Friday, August 30, 2013

Johnny Mnemonic (1995)

Title: Johnny Mnemonic (1994)

Director: Robert Longo

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Udo Kier, Takeshi Kitano, Dolph Lungdren, Henry Rollins, Ice –T, Dina Meyer

Universally panned by critics and a bonafide box office bomb, Johnny Mnemonic was a disaster financially, it made roughly 19 million on a budget of 26, this even though it starred Keanu Reeves, an actor whose career was smoking red hot at that particular moment in time. You see, Reeves had just finished making Jan De Bont’s Speed (1994) when he decided to jump on the Johnny Mnemonic bandwagon. Speed was an extremely successful film at the box office and a great career move for Keanu; it raised his status as an actor by turning him into box office gold. So considering how popular Reeves was at the time, why did Johnny Mnemonic end up being such an epic fail? It certainly wasn’t because of lack of star power. The film also starred Dolph Lungdren as a crazy homicidal preacher, Udo Kier as a techno agent, Henry Rollins and Ice-T as rebel leaders and Takeshi Kitano (of Sonatine fame) as the head of a an evil corporation. Maybe the film failed because it wasn’t that good? Could it be that it disappointed audiences or hardcore cyberpunk fans somehow?

In the film Johnny Mnemonic is a courier, which is just a fancy word for delivery man. The thing is that the guy is a courier of digital data that he carries somewhere in the back of his mind. Problem is the package he’s just uploaded is huge and exceeding storage capacity can kill you! You see, in this future a big percentage of humanity is suffering from a decease called N.A.S., which stands for Nerve Attenuation Syndrome.  Basically, N.A.S. is a condition that affects the human nervous system and is caused by the onslaught of electronic devices to which humanity is exposed to in a daily basis. Technology is making humanity sick and it’s because of information overload, airwaves poisoned by technological civilization. Humanity just can’t live without their gadgets. Good thing is that there’s a cure, bad thing is that the powers that be don’t want humanity to have it because they’d rather have people as patients, paying for their costly treatments for N.A.S. But wait, there’s hope! A group of rebel scientists are hell bent on releasing the cure for N.A.S. to the free world! These rebels fight against the system and humanities dependency on technology. From time to time they send subversive messages to the masses through television saying things like “Snatch back your brain zombie, and hold it!” To make everything right all they have to do is send the cure from Beijing to New Wark; via courier.  That’s where Johnny Mnemonic comes into play. Will Johnny make it in time before the overload of information in his brain kills him?

This project had many good things going for it, number one, the screenplay was written by the ‘father of cyberpunk’ William Gibson. Who’s William Gibson you say, well, he’s the guy responsible for writing the very first cyberpunk novels, novels about technologically suffocated societies in which people are more mechanical than human, worlds in which people spend more time in the virtual world than in the real world. This is a wing of science fiction that focuses on “high tech, low life”. Gibson wrote ‘Neuromancer’ one of the seminal works of the cyberpunk genre; it’s a story about a hacker who’s hired to pull off the mother of all hacks. The novel takes place in this Blade Runner like world with problems like over population and again, a society over dependent on technology. Neuromancer is so thick I’ve yet to finish reading it! It’s quite dense, a true challenge to read, and this comes from someone who fancies himself a science fiction fan! This fascinating and at times nightmarish book holds some similarities with Johnny Mnemonic; actually it even shares some characters. Johnny Mnemonic in turn is a film that’s based on another one of Gibson’s works; a short story entitled ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ which was first published in Omni magazine, and later re-printed in Gibson’s collection of short fiction stories called ‘Burning Chrome’, a book I will be acquiring soon! Johnny Mnemonic by the way is one of Gibson’s first works, first published way back in 1981, so it’s fitting in a way that one of his earliest works is the first to get the big screen treatment. 

