Last year I saw Strange Days for the first time and declared it the most cyberpunk movie ever. Then someone reminded me of Johnny Mnemonic. It’s been over a decade since I last saw the latter. I didn’t remember much except for Keanu Reeves, the general cyberpunk milieu and that amazing laser garrote. While I’m pretty sure I like Strange Days more, Johnny Mnemonic definitely takes the “most cyberpunk” crown, at least among movies I’ve seen. This is fitting for an adaptation of a William Gibson short story.
In the age of Martin Shkreli (easily identified if you google the phrase AIDS medicine guy, if you’d forgotten his name as I had), it’s easy to forget that big pharma has been a problem for decades. Even if the evil corporation is a movie cliche at this point, it is very easy to hate Pharmacon.
In the near future technologically modified couriers can smuggle data in their heads, like living external hard drives. They have to give up some of their long term memory to do so. Keanu is such a courier looking to get out of the game, get his memory back and buy his way into the high life. But Udo Kier, in full-on Peter Lorre mode, brings him back in for one last run. Of course there is too much data (300gbs!) and he will likely die of data leakage if he can’t get the information out of his head. Along the way he teams up with Jane, who wants to be a bodyguard and has been technologically modified for the job. But she is suffering from Nerve Attenuation Syndrome (NAS), a prevalent tech-induced disease in the world of the movie. The film becomes a race to get the overload of data out of his head while dodging Pharmacon, the Yakuza and Karl, the Street Preacher, a technologically engineered supervillain played by Dolph Lundgren who sees himself as an instrument of God’s wrath. Johnny and Jane find help from Henry Rollins’ Spider, a doctor who is part of group fighting both Pharmacon and NAS, a hacker dolphin named Jones and a group of resistance fighters called Lo-Tek led by Ice-T’s J-Bone.
The look of the film, like many dystopias, is noir squalor by way of Blade Runner. The visualization of the internet is pure Gibson; an alternate virtual reality world. It is rendered in, by today’s standards, primitive CGI. But that aesthetic is actually perfect for the material. I don’t think better graphics would have improved the movie at all.* Nor would have a more accurate prediction of what tech would be used (though it came really close to predicting the interface used for most VR experiences**). It is utterly charming when J-Bone tells the world to fire up their VCRs to make sure they record the data that is broadcast by satellite dishes at the end of the film. The story is well constructed, even if much of the dialog is stilted. Again like Strange Days, the ending almost veers into wish fulfillment. That didn’t ruin the film at all for me, though. This may seem like blasphemy, but I think Johnny Mnemonic is on par with, or maybe even better than The Matrix, a movie I really love. This is no mere trial run for Keanu’s more famous Cyberpunk turn, which was what I had considered it before this rewatch. It’s a great film in its own right.
*Since I only paid a dollar for the dvd I watched, it seems churlish to complain that it had been “modified to fit your TV.” I do feel like I missed out, though, and I liked the look of the film well enough to eventually buy a copy that hasn’t been altered.
**That I played Beat Saber for a half hour or so after work today on the HTC Vive in my library makerspace actually enhanced my viewing experience, despite having “better” CGI than the film.
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