Should I Watch..? 'Johnny Mnemonic'
What's the big deal?
Johnny Mnemonic is an action sci-fi thriller film released in 1995 and is based on the short story of the same name by prominent sci-fi author William Gibson. The only film to date directed by painter and sculptor Robert Longo, the film portrays Gibson's dystopic vision of the future corrupted by technological advancement, corporate greed and East Asian influence. The film's eclectic cast includes Keanu Reeves, Dina Meyer, Dolph Lundgren, Ice-T and Takeshi Kitano. Initially hailed as a breakthrough moment in cyberpunk culture, the film quickly lost its momentum after it became apparent that the film had been hastily re-edited in post-production for a more mainstream audience. When it was released, the film was savaged by critics and limped its way to a global total income of just $52.4 million, proving far more popular overseas than it was in the US. It has since become a by-word for botched sci-fi adaptations and the out-dated visions of cyberspace the film portrays.
What's it about?
In 2021, the world has descended into a technological dystopia with global companies in control and society gripped by crime and NAS - a disease caused by exposure to electro-magnetic radiation. Johnny is a young man who works as a mnemonic courier, having sacrificed his childhood memories to free up 80 gigabytes of memory to transport data for clients. However, he misses his childhood and is given a job by his handler Ralfi which would enable him to afford to have his memories restored.
Meeting the client in Beijing, Johnny uploads the data to his brain - which is far too big for his head to handle. As the data is being encrypted, Johnny has only a few days to get the data to New Jersey before it kills him but unfortunately, the Yakuza attack and the encryption key fails to arrive in the US. Frantically fleeing from the Yakuza who want the data inside his head, Johnny has to contend with gangsters, murderous street preachers and the ticking time-bomb in his skull in order to achieve his aim to regaining his childhood.
Karl Honig, the Street Preacher
Release Date (UK)
9th February, 1996
Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Razzie Award Nomination
Worst Actor (Reeves)
What's to like?
Viewers these days are more likely than ever to mock Johnny Mnemonic with its crude 3D computer graphics and recycled ideas. But remember that if these ideas feel familiar, it might be because the screenplay was written by Gibson himself and his ideas have now become cliché. Much like how Blade Runner helped to establish Philip K. Dick's novel in a wider consciousness, this film illustrates Gibson's vision of a world and society greatly shaped by technology, cybernetics and computing. Gibson was the first author to use the word 'cyberspace' in his work back in 1982, years before access to the Internet really caught on.
Although the film contains a number of differences to the source material, the film is actually loaded with original ideas and some of them even stick. I liked the laser-like weapons the Yakuza used like the garotte which instantly decapitates its poor victim. Unfortunately, these are few and far between - the film feels like a screenwriter's follow-up to the aforementioned Blade Runner and the subculture of people who spurn technology feels clumsy and tacked-on. If the film will be remembered for anything, it will be the colossal waste of talent of the assembled cast. From legends like Kitano, action stars like Reeves and Lundgen and pop-culture figures like Rollins and Ice-T, the film is stacked with interesting actors but the film forgets to do anything interesting with them.
- There is a scene in the film where Johnny asks for what sounds like an iPhone, twelve years before it was actually launched. Although Gibson is a renowned speculative author, this is a coincidence on his part - Johnny actually asks for a Thomson Eyephone, an early head-mounted interface.
- Gibson himself was extremely unhappy with the finished film and often denied that the screenplay used was the one he wrote, despite being the sole credited writer on the film.
- This marked the final time that Lundgren would appear in a theatrical release until he popped up in 2010 as part of Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables.
What's not to like?
With no apparent direction for the cast, they either float about the place making no impression at all or go the Lundgren route and ham it up to ridiculous levels. Reeves, who still hadn't quite got the hang of showing emotion as an actor, is about as robotic as he ever was here but he might argue that the role demanded such. Nobody else can use that excuse and Meyer makes her cinematic debut so she can be excused some nerves as well. But the likes of Ice-T, Rollins, Kitano and Lundgren especially are laughably bad. If ever a cast needed a seasoned director, it's here but Longo is more concerned with filling the screen with images and moments rather than entertaining his audience.
And despite the number of ideas thrown into the mix, the narrative fails to bring them all together into a cohesive whole. For example, take the massive upload into Johnny's brain at the start - how is he able to function when so much of his grey matter must have been corrupted or erased altogether by the data in his head? At the very least, he should have fallen into a coma. Johnny Mnemonic is a film with too many ideas and not enough sense, stretching itself into a epic sci-fi tale instead of the below-par action chase it actually is. I've no problem with ambition but it needs to be tempered with skill - someone painting by numbers isn't suddenly about to turn out their own masterpiece, are they?
Should I watch it?
Anyone who can derive amusement from early-to-mid Nineties techno-thrillers with their crude effects and obsession with virtual reality, cyberspace and cyborgs might get a kick out of this badly-performed clunker but most viewers would be advised to stay away. The film has become extremely derivative in the intervening years and Johnny Mnemonic wasn't exactly pushing any boundaries in 1995, let alone today.
Great For: home commentaries, unexpected laughs, pot heads
Not So Great For: serious sci-fi fans, fans of Gibson's work, William Gibson
What else should I watch?
Fans didn't need to wait long for cyberpunk's cultural breakthrough and weirdly, it also featured Keanu in the lead. The Matrix might be a distilled version of Gibson's world but it offered viewers an unparalleled blend of cutting-edge effects and choreography, a complex story broken down into something easily digestible and a cast that demonstrated a bit more emotion than one of Keanu's trademark "Woah!". The sequels disappointed as the film followed itself down the rabbit hole but the original film, released just four years after this, reminded everyone just how good Keanu could be in action films.
Cyberpunk as a concept continues to influence films with other notable examples including the brilliant Strange Days, 12 Monkeys and the recent Blade Runner 2049. But the true home of cyberpunk is in the world of anime and not just because of Gibson's attraction to Japanese culture. Many classic anime films like Akira, Battle Angel Alita, Ghost In The Shell and Appleseed use elements of cyberpunk and remain iconic pictures to this day.
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© 2018 Benjamin Cox