For the longest time (as far back as 1989) Gibson and his pal Robert Lungo (who ended up sitting on the director’s chair) had been trying to get funding for Johnny Mnemonic. In their minds, Johnny Mnemonic was a film that could be pulled off for a mere 1.5 million dollars; in other words, they wanted to take an art house approach to this story; an artsy version of Johnny Mnemonic. A small yet creative film, and I gotta wonder what that film might have turned out like. But it kept getting harder and harder to get any financial backing for the film because studios didn’t like the fact that they were trying to make such a small film. Studios like multimillion dollar productions with big stars attached to them, something big and bombastic, something they can sell. Things finally pulled through when Keanu Reeves read the script (which myth has it was left at his door step!) and decided to do the movie. It was then that the studios started offering the millions to Gibson and Lungo. After much trepidation, the project finally found its funding! So after so many years of trying to get this movie made, was it finally worth it?

Well, first things first, there’s no denying that this film turned out to be a quite influential piece of cinema. The directors behind The Matrix Trilogy; the Wachowski Bros. obviously saw this film and decided they could do something similar, but better. It’s just so obvious, damn, right down to the fact that they also used Keanu Reeves for The Matrix. At one point Johnny says his name is “Mr. Smith”, he plugs himself into a virtual world and travels through it. Keanu dresses with a white shirt, black suit and tie. Johnny is kind of like a Christ figure, same as Neo. And basically, the whole film has a theme about “waking people up”, so yeah, there’s no doubt this one, along with Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995) served as a major influence for The Matrix. Other films that Johnny Mnemonic is similar to? Well, there’s Cyborg (1989) and Babylon A.D. (2008), two films that are also about a courier transporting the cure for a decease that’s threatening the world, and most recently Elysium (2013) played with the same ideas. 

Johnny Mnemonic is a film that science fiction fans will no doubt enjoy because it presents us with this dark, technological world in chaos, kind of like what we saw in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), but with the added element of seeing technology as mankind’s villain, as a detriment to society, a hindrance that disconnects us from our humanity. Which isn’t so farfetched when we consider how connected we all are to our smart phones, I-Pads, I-Pods and laptops;  so in many ways it’s a reflection of our society and how addicted we are to technology, could we live without it nowadays? How lost would we be on this planet without our technological advances? Has humanity separated itself so much from the natural world, that we now don’t even know how to survive in it? I mean we actually live in a time when going out to dinner means telling everybody on the table to turn their phones off so we won’t be distracted by a call, a text message or candy crush. Aside from the films themes, I also enjoy a lot of the visuals that a movie like this one has to offer. I mean, how cool does Johnny Mnemonic look hooked up to that Virtual Reality helmet? Very cool that’s how cool. Like Hackers (1995), The Matrix (1999), this is a movie that hackers no doubt love, because the hacker is the hero. Some of the best moments in the film are those of Johnny, hooking up to the information super highway and just hacking the hell out of it.

But then the movie is hampered by often time’s cheesy dialog and nonsensical shenanigans. Sometimes the film kind of contradicts itself, for example, there’s this dolphin in the movie that is supposed to be the savior of humanity because it’s the dolphin who handles all the data through its brain, but then the rebels, those who would fight for humanity and freedom, have this dolphin confined to this little tank that gives it no space to swim at all. To me, the dolphin looks like its being tortured, trapped in this cage filled with dirty water, then they also have the dolphin strapped to a helmet that forbids it from seeing. So we have a blind dolphin who can’t swim because the good guys need to use him? Peta would have a field day with these guys! Which brings me to another point about the film, at times it feels like the good guys aren’t really all that good, take Johnny for example, sure he’s carrying the cure on his noggin, but does he really have to stop and rant about wanting “room service and 10,000 dollars a night whores”? I guess the point is that Johnny has to learn that it’s not just about him anymore, that he has to learn to do things for others, but damn does he come off as self centered. Then we got the leader of the rebels played by Ice-T, and well, his performance isn’t much of a stretch considering how he played basically the same character in Tank Girl (1995). The most over the top performance has to be Dolph Lundgren as the crazy preacher. He is really crazy, managing to fuse Jesus with the psychotic. He carries a crucifix around that could double as Rambo’s knife! He also spews hilarious one liners like “It’s Jesus Time!” A funny performance and certainly not what you’d expect from Dolph Lundgren.  

