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Did Strange Days predict the future of Virtual Reality?

The Verge's Adi Robertson weighs in

strange days
Jul 20, 2017

“This is not like TV only better. This is life,” says Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) early in Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, as he pitches another prospective customer on his black-market VR technology “SQUID,” which allows users to experience the recorded experiences and sensations of another (real) person.

Linking VR to a sense of apocalyptic foreboding at the turn of the millennium, Strange Days offers what seems to be, at best, an ambivalent view of the technology. Now, two decades later, we wondered how the film’s vision of VR stacks up against the tech’s contemporary reality. How does the SQUID — and the film’s cautionary themes about the voyeuristic and addictive potentials of the technology — compare or contrast with VR practices today?

Adi Robertson, senior reporter for The Verge and a moderator at POP, TIFF’s 2016 VR showcase, offers her thoughts below:

Revisiting Strange Days, I'm struck by how well it limited the technology's scope. The SQUID is a black-market recording and passive playback device that also captures involuntary physical reactions, so it makes sense that you'd end up with lots of low-budget scenarios and (apparently) no fiction. It's like a very advanced version of early 360-degree video, which is great for the themes the film explores.

For me, the film's biggest break with reality is how exclusively it focuses on male VR users who just want to have sex and do crimes. That audience does exist, but if you showed real people the film's first "tape," I suspect a lot of them would like its rooftop parkour more than its armed robbery.

The film's VR commentary feels less relevant for this reason: its version of voyeurism, for example, is much less complex than the sort of voyeurism-for-good that real VR's "empathy machine" period produced. Like a lot of VR fiction, Strange Days didn't really foresee that people would like exploring vulnerability and suffering as much as power fantasies and pleasure.

On the other hand, the film has a compelling take on how technology can help both the powerful and the powerless. The core plot about a surveillance recording of police brutality was a clear response to '90s politics, but it's still very relevant today. While VR hasn't led to anything as dramatic as the plot of Strange Days yet, the film captures how much of its ultimate social effect is up to us.

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