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Johnny Mnemonic


‘…lovers of old-school tech will find plenty to amuse…’

Nothing dates faster than yesterday’s science-fiction. In fact, when I sat down to watch Johnny Mnemonic in my local Odeon back in lo-fi 1996, it already seemed a little old hat. Sure, Keanu Reeves was soon to blow our minds in sci-fi epic The Matrix, but first he had to, erm, just blow in Robert Longo’s adaptation of William Gibson’s book. To say the result was underwhelming would be an understatement; and yet, after several weeks of prevaricating, I requested a screener of Johnny Mnemonic, so was it as bad as I remembered?

The answer is, surprisingly, no, Johnny Mnemonic is way better than I remembered. At the time, I was looking for sci-fi action, and even though Reeves has a few trademarks moves, this is a very wordy film, scripted by Gibson himself. After a futuristic pre-credits scroll that would require a PHD to decipher, Reeves plays Johnny, a courier in the exotic locale of Newark. A courier for what? Information, stored in Johnny’s head, described as 60 Gigabytes. I used to play video-games that were 1k in size, so 60 GB seemed like a lot in 1996, but now? It’s about the size of the Star Wars films on blu-ray. That leaves not much space to spare in Johnny’s head because it’s about to burst if he can’t get to his clients and upload the precious content, but a number of obstacles get in the way including Ice-T, Udo Kier, Henry Rollins and a dolphin that seems to have wandered in from a Douglas Adams novel. Throw in Dolph Lundgren as a messianic assassin known as Karl ‘the street preacher’ Honig and you’ve got one big headache, right?

Nope. The multiple windowless interiors and endless tech-talk worked against Johnny Mnemonic becoming a Matrix-level hit, but viewed today, it’s an interesting variation on a familiar dystopian theme. This is a tech-noir, and we now know and recognise that Reeves is a perfect centre for this kind of fanciful thing. But plot developments that seemed bafflingly weird in 1996 seem straightforward now, and it’s easy enough to follow Johnny’s adventure, even when he goes off on a ranting tangent about getting his shirts freshly pressed. The supporting cast don’t exactly get the chance to shine, but the whole package just about delivers the cyberpunk goods; like it or not, but Gibson is the springboard that leads from here to Posessor and Tenet.

‘You should have knocked, baldy,’ quips Reeves as he dispatches another Yakusa good in a toilet stall; such un-iconic dialogue at least amuses by its directness. Gibson gets a lot right in his vision of the future, even if, like any others, he doesn’t see the ubiquitous quality of the mobile phone coming. But lovers of old-school tech will find plenty to amuse in the video-screen phone-boxes and other futuristic notions contained here; Johnny Mnemonic may not have got it right at the time, but 25 years later, it’s amazing how accurately this film does predict some, if not all, of today’s world.

Thanks to Vertigo Releasing and Fetch PR for early access to this title.



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  1. I watched this on Prime recently and was impressed with how well it had aged. I’d only read the short story (which when I read it I thought I’d been cheated because it was so short and I didn’t realize it was a short story) so the fleshing out of the world a bit more and the longer narrative arc made for a much better story.

    Dolph Lundgren did make me laugh though.

    • Dolph is trying something here, but I’m guessing it hit the cutting room floor. Still, retro-futures are cool.

  2. I had much the same reaction as you back in the day and was expecting more action than talky talk-talk. But now I might just be in the mood for something that in sci-fi terms is more contemporary and with little more thought attached.

    • I think we can safely say that The Matrix is the all-action version of this story. But what surprised me is that I could follow this narrative; back in 1996, I simply gave up. And the fact I understand it now demonstrates the fault was on my part. Ok, it’s no masterpiece, but it was ahead of its time for sure…

      • I’m not sure the fault lies with you. If fault there was, it would have 99% of the audience. Bafflement wasn’t accepted then the way it is now.

                    • You give away your own lies, I know Shedley would never choose you over me, so I’ll just put a saucer of milk out at the back door. Next!

                    • Hahahaha! Your naivety is laughable, but rather charming in a way. Shedley doesn’t even like milk. He likes- oh no. I shouldn’t say, in case you get any wise ideas.

                    • Oh, so you have a cat with his own copy of James Joyce’s The Dead?

                    • Haha, Shedley is reading Ulysses right now, I knew this was a bluff!

                    • No he’s not. Do you not know what your cat is reading? No wonder he wanted to get out of there as quick as possible. Reminds me of Michael Scott saying he didn’t want to go to the park after his dog ran away in case it was with another family.

                    • He read The Dead while on a sabbatical in Chile last summer. Fake news!

                    • Shedley doesn’t tell you everything, just what you want to hear.

                    • How does the structure of The Dead differ from Ulysses? Show your working.

                    • In Ulysses, Joyce builds the story structure on the technique of the twenty-four-hour day. This circular time matches the circular space of the myth and comedy forms, further defining the everyday quality of its hero and highlighting and comparing the actions of a vast web of characters in the city.