And now a word about the computer graphics on this show. There’s this moment in which Johnny enters cyberspace and we see him controlling his journey from the real world (sounds like The Matrix don’t it?), well, the graphics in those scenes are interesting, but unfortunately by today’s standards look outdated, they do their job of telling a story, but feel truly ancient, kind of like the computer generated imagery in Lawnmower Man (1992). They might have been “dazzling!” in their day, but now these graphics seem like child play, still, this didn’t stop my enjoyment of the film. One has to expect fx to outdate, I mean, time passes after all. Final words on Johnny Mnemonic is that it’s a cool little movie, not a masterpiece but at least it has its cool visuals and that delicious cyberpunk feel that I wish Hollywood would exploit just a bit more. In my opinion, there aren’t enough cyberpunk films out there. I can’t comment on how faithful the film is to the short story, but at least we know the film was written by William Gibson himself; if it fails it’s by Johnny Mnemonics creator’s own fault! Then again, this was one of those films that the studio took from the filmmakers and re-edited to their liking, so this might have something to do with certain inconsistencies. But whatever, faithful to the story or not, I think Johnny Mnemonic has a couple of cool things going for it that makes it worth a re-watch. Also, if you ask me, the film remains a seminal work of cyberpunk cinema, that’s gotta count for something.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5


robotGEEK said...

Man, I haven't seen this once since it first came out, and I remember hating it. Not because I didn't like the story or Keanu in the lead, but because I thought Longo sucked as a director. I felt it could have been a decent flick had it had an experienced director. But I think it was too big of a project for a first-timer. I understand he was an artist and had only done a few shorts before this. Feature films is not his calling.

Great review by the way. I think I'll revisit this one some day. If I can get past the dated effects, maybe Longo's direction won't seem so horrible this time around.

Franco Macabro said...

I agree robotGEEK, a more experienced director would have been better, this could explain why he hasn't directed anything else since Johnny Mnemonic. I'm actually surprised though, because for a film directed by an artist, the film's look perse isn't all that. It does have some key images that I absolutely LOVE, but in terms of the look of the film, it certainly is lacking. I'd expect more from an artist.

My initial reaction to the film was that it wasn't all that it could have been, I mean when I saw this I'd seen SPEED which was a huge production and an adrenaline rush of a film, by comparison, Mnemonic was a dark, sort of post apocalyptic feel to it. It was a dissapointment in that sense. But seeing it now, without any sort of expectations, I have to say it wasn't a bad watch at all, I mean sure, there's some bad acting (Ice-T sucks ass!) and a couple of silly ideas, but overall, I'd have to say it was a fun watch. I enjoyed seeing how much the Wachowskis stole from this one, which was a lot in my opinion.

I also liked seeing how some of the technology that was considered futuristic at the time, now seems out dated as hell. But then again, some of the concepts are spot on, for example, how Johnny swipes things off the screen is what is common place in today's technology.

Thanks for commenting robotGeek!

Maurice Mitchell said...

While it's not a great film, there's a short list of cyberpunk movies and it stands near the top Fransisco.

Franco Macabro said...

Agree Maurice!

Unknown said...

How can you not love this film?! One of the best Sci Fi films of all time. Keep in mind there was nothing close to the internet in 1981 when Gibson wrote the short story. He coined the term "cyperspace". Who could have imagined at that time that "online" was the primary venue for crime. "I've got to get online", "I need room service!", What other film saw females as the premier body guards? Or Udo Kier greeting his body guard, Grace Jones, with a snake-like tongue kiss. Or Johnny saying: "I've got to get online!" to survive. Or the concept of low level EM radiation being a major source of disease. Or a wet-wired implant to the brain. This film was a rich and accurate glimpse into the future of reality and film making.

Franco Macabro said...

I was under the impression that my review had been a positive one, that being said, Johnny Mnemonic is not a "great film", it has its moments but also many faults. I agree with you, the film set many standards, as did Gibson's book.


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