Johnny Mnemonic: in retrospect

19 February 2015

1995 saw the release of many great films: Se7en, The Usual Suspects, Before Sunrise, La Haine, Batman Forever and Die Hard: With a Vengeance, just to name a few. But most of you have probably already seen these cinematic classics; so, even though they all are great films (well, aside from Batman Forever) and should be on your to-watch list if you have not already seen them, I’ll instead be writing about a lesser-known 1995 flick: Johnny Mnemonic.

Johnny Mnemonic is the directorial debut of Robert Longo, and is based on a short story by William Gibson. It’s set in 2021, a not-too-distant future where information is incredibly valuable and can therefore only be transported by mnemonic couriers who have special implants in their brains, implants onto which this information is uploaded. Johnny Mnemonic (Keanu Reeves) is ready to have his implant removed, meaning that he can get his own memories back. However, he is given one last operation – a mission that could possibly cost him his life.

Johnny Mnemonic is considered by many to be one of the first films to ignite the cyberpunk film movement of the mid to late-90s; thus, it had a large impact on cinema and television, especially that of the sci-fi genre. Its influence can be seen in films like The Matrix and TV shows such as Cowboy Bebop. Keanu Reeves went on to star in The Matrix only a few years later, a film in which he played a very similarly reluctant hero, Neo, with the ability to be plugged into computers through the back of his head. Through its story’s use of the fictional Nerve Attenuation Syndrome (also known as ‘the black shakes’) caused from overexposure to technology, Johnny Mnemonic also played upon ideas of technophobia that continue to figure in contemporary cinema.

In spite of its legacy, Johnny Mnemonic swiftly fell into obscurity, and to the majority of film-watchers has become either forgotten, scorned, or both. The film currently sits on 14% on Rotten Tomatoes, was considered a financial failure in the US, and Keanu Reeves was nominated a Razzie Award for his performance as Johnny Mnemonic. So why the hell am I writing about it, and, to an extent, trying to convince you to watch it? Because I believe that it is an underrated film with plenty of enjoyably bad bits. Herein lie recounts of some of these bad bits, which will hopefully convince you to give Johnny Mnemonic a go.

1. Karl, the Street Preacher.
Swedish action star and chemical engineer Dolph Lundgren plays a crazy, bearded assassin priest who has been paid to hunt down Johnny Mnemonic – or rather, the information in his head. Karl has some of the best lines of the film, including “It’s Jesus time”, and his overacting while dressed in his religious robes makes for a weird sight.

2. Keanu Reeves.

With the blank-but-serious facial expression he is so famous for figuring prominently in
Johnny Mnemonic, Reeves is pretty much his stock-standard self throughout most of the film. Like Lundgren, he has some great lines, most of which occur during his rant towards the end of the second act, the rant where he stands on a small mound and yells “I want my room service!”.

3. Fingernail Laser.
Imagine a lightsabre-whip hybrid coming out of a yakuza leader’s thumb. This fingernail laser is just one of the many ‘futuristic’ gadgets of this fictional world, and trust me when I say that it is probably the weirdest weapons I have seen onscreen. And I’ve seen a penis-and-testicles revolver.

4. The Internet of the future.
In this film, Johnny Mnemonic enters the World Wide Web of bad CGI by donning an Oculus Rift and a pair of Power Gloves. It does look high-tech, but it’s nevertheless hilarious watching Reeves navigate the Internet using hand gestures.

5. Jones the psychic dolphin.
In order to remove the data from his head, Johnny requires the help of the Navy’s former code cracking dolphin. But, in case you haven’t already guessed, it’s no ordinary dolphin. Jones is a drug-addicted, cyborg dolphin with the ability to shoot paralysing beams of sounds.

I have to admit, this film is no masterpiece; in fact, it’s a bit of a mess, the acting is pretty awful, and the special effects can often be distracting. But these shortcomings should not stop you from watching it. Johnny Mnemonic occupies that niche category of film, the sort of film that should be enjoyed with a bunch of friends, and maybe with a couple of drinks (I would highly recommend a drinking game). But, predominantly, Johnny Mnemonic should be watched because it is an underrated film that deserves much more appreciation, especially for its role in galvanising the cyberpunk movement of the 1990s.

Johnny Mnemonic is currently available to be borrowed at the Rowden White Library.

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