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In the 1990’s the future was really lame: “Johnny Mnemonic”

August 29, 2013

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Okay, now this film is instructive indeed. It shows us a glimpse of a very specific moment in time—1995, in fact—when the world arrived at the intersection of science and culture. It was the moment that the Internet became a looming thing, a soon-to-be fixture on our lives. We could see this tsunami curling above us, and could only marvel at how it would change our lives. With 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic, we have a window into the predictions and anxieties of the way our future would be transformed into something new. And man, were they retarded.

Johnny Mnemonic was written by William Gibson and based upon a smattering of his other works. I’m not a reader of his stuff, so I can’t say how well this represents his vision, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the script.

In the film, Keanu Reeves, fresh off his career-transforming success of 1994’s Speed, plays the titular Johnny, a high-tech courier in the far-off year of 2021. See, in that year, um…holy shit, this movie begins with an opening crawl that has more words than some Elmore Leonard novels. Basically, big Japanese corporations run everything and use yakuza thugs to enforce…um…HR policies, I guess. Also, I think the US broke or something and Newark is all that’s left. There’s also a plague that’s killing off everybody.

The Internet, ladies and gentlemen...

The Internet, ladies and gentlemen…

Anyway, data couriers in this day and age don’t simply lug around anything as ludditical as 3.5” floppies or CD-ROMS. Nopers, they just upload that date into their brains. To do this, Johnny has had to sacrifice some of his own brain (hee hee hee…the jokes just write themselves), which is too bad, but it’s not really an issue, so don’t get too bent out of shape about it. Alas, this latest job—his last before he can earn enough money to retire and buy back the missing parts of his brain (man it’s low-hanging fruit)—requires him to upload more data than he has brain space for. Actually just about the same amount as I have on this laptop. Anyway, Johnny’s brain is strainin’ from holding just a little more data than your average iPad (hee hee hee…it’s just so easy!)

Well, things go all Pete Tong almost immediately as yakuza thugs burst in and kill the clients before they can give Johnny the code to download the info. So Johnny goes on the run and hooks up with a plague-addled bodyguard (Dina Meyer), and the two of them must navigate the seedy underbelly of Newark to get the info out of Johnny’s brain, while avoiding the various factions of bad guys and whack-jobs who want to kill Johnny and freeze his head to gain the information there. This begs the question why this movie was titled Johnny Mnemonic and not the punchier They Came for Keanu’s Head.

Dina Meyer: good girlfriend material. Bodyguard, not so much.

Dina Meyer: good girlfriend material. Bodyguard, not so much.

Oh, and at the end, Johnny is saved by Ice-T and a super-intelligent dolphin. Yeah, that happens.

What Johnny Menomic teaches us about 1995 is that Hollywood had not clue one about the Internet or how we’d interact with it. In the film, people still get the majority of their info from TV and much is made of the dozens of channels and pirates hack the broadcast signals and run their own shows. As a matter of fact, for  a movie about the Internet, Johnny Mnemonic resembles nothing as much as the Max Headroom TV show from the ‘80s.  But we also have these other ‘90s signposts…

Signpost #1: The Internet is totally lame—Taking its cues (somewhat inexplicably) from 1992’s The Lawnmower Man, with everyone “jacking in” to the Internet and finding it full of primary colors and geometric shapes, and not as we know it today: full of porn and pictures of cats.

"Goddamn it, why can't I find 4chan?"

“Goddamn it, why can’t I find 4chan?”

Signpost #2: The Internet does nothing new—So, yeah, it’s a brave new world, connected by this nebulous “cyberspace.” Except people still store things on VCRs, and data must be physically transported. In reality, 320 gigs doesn’t need to be sent anywhere, just stored someplace that can be accessed. This movie doesn’t seem to understand the actual ramifications of a wired world.

Signpost #3: The Japanese are still dominant—Yep, Japanese companies tower above the world like, well, Godzillas. And the yakuza are still the pre-eminent badasses (until they run afoul of Michael Douglas, that is). Of course, even by 1995 it was clear that the yakuza couldn’t slay a decade-long recession or necrotic political system.

Signpost #4: Faxes are fucking amazing—Yeah, the MacGuffin of this movie is a fax transmission Johnny must recover from the Internet. Let that marinade a bit, and it’ll soon become clear how stupid an idea that is.

Signpost #5: Keanu Reeves—He’s just…so…terrible.

Signpost #6:  No one has a mobile device—Not even a cel phone. Except Mulder and Scully. Riddle me that one, Batman.

To access the Internet you have to wear this and act like a scarecrow.

To access the Internet you have to wear this and act like a scarecrow.

Signpost #7: Rebellious anarchists hack the ‘net and broadcast secrets to the world—Er…okay, that was actually on-target.

Now, I realize you can’t in all fairness blame the movie for not predicting iPhones and Facebook, but surely someone should have been able to look at the concept of a globally-connected world and understand that stuff like faxes, phones, and TV’s would be radically-changed, if not eliminated.

Independent of the lousy futurism, though, this movie is horrible. It looks like one of those Canadian-produced TV shows that were big in the late ‘90s like Tek Wars and Cleopatra 2525—shoes that sought to create a Blade Runner aesthetic on a budget, so they just chucked a lot of garbage at the art-direction and used gauzy lighting in every scene.  Plus they cast Dolph Lundgren as a street preacher…because, yeah, the guy who makes Sylvester Stallone sound like John Gielgud is the first guy you want to hire to give long speeches.

The future is so dystopian Henry Rollins is a doctor.

The future is so dystopian Henry Rollins is a doctor.

Plus a dolphin saves the day. Yeah, I think they were just fucking with us at that point.

So, that’s Johnny Mnemonic. Man, in the ‘90s the future really sucked.

Next: We revisit the ’90s abject fear of women with The Crush…

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