                      Joyce also uses the twenty-four-hour day to set up the character opposition between his primary and secondary heroes. The opening three sections of the story, which track the journey of the secondary hero, Stephe, occur from 8 a.m. to about noon. Joyce then returns to the 8 a.m. start to track his primary hero, Bloom. This time comparison constantly triggers the reader to imagine what these two men are doing at approximately the same moment, and Joyce provides a number of parallels between them to help the reader compare and contrast them.

                      Joyce is a master at connecting key structure steps to the visual subworlds of the story. One of the benefits of founding a modern-day journey through the city on Odysseus’s travels is that it lets Joyce create identifiable subworlds within an amorphous city. It also allows him, in this incredibly complex story, to imbue each subworld with one or two main structure steps.

                      This technique anchors the reader in the storm and flow of a huge epic and highlights the two heroes’ main lines of psychological and moral development no matter how complex things get, something similarly done in Joyce’s short story The Dead.

                    • Shedley would have balanced this with a similarly detailed analysis of The Dead. Nice try!

  3. Yes, it’s both better and worse in unexpected ways. It’s a fun movie from a very hard-to-read and vague book, considered a Sci-fi classic for its techno gibberish. I’ve read two of Gibson’s books, and they are not smooth reads. Granted he’s trying to bring to life some otherworldly cerebral experiences of the digital sort, but much is left to the reader. The film has some fun art and costuming choices and enjoyable actors in a variety of rolls, but this thing would be superseded by Matrix and good clunky fun like Elysium’s exo skeleton.

    • The Matrix abolutely blew this away. Like you, I’ve struggled to connect to Gibson’s prose, so a movie like this is a useful way in. The narrative is qute conventional, even if the details are not. It’s a lot easier to watch this movie than to read one of his books, or maybe I’m just a lightweight…

  4. I am yet to sample more of Gibson’s work. Was this also the title of the book? They do state Gibon to be the forefather of the cyberpunk genre…

    • I think it was a Gibson short story before this, but he seems to have been given a reasonably free hand with the script, and it works a lot better now we have a clearer idea what he was on about…

    • Good one; I’m glad I revisited this, it’s not perfect, but I gave up on the story back in 96, and that was a mistake in hindsight….

    • Let’s face it, some of this film is and always will be meh, but I think the conspiracy stuff and the notions of human beings as storage make more sense now, even if the detail is wrong. Cannot describe how much I hated this first time around, so maybe I’m going soft…

      Better than Snowpiercer, though…

        • These opinions both correct; have you thought about writing for Alex ‘back for’ Good’s film column? You probably know more about films than he does.

            • He does know a lot about Charlie Chan movies, but that’s hardly a hot commodity in today’s world…

  5. I do remember catching this when it came out and we were all pretty disappointed by it. Except if I remember there was an assassin who cut people in two with a wire. I’d heard this was getting some love now because of the whole Keanaissance going on. I think I’ll hold off a bit longer.

    • It was a real kick in tne gut at the time, and I still use it as a byword for techno-babble. But looking at it now, it all makes sense. If you want the glass-splintering action, The Matrix is always there, but this has a quirky charm and some good ideas. And the use of the term ‘baldy’ is very much ahead of it’s time, it’s a phrase that I find myself using a lot in 2021.

      • Your prejudice has been noted. I think this will deserve another visit to the kirk’s Pew of Shame next Sunday. Another 100 mile drive?

            • Sigh. But most people saw you look like a melted Halloween cake. Or a cue ball, hahahah

                • Well, a healthy covering of hair prevents you from seeing inside my head, so ahahahah. Just like Keanu, I’m beating up the baldies wild-style!

                    • Haha, spoken like a true jealous baldy! No, just a natural head of healthy hair, the kind you can only dream of!No purchase required, just a great win in the hair lottery for me, a sad loss for you, Bunty! Hahahahahahah!

                    • I am committed to showing you up as the baldy fraud and charlatan that you are, Bunty. Your worst nightmare!

                    • Anger? Double-check. Obsession? Check.
                      Let’s talk about this. How many hours a day do you spend fantasizing about bald men and what you’d like to do to them?

                    • Not just any bald men, a hairless bin-dwelling Canadian coot who writes a daily film review despite having minimal knowledge of the subject that he’s supposedly adressing. What do your prescibe as a remedy?

                    • Mm-hmm. And this Canadian fellow, the one who looks a bit like Jason Statham and writes with such clarity and authority, how long have you been obsessing over him?

                    • No, it’s more like he’s a snivelling, pointless wreck and I’m looking for ways of keeping him at arms length….

                    • Mm-hmm. And have you tried to make your feelings known? Or are you just sort of keeping it all bottled up? That’s not healthy.

                    • No, I’m planning on writing about this every day on a high-powered, influential website.
                      There can be no justice until this pitiful creature is hounded from society…

              • Don’t encourage him. He looks like a squashed tomato, but thinks he looks like a dozen movie-stars. Sad!

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