Tom Jolliffe looks at the world of Johnny Mnemonic, and its mid-90’s depiction of what 2021 might be like…
2020 has been a relentless hundred hand slap to the balls. Edge of Tomorrow predicted 2020 as an Earth besieged by aliens, one year after Blade Runner had offered up the prospect of replicants walking among us and off world colonies. 2015 was supposed to have hover boards. Perhaps in retrospect 2020 could have been worse. If a year was destined to be the one where aliens finally invaded, it was probably this one.
Things can only get better…right? In sci-fi cinema, futuristic visions have long been a staple. What better than to look at a Keanu Reeves opus with a view on a dystopian and grim future? No, not The Matrix. I’m talking about Johnny Mnemonic. There are internet memes doing the rounds about Mad Max being set in 2021, which isn’t true (that certainly would have felt distinctly prescient). So lets look at a film that threatened to derail Reeves as a box office plunderer, and was deemed a potential monkey in the wrench for The Matrix’s box office prospects. The combination of Reeves and sci-fi had been deemed damaged goods after Mnemonic’s failure critically and commercially. In fact, in a time where cyberpunk and VR themed movies were in vogue, Johnny Mnemonic almost rammed the Sci-fi genre choo-choo off the tracks entirely.
Was the film that bad? Time has seen the film become a little more appreciated. Probably not because it was underrated. It still has those very definitive foibles. The film ramps up the Cyberpunk elements, melding all those mid-90’s aesthetics with a clear and distinct creative mining from Blade Runner. Some time in the last 10 years, Cyberpunk and all the aesthetics became very popular. So on a visual standpoint, people now have a little more appreciation for some of the designs in Johnny Mnemonic. Additionally, an ironic view on certain things has seen re-appraisal on everything from Nic Cage overacting (in Vampires Kiss for example) to Chuck Norris. Lame (in the eyes of some) has become ironically good in more recent times. A certain niche audience seem to enjoy gonzo, more than perhaps they did in the 90’s (back to a kind of level they perhaps did in the 80’s). Johnny Mnemonic is most certainly gonzo, between the VR sequences, a maniacal cybernetically enhanced Street Preacher, a literal Ghost in the machine and a psychic dolphin called Jones.
Indeed, Reeves’ over the top performance which was initially viewed with derision, has been re-appraised as wildly entertaining (possibly not in a way he intended of course). His impassioned speech about missing the luxuries afforded to his position as a data courier (“I WANT room service!!!”) is brilliant. It’s not quite Nic Cage does the ABC’s, but it’s good. Throw in an oddball cast that includes Ice-T, Udo Kier, Henry Rollins, Beat Takashi and a barnstorming Dolph Lundgren (as aforementioned maniacal Street Preacher, who bellows choice lines like “Halt sinners!”) and you’ve got yourself a hearty cyberpunk gumbo. It’s mad, but if you go with it and embrace the badness, it’s a lot of fun.
Based upon William Gibson’s short story (he also wrote the screenplay), this 2021 sees Johnny (Reeves) as a courier who transports important data for clients, housed in his brain. He takes on a job requiring more hard drive brain space than he actually has, leaving him hours from death if he doesn’t get it out. Said data just so happens to be the potential cure to a plague that has lead to suffering among the population (I know…a bloody plague…). A group of freedom fighters battle with nefarious Yakuza and corporate money men in trying to extract the information from Johnny, with his head in the middle of the power struggle.
Aside from this social decimator, it’s a world of virtual information and avatars. Mnemonic even has a couple of segments with deep-fakery being used that notch a success for the prediction pile. So the idea of virtually surfing the internet looks ludicrously elaborate in this, and the vector polygon animations are clunky now that we’ve caught up with the film’s setting. However, this film, in the very birth of the internet, also dealt with the power of hackers, the transfer of information and symbiosis of technology and flesh that seems to be edging closer. Likewise genetic and cybernetic enhancement has stepped forward a lot since 1995, something which Mnemonic also readily predicts, and body modification too. Okay, it wasn’t the first to predict many of these things, and certainly owes much to other literature (indeed also some of Gibson’s other works) and movies (not least Blade Runner), but the film wasn’t too far wide of the mark in principal here. Between an epidemic and war of information, time is about to catch up with Johnny Mnemonic, and it is surprisingly prescient.
What are your thoughts on Johnny Mnemonic? Should we worry about psychic Dolphins? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth or hit me up on Instagram…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.