Plug in your Sino-Logic 16 and strap on your Sogo 7 Data Gloves, because Johnny Mnemonic has turned 25 – here’s why the ambitious techno-thriller deserves a look back
THE YEAR IS 2021.
IT IS NO LONGER SAFE TO TRANSMIT INFORMATION.
PHONES, COMPUTERS, AND SATELLITES ARE ALL VULNERABLE.
No, it’s not the latest 5G updates from the BBC. This is the voiceover for the trailer to Johnny Mnemonic – a 1995 Keanu Reeves cyberpunk thriller returning to digital platforms on May 10 with a 25th anniversary HD makeover.
It was critically panned upon release in 1995, and first-time director Robert Longo (better known for his music videos for New Order, R.E.M. and… er… Megadeth) hasn’t made a feature since. But as we reach the date in which the film was set, Dazed discovers plenty of reasons why this ambitious techno-thriller of the Windows 95 generation is worth another look.
Plug in your Sino-Logic 16 and strap on your Sogo 7 Data Gloves – because, as the characters within the world of Johnny Mnemonic rightly warn, this is a film that “could microwave your frontal lobe”.
A PLOT DRIVEN BY CYBER-SURFING, LIVING HARD DRIVES, AND THE YAKUZA
In the futuristic world of Johnny Mnemonic, sensitive information is transferred via “mnemonic couriers” – human traffickers with cybernetic implants that allow data to be downloaded directly to their brains. Keanu Reeves plays one of these living hard drives – Johnny – who has deleted his childhood memories to upgrade his storage capacity to a massive 320GB of memory (“woah!”).
Johnny’s in the game for one final job, but after a bloody shootout at a client’s headquarters he finds himself on the run with a head full of valuable data, and the yakuza are on his heels to get it out. Worse yet, if he doesn’t flush the data out within 48 hours, his digital migraines will lead to a painful death by “synaptic seepage”.
Cue brain-melting cyber-surfing, laser-whips, and a spooky ghost who lives within the internet – and you’ve got a sci-fi pseudo-classic in the making.
IT PREDICTED 2021 PRETTY ACCURATELY
The film isn’t entirely farfetched in its predictions for 2021. Corporations rule. Anti-establishmentarian resistance movements rally in the shadows. And the world hangs on knifepoint as a fatal new plague known as Nerve Attention Syndrome causes chaos. So far, so accurate.
An early scene that finds Keanu’s man-sized floppy disc collecting his freight in Beijing offers an eerily prescient image: a throng of protesters, obscured by face masks, amass in the streets to engage violently with riot police. In the background, we discover, Big Pharma corporation Pharmakom is hiking up the price of medicine – and with society brought to its knees by a disease allegedly caused by the very technology it is built upon, time is running out to find an antidote to the myriad medical, mechanical, and ethical dilemmas.
We may not yet live in a world where memories can be uploaded directly into our cerebral cortex – but with the 5G revolution just around the corner, the whole idea feels within arms reach. And while Facebook and Insta may have been a better fit, Johnny’s psychedelic voyages across the information superhighway using a “Thomson eyephone” and a “stealth module” cloaking device feel pretty familiar, too.
As for Pharmakom, and the tech that’s supposedly sparked the Nerve Attention Syndrome epidemic? Let’s just say it’s worth keeping an eye on the likes of Pfizer and AstraZeneca as those 5G masts pop up…
PRIME KEANU HEADS UP A ‘WOEFULLY MISCAST’ ENTOURAGE
It’s prime, post-Speed Keanu going full ham – what more do you want?
Actually, Keanu was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor for his decidedly Keanu-esque performance – but he was never going to win an Academy Award for playing a walking USB stick, was he? Fortunately, Keanu’s outrageous cast of co-stars ensures that Johnny Mnemonic doesn’t fall flat.
Dina Meyer (Starship Troopers, the Saw franchise) plays a cybernetically-enhanced bodyguard who effectively shadows the entire premise of 2020 mega-game Cyberpunk 2077 (Keanu’s the face of this one, too). Ice-T, fresh off the back of a role in Tank Girl, but a few years shy of roles in classics such as FrankenPenis and Leprechaun in the Hood, looks the part as weary freedom fighter J-Bone – leader of underground resistance movement the Lo-Teks. Black Flag singer Henry Rollins plays a “flesh mechanic” cyber-surgeon, while Ugo Kier (Blade, Bacurau) lurks in a subterranean club, flanked by two mighty henchwomen.
