Written by William Gibson
Directed by Robert Longo
Perhaps the greatest gift of 1999’s The Matrix wasn’t its revolutionary effects work but its contemplative subject matter at the peak of Y2K insanity. Of course it has some obvious stoner philosophy, and its two sequels get bogged down in their own convoluted mythology, but the Wachowskis’ original feature remains a remarkable sci-fi vision of the perils of technological dependence.
What many forget is that only four years prior, Keanu Reeves starred in another futurist depiction of conspiracy, rebel resistance, and hacker-fueled paranoia. The year is 2021, and Keanu plays Johnny. If you ask him, it’s “just Johnny,” although those well-mannered enough may address him as Mr. Mnemonic. Johnny is a human courier, capable of storing “massive” amounts of classified data in his brain as a secure, portable transportation device — an extremely profitable occupation in “the Sprawl,” where warring factions and massive drug companies slaughter each other in the name of control. Although it pays well, Johnny’s data storage capability also pushes out his actual memories, and he just so happens to want his childhood back. During a final one-and-done courier job for some Japanese scientists, Johnny is ambushed by the Yakuza and forced to flee with his life and the mysterious information still in his brain. From there Johnny encounters a cybernetic bodyguard (Dina Meyer), an underground rebel leader (Ice-T), and a psychic genius dolphin in his quest for self -rediscovery.
Johnny Mnemonic falls flat on its face from the get-go. The notion of joining tech with a biological organism has made for compelling sci-fi material in the past — the Borg, RoboCop, Vader, etc. — but director Robert Longo uses the concept as nothing more than a cheap gimmick to coat action sequences and to pimp out the horribly dated graphics work in “The Net.” William Gibson adapts his own original short story to the screen, and for 1981, it was remarkably ahead of its time. There is, however, a subtle art to balancing futurism, and films like Minority Report are the rare success stories because they don’t lean on too many specifics. Details become dated, and in this case, they’re the aforementioned “Net,” which amounts to internet capability with the addition of virtual reality. Because who doesn’t want that? Johnny’s headspace, touted as a whopping 320 GB, also pales in comparison to today’s standards, where that kind of storage can be bought with a few drug store flash drives.
If the tech alone wasn’t an indication, Johnny Mnemonic looks horribly dated, with an amateurish command of the camera. Scenes are staged like classroom dioramas, and the production quality looks to have been on a similar budget. When Johnny makes long-distance phone calls to Beijing or hacks a mainframe, the interface resembles an old Duke Nukem level with 3D puzzle blocks. It’s a shame that these advanced “virtual reality” sequences may have fared better with stronger effects work, especially since they’re surprisingly prophetic to today’s touch computing, albeit without the need for a visor and hockey gloves.
Much of Johnny Mnemonic involves the film playing catch up with itself. Characters have little to no motivation for their actions, and any definition to them is often explained by other characters. The acting is no help either, with a cast devoid of anyone capable of emoting two cents. Turns from Ice-T and Black Flag’s Henry Rollins (here as doofy hacker/doctor “Spider”) come off as promotional cameos, not fully-defined characters. Dolph Lundgren offers a ray of entertainment as a homicidal priest with a shepherd fetish, at one point literally screaming “It’s Jesus time!” before a kill. Even Keanu’s flatness doesn’t quite jibe with Johnny’s existential crisis. In The Matrix, the Wachowskis wrote Neo with some messianic poise, so Reeves’ lack of range was smartly channeled into gradual enlightenment through the franchise. A similar tactic may have flattered Reeves here, too. Maybe Gibson could have changed his title character to a cyborg, struggling to understand human nature as a post-apocalyptic Pinocchio. Maybe there was room for some Blade Runner-style soul searching. Maybe I’m just doing Gibson’s job for him.
By the time Johnny Mnemonic reaches its climax with a psychic dolphin (*double-checks Wikipedia*), the notion of an aquatic mammal named “Jones” as a talented password encrypter doesn’t encourage disbelief because what’s preceded it hasn’t encouraged any genuine interest. Like The Matrix, Robert Longo’s misguided effort at exploring some interesting concepts definitely has an aim; it just hits everything other than its targets. There’s probably an obvious joke about saying away and taking “the blue pill” here. But really, any pill is better than this.