in a truly barnstorming performance while Angela Bassett and Juliette Lewis both do a remarkable job of keeping up. Bigelow commands a manic camera, one that keenly captures the energy of a society on the brink of collapse.

Is this what 1999 looked like to you guys? I wasn’t sentient at the time, unfortunately.

The movie takes place in the final days of the 20th century in Los Angeles (the movie itself was released in ’95): racial unrest has the city in a strangehold, cops work more like warlords than public servants, and a new addiction promises to change the way people experience reality. Ralph Fiennes’s Lenny Nero is a peddler of moments, memories captured using an advanced technology known as SQUID. A user simply needs to put on a kind of headset and suddenly they (usually he) will feel the full everything captured in that memory: sight, smell, touch, emotion — everything.

Though illegal, SQUID has a large recreational following: those looking for the next level of pornography, thrill-chasing, escapism, and so on. Bigelow populates her 1999 LA with rioting, tension, and a whole class of people choosing to exist through escapist media; the more things change, etc.

Strange Days eventually becomes a kind of murder mystery, one that remains engaging right up until the moment it’s solved. Once the culprit is identified, the movie becomes pure, uncut 90s: the twists-per-minute achieved in the film’s dénouement breaks a number of limits set at the world’s top film schools. It’s a disappointingly popcorn ending to what is otherwise one of the most thought-provoking thrillers I’ve ever encountered — a quandary that is explained by a look at who wrote the film’s screenplay.

It’s not a perfect film (its racial anxieties, while compelling, suffer from a bit of myopia), but Strange Days is great and you should watch it — if you can. It’s far from obscure, having grossed $8 million at the box office, but it’s not exactly in circulation. Movies are meant to be watched, and more stands in the way of your seeing Strange Days than ever before.

This isn’t a travesty of any kind, and presumably the film could appear on Netflix overnight if the powers that be deemed it worthy. The fact of the matter, though, is that no one has done so yet, and the longer they wait, the less likely it is to happen. I watched Strange Days because a stranger sold his DVD of the film to me. How much longer until most Strange Days DVDs are lost? I reckon they’ve been out of print for years now. Moreover, how much longer until I no longer have a functioning DVD player or a TV that can connect with one?

Everything I’m saying now about Strange Days applies tenfold to more obscure films. The ubiquity of watching films online means that movies which cannot be viewed this way fall into a kind of oblivion, an oblivion that leaves viewers like me wondering just how much I’m missing out on. Digital distribution is preservation for the masses, and it’s time to start treating it that way.

--

--

Harrison Whitaker

Haver of opinions. Lover of some things, hater of others.