Best of all, though, is Dolph Lundgren – who, as Rollins recalled at a 2016 conference at The Broad in LA, was a nightmare to work with. He plays a bible-bashing, toga-wearing street preacher who is also a mercenary with a penchant for crucifixions. “Come to Jesus!” may well be the best quote from a film full of zany one-liners.
IT’S THE MISSING LINK BETWEEN BLADE RUNNER AND THE MATRIX
Here’s something Johnny Mnemonic gets spectacularly right. With a dark and dilapidated physical world dominated by futuristic tech, and a digital universe marked by CGI visuals that look like a 90s rave inside 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Stargate sequence – Johnny Mnemonic looks like an absolute trip.
Entertainment Weekly described the film as “Blade Runner with tackier sets” in 1995 – and that, really, is the whole charm of it. Beijing’s brooding skyscrapers and neon signs are almost identikit doubles for Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic, while an antagonist acknowledges the inspiration with a reference to the film's closing monologue (“time to die”, one thug offers as an offhanded threat). But there’s no greater allure than the film’s legacy as a blueprint for one of the most renowned science fiction films of all time: The Matrix.
Countless visual cues connect the two films. Keanu traverses deserted subway stations; he plugs into clunky VR headsets while strapped into rusted hospital beds; he practises tai chi in the bathroom mirror after suffering a nosebleed. He even goes by the alias ‘Mr Smith’ for a large portion of Johnny Mnemonic, fighting men in leather trenchcoats while donning the same black suit-and-tie costume as his namesake nemesis from The Matrix.
While rapper Ice-T’s black revolutionary J-Bone may be decidedly less iconic than Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus, their ambitions and methods are essentially the same. The main difference is that J-Bone lives in a collapsed suspension bridge outside the Free City of Newark with a telepathic, codebreaking dolphin named ‘Jones’.
THE FIRST FILM OF CYBERPUNK VISIONARY WILLIAM GIBSON
There’s more to Johnny Mnemonic’s relationship to The Matrix than just aesthetic similarities. The former was adapted from an early short story by renowned sci-fi visionary William Gibson – widely known as the literary godfather of cyberpunk; the man who coined the term “cyberspace”.
Johnny Mnemonic was Gibson’s first work to be adapted to the screen – after Sony jumped on the techno-theme boom of 1995 marked by films like Hackers and The Net. But it was his most well-known text, 1984’s Neuromancer, that would be acknowledged as a foremost influence on the Wachowskis’ magnum opus at the end of the decade. The tale of a drug-addicted “console cowboy” computer hacker who comes up against a powerful artificial intelligence, the story largely takes place in a virtual reality cybersphere known as… the “matrix”.
With both stories set in the same universe (Neuromancer even reveals the eventual fate of Johnny Mnemonic’s title character), the films essentially exist as sci-fi siblings – and there are more members of the family, too. Erotic 1998 cyberpunk thriller New Rose Hotel (starring Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe) was adapted from another ‘Sprawl trilogy’ Gibson book. Elsewhere, the author would pen two episodes of the X-Files, and an unused screenplay for Alien 3 – the latter of which was adapted as an audiobook in 2019.
A JAPANESE EXTENDED CUT TIES THE FILM TO ITS CYBERPUNK ROOTS
The cyberpunk aesthetic was born in Japan’s technological revolution of the 80s – and films like Akira and Tetsuo: Iron Man remain a blueprint for much of the industrial science fiction films that came in their wake. Johnny Mnemonic would pay due homage to the genre’s home country – via casting choices and visual cues.
All versions of the film subtly reference the likes of Akira via animated cells spliced into Johnny’s brain-melting download sequence. But the Japanese cut adds in nearly ten minutes of extra footage to the film's total runtime. Much of this is focused on the character Takahashi – the film’s corporate arch-villain – who is played by internationally renowned filmmaker Takeshi Kitano.
One of Japan’s most famous television personalities – widely known as the creator of cult gameshow Takeshi’s Castle – Kitano would become a leading figure in the international revival of Japanese cinema after winning the Golden Lion at Venice in 1997 for crime drama Hana-bi. And while he was not a presence in the influential Japanese cyberpunk movement of the late 80s, Kitano would later solidify his place in cyberpunk history when he appeared in the US remake of Ghost In The Shell in 2017, as white-haired Section 9 Chief Aramaki.
Johnny Mnemonic is released via Vertigo Releasing May 10