Retro Review: Johnny Mnemonic
Johnny Mnemonic is an all but forgotten 1995 science fiction film about human carriers of information. Many children of the nineties might remember the trailer in front of films on VHS (ask your parents what that is) but, like me, probably didn’t see it. If you did see, you might, like me, wish you hadn’t.
There’s always the danger that giving your story a specific date, in this case 2021, will put you at risk of looking horribly, horribly dated. Johnny Mnemonic falls into this hole, hard. Most of the tech probably looked dated in the early 2000s, and doubly so in 2012. MiniDiscs, faxing and CRT TVs. These are things that many viewers (and readers) won’t even recognize. In this dystopian cyberpunk future there are certain people that have devices implanted in their heads and as such act as smugglers of information for a fee, so far so interesting. Johnny Mnemonic follows the exploits of one such man, unfortunately for us, played with complete lack of gusto by Keanu Reeves.
Reeves is so wooden and stilted that he completely stuns my ability to make clever puns about how terrible he is. His acting would be sub-par in a feminine hygiene commercial or a late 80s FMV video game. Reeves has, before and after, proven himself to be at least somewhat capable of good acting, so perhaps this can be partly attributed to the direction. The film constantly thinks that Johnny is awesome, but that could hardly be further from the truth, flopping around like a kid in his dad’s suit. He’s one of sci-fi’s least heroic protagonists, and not in an interesting way. The crux of his supposed character arc, which he really doesn’t have, is that at its high point he decides to risk his life to recover vital information from his memory bank that would save millions. Problem is he would’ve died either way so his actions aren’t really inherently heroic, especially when earlier in the film he couldn’t give two shits about the information, simply wanting it out of him so he could go back to nice hotels, sandwiches and hookers.
Dina Meyer, who went on to star in the infinitely superior Starship Troopers, is some sort of slightly malfunctioning bodyguard who gets involved in Johnny’s business for no discernible reason (and later strikes up a totally unearned romantic relationship with him) and tries to rival Reeves in the harrowing acting department. Fortunately for her and the audience she falls short. Dolph Lundgren is a preposterous cybermonk, who’s practically a cyborg with all his cybernetic implants. Lundgren is clearly starring in a totally different radical, cyberpunk version of Life of Brian. Udo Kier is really the only one that has the right idea of how to actually act in this film as every auxiliary character; including Ice T, a slew of japanese businessmen, junkyard resistance fighters and random henchmen are, in broad strokes, uninteresting and, almost to the point of offense, appallingly acted. There’s also a cybernetic dolphin running the resistance’s mainframe. Yes, really. A dolphin.
Of course, being a 90s sci-fi film dealing with computers there are several scenes of dreadful early CGI depictions of cyberspace and what the internet “looks like”. This all culminates in a short, non-thrilling scene where Johnny hacks his own brain with the help of the dolphin (Yes). An unsatisfying climax to a very unsatisfying film.
William Gibson, who coined the term cyberspace and is somewhat of a father to cyberpunk, adapted this himself, from his own short story. His dialogue is flat and heavy on exposition. There’s groundwork for compelling interpersonal relationships and some meaningful social commentary on technological reliance, but both are undercut by the bad dialogue and worse filmmaking. Sure, some interfacing interactions with technology might be prophetic to some degree, but the user interfaces aren’t. Not even slightly. Throughout the film the protagonists actions are also highly illogical and often in direct contradiction to his stated wants and needs.
Interestingly, there are several elements that would later show up in The Matrix. Goes to show that it isn’t always about doing it first, but rather about doing it well. In fact, these science fiction themes and ideas are the film’s single redeeming quality.
Final Verdict: Perhaps only worth watching as a companion piece to 12 Monkeys, in an effort to discover just how high, and low, science fiction reached, and sunk to, in 1995. A disastrous film on almost all levels. And it really is that bad.