Based on a short story by the father of cyberpunk, William Gibson, and starring Keanu Reeves, who was hot off the success of Speed, the 1995 sci-fi thriller Johnny Mnemonic had the potential to be something great. Unfortunately, its vision of the future may have arrived a bit too early for audiences.
Upon its release, reviewers criticised Reeves’ acting, which scored him a Golden Raspberry Award nomination for Worst Actor, with Entertainment Weekly writing that, “he delivers almost every line with an intense, misplaced urgency, as if he were a grade-school kid imitating his favorite TV cop”.
The rest of the film didn’t fair too better either, Roger Ebert called it “a movie that doesn’t deserve one nanosecond of serious analysis but has a kind of idiotic grandeur that makes you almost forgive it.” Rotten Tomatoes’ critics consensus calls it, “as narratively misguided as it is woefully miscast.”
While Johnny Mnemonic wasn’t the landmark of other ’90s cyberpunk films like Ghost in the Shell or The Matrix, it’s not without its merits. Looking back, it deserved more love than it got. In some aspects, Johnny Mnemonic‘s vision of the future wasn’t too far off from the age of information overload that we’re living in.
“New Century. Age of Terminal Capitalism.”
Directed by Robert Longo and set in the far-off year of 2021, it’s a dystopian future where mega-corporations have all the power.
Meanwhile, the people down on the street suffer from an epidemic known as nerve attenuation syndrome or “the black shakes”. It’s believed this disease is caused by the overwhelming amount of electromagnetic signals created by an abundance of technology.
That’s right, Johnny Mnemonic predicted 5G truthers.
Reeves plays Johnny, a mnemonic courier whose job is to transport the sensitive data of the mega-corporations by uploading it into a storage device that has been implanted in his brain. By sacrificing his childhood memories, Johnny helps these capitalist monoliths avoid being hit by cyber-attacks.
While criticising Reeves’ stiff acting is an easy potshot (from the EW review: “I can’t think of an actor who could use a brain implant more.”), it’s something that makes sense within the context of the film. Here’s a man who has removed a part of his brain and replaced it with a hard drive that’s leaking out data. He’s sacrificed part of his humanity for something artificial. Where does the man start and the machine begin?
In terms of visuals and atmosphere, which is where I think the cyberpunk genre’s main appeal comes from, Johnny Mnemonic has it in spades. Taking clear inspiration from the neon-soaked sprawl of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the future depicted in this film is one of grime and wires.
The production designer went all out to create a future where everything has an alluring ugliness. Technology is either high-tech and slick or cobbled together from garbage.
As the presence of the internet in society was accelerating and evolving, Johnny Mnemonic‘s depiction of cyberspace is more physical and personal, even with its extremely mid-1990s CGI.
To jump online, Johnny straps on haptic gloves and a virtual reality headset, where he needs to physically move around to make his way through cyberspace. It’s a concept that has only recently been realised by modern VR technology.
I don’t want this to be misconstrued as a hyperbolic revaluation, that “Actually, Johnny Mnemonic Is a Masterpiece.” The film isn’t without its clunky moments and flaws.
The third act introduces a cybernetically enhanced dolphin, with the plot hinging on its ability to decrypt the data in Johnny’s mind. Dolph Lundgren cybernetically-enhanced, psychopathic street preacher feels like a character from another movie that was added in because the film needed another antagonist.
Johnny Mnemonic and cyberpunk in 2021
After the genre’s golden age of the 1980s through to the end of the 1990s, cyberpunk’s cultural relevancy began to fade.
There are still notable installments in the genre – Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, the Netflix series based on Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon and CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 – but these are all sequels or adaptions of works from this golden age.
I think this decline is understandable. The new frontier of the internet and its infinite potential has since transformed into something much more solid and set, while corporations exceeding government power is seen less as a threat and more of an accepted part of life. The genre’s fantasy has become reality.
While Johnny Mnemonic maybe didn’t predict everything about 2021 (to my knowledge, Ice-T isn’t leading an anti-corporate rebellion and the Navy isn’t using cyber dolphins to decrypt data) the film wasn’t too far off in some places. See: any megacorporation choosing profits over ethics.
Through the lens of hindsight, the film’s critique of having an overdependence on technology and the debilitating effect it can have plays like a warning.
The film’s central plot point, that an overload of data is decaying Johnny’s memories, isn’t too different from the notion that too much internet usage is eroding our short-term memories.
We spend our time hooked into different sized screens, infinitely scrolling and soaking in more information in a single day than most 1995 internet users could load in a week. A little bit of everything, all of the time.
As put by Spider, a doctor played by punk icon Henry Rollins who delivers every line with constant anger, our brains have been poisoned by an overload of technology and information. We know it’s not good for us but we still do it, because we can’t live without it.