Johnny Mnemonic, featuring Keanu Reeves

Do you Remember Keanu Reeves in the movie Johnny Mnemonic (1995)? It was a low budget adaptation of a short story by William Gibson. Even with strong source material, a capable cast, and a decent screenplay this film somehow managed to fail. I guess Hollywood and the general public just didn’t get ‘cyberspace’.

The film starred Keanu Reeves as Johnny, a data courier who transports sensitive data by storing it on an implant in his brain. When he accepts a job that exceeds his data capacity, he runs the risk of brain damage due to “synaptic leakage”. Johnny must escape numerous pursuits and download the data before it kills him.

The basic premise of this film seems kind of shaky. Johnny uses a “ram doubler” to increase his data capacity. This film was released in 1995 so most computer users would have understood data compression. Remember using Pkzip on DOS? That much is certainly plausible but the fact that the device is leaking data because it is over capacity doesn’t make any sense at all. To date we don’t have any storage media that can arbitrarily exceed its own storage capacity just because you happen to have more data than it can hold.

Perhaps in the event that the user attempts to store data in excess of the on-board storage, the device would resort to “organic storage” and write data directly to Johnny’s brain. The side effect would be that the data might mingle with the user’s own memories and cause a stroke. Now that would have been very cyberpunk.

The film used unfortunate stereotypes for recurring themes in Gibson’s books. Example? The Yakuza assassin was like a bad cartoon character. Because some of Gibson’s earlier work is set in Japan, the organized crime happens to be yakuza. The local criminal element always filters though when dealing with the underworld. Had Gibson chosen Africa, would that have been a Somali war tribe instead of the Yakuza? What kind of caricature would they make in that case? Hey at least Henry Rollins wasn’t a kangaroo in this film.

The film had really bad visual effects. Cyberspace (teh interwebz) looked a lot like Tron era Virtual reality. That’s pretty sad. Gibson describes the virtual world of cyberspace as a “consensual hallucination” and “the matrix”, which makes it sound more like um, The Matrix than a video game from the late eighties.

Lame props and cheap sets also hindered this films credibility. Paintball guns were used as futuristic firearms. Come on, Really? I’m pretty certain that in all of Gibson’s work the future of guns was never a subject of speculation. Somehow a back alley in the urban sprawl looks like the food court in a Canadian shopping mall. They could have filmed these scenes in an inexpensive back alley.

I shouldn’t be too critical. I was so happy to see Gibson’s work on the big screen that I overlooked even the most obvious faults in the film. And it did have a surprisingly good soundtrack featuring:

KMFDM, Orbital, Stabbing Westward, God Lives Underwater, Helmet, Rollins Band, and more.

Despite its low rent set design and somewhat primitive visual effects Johnny Mnemonic has become something of a cult classic in its own right. If it were on right now, I would watch it … again. If you’re bored some weekend maybe you should add this one to your Netflix queue.

Originally Published 08 August 2010

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