The year is 2020 and we are deep in the somewhat baffling entertainment phenomenon known as “the Keanaissance“. Staring in the sequels of Bill and Ted and The Matrix franchises, random cameos in movies, and staring in the video game Cyberpunk 2077, Keanu Reeves has once again become the name on everyone’s lips. Now that he’s back on top of the pop culture pile, it’s worth revisiting some of his classic movies that were… less than successful. None of his early films fit this profile better than the 90s cyberpunk pseudo classic Johnny Mnemonic.
A Cyberpunk Classic
Johnny Mnemonic is set in a bleak and dangerous future, the distant year of 2021, when information is power. A deadly plague known as Nerve Attenuation Syndrome or “the black shakes” is ravaging the underclass, and high powered pharmaceutical corporations profit from their suffering (wait, when was this film made?). When those in power need to move dangerous secrets undetected they turn to “data couriers”, unscrupulous individuals with the ability to upload this data into their “wet wired” brain.
One such courier, our reluctant protagonist known only as Johnny, has taken a job carrying more information than his brain can safely hold. He must deliver the “package” and remove the data before it leaks into the rest of his brain and kills him. To make matters worse, that mysterious information is so dangerous that some are willing to remove Johnny’s head to access it.
A Missed Opportunity
The incredible thing is how much better Johnny Mnemonic could, and really should, have been. The writer, William Gibson, was father of the cyberpunk genre. His 1984 novel Neuromancer has inspired elements in science fiction films and television for decades, and was key in attaching Keanu Reeves to star in Johnny Mnemonic. The world that he and director Robert Longo created was gritty and vibrant, with dynamic characters and believable motives. William Gibson explained his vision for the film in an interview with Wired:
“It’s phrased as an action-chase piece, but our real agenda is a little more serious than that… We want to see him get the information for himself, escape, turn the tables on the bad guys. But in the end he does something else, and manages to become a human being in the process. I see it as a fable of the information age”
What Went Wrong?
With a writer/director team like Longo and Gibson and a premise brimming with potential, what exactly went wrong? Setting aside a clear lack of understanding of technology and the speed of its progression, the problem was studio induced bloat. Longo and Gibson initially intended Johnny Mnemonic to be a low budget small scale cyberpunk film. When that budget ballooned to almost 30 million dollars, they essentially lost all creative control. Studio executives demanded story changes and more big-name actors. Dolph Lundgren was forced upon them at the last minute and all they could think to do was dress him in robes, hand him a cross, and invent a religious doomsday assassin that comes out of nowhere. Director Robert Longo described his frustration in a talk at L.A.’s Orpheum Theatre:
“Originally I wanted to make a black-and-white film like Alphaville… Instead I made [a movie] for $28 million. When people give you money, they think they can tell you what to do. It was [expletive] horrible. Johnny Mnemonic is about 65 percent of what I hoped it would be.”
As you can imagine, meddling studios plus overwhelmed filmmakers doesn’t make for great cinema. Johnny Mnemonic bombed at the box office, and even today only holds a twelve percent score on Rotten Tomatoes (with an audience score of thirty-three percent). Despite this, the film has lived on. It has become something of an icon of how NOT to make a cyberpunk film and, to most fans, lives securely in “so bad that it’s good” territory. In his 1995 review of Johnny Mnemonic, Roger Ebert summed it up quite nicely:
“Johnny Mnemonic is one of the great goofy gestures of recent cinema, a movie that doesn’t deserve one nanosecond of serious analysis but has a kind of idiotic grandeur that makes you almost forgive it.”
Despite the almost universal recognition of its failure, or perhaps because of it, Johnny Mnemonic would be the perfect property to revisit. If nothing else, the 1995 film created a solid foundation to build upon. With a good script, a modern understanding of technology, and perhaps a cameo from Keanu Reeves, there is so much potential to craft a truly engaging film.
What could that film look like? Well, first we’d need to scrap all of the tech that is used and referenced in Johnny Mnemonic, yes ALL the tech. Blade Runner 2049 is a great example of a film set in the future where the technology is clearly advanced, but the explanations of that technology are left relatively vague. Next we’d need to give a better, more detailed explanation for why this sensitive data needs to be moved from point A to point B inside someone’s head, as it has been endlessly discussed online that this is a ridiculously inefficient mode of transport for information. Lastly, it needs to return to something closer to director Longo’s original small scale vision. Keep the world saving stakes, but lose all the big showy set pieces, the random unnecessary characters, and the cybernetic dolphin (you read that right). Take these steps and there is no reason that a Johnny Mnemonic reboot couldn’t be what it was always intended to be, an intimate commentary on the politics of information.
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