A brief history lesson, if you’ll indulge me.
Far from arriving fully-formed in 1984’s ‘Neuromancer’, the sci-fi subgenre now dubbed ‘Cyberpunk’ was not was a melting pot of ideas first developed by writers such as Philip K. Dick, JG Ballard and Harlan Ellison. Projecting their paranoia of capitalist enterprises gaining more and more control over our lives and sedating any resistance through ubiquitous cheap sex and chemically distraction. The aesthetic elements-dense cityscapes covered in neon, integrated Western & Eastern cultures-were drawn from Japanese Cyberpunk, influenced by the country’s urban architecture and culture. All of which proved appealing to a young jobbing writer named William Gibson.
Gibson had been immersed in the counterculture scene since his late teens. He took mind-altering substances, sold drug paraphernalia and became close friends with punk musician John Shirley. Shirley encouraged his then-nascent writing and the result was 1986’s ‘Burning Chrome’ demonstrating the purest distillation of what would henceforth be known as ‘Cyberpunk’. Hackers navigating the digital space with their minds, a ruling elite defined by obscene wealth lording over a tech-savvy underclass, noirish cityscapes blending East and West. One of these tales was ‘Johnny Mnemonic’, an action-heavy yarn about a data courier wanted by the Yakuza for holding their stolen data in his head.
In 1995 Robert Longo released the big-screen adaptation of Johnny Mnemonic, starring then rising star Keanu Reeves. Previously cyberpunk had emerged into the mainstream with films such as Tron and Robocop but adapting one of Gibson’s work gave Mnemonic a strong sense of pedigree. This was to be a fully developed cyberpunk world or hacking, of corporate overlords and a populace of renegade weirdos.
Admittedly such an environment was not the ideal place for Keanu Reeves to take on leading man duties. Reeves had proved himself a capable action hero with Point Break and Speed and his presence would have undeniably drawn in a broader audience. However as strange and fun as the actor can be he always carries a sense of adorable, good-naturedness. Johnny Mnemonic demands the high-energy weirdness and moral ambiguity of a Colin Farrell or Michael Peña.
The writers put a little work into injecting the character with some…well, character but the best they can come up with is a yearning desire for room service. Relatable, perhaps but hardly what you’d call playing the sympathy card. It doesn’t help that they’ve written Johnny into a corner with the amnesia trope. That could have worked for a more focused character piece about Johnny assembling his identity from scratch amongst all the gunfights and hacking (think Jason Bourne or the video game ‘Disco Elysium’). However the story has much bigger ambitions, which is where we get to another of the pitfalls.
Johnny Mnemonic is too damn optimistic, there’s too much hope and kindness and other such awful things. Cyberpunk worlds are supposed to be nihilistic corporate dystopias where the best anyone can hope for is enough cash and anonymity to survive the next year. Johnny however just can’t help trying to save the world. Turning the Macguffin in its protagonist’s head into the cure for the worldwide hacking-induced disease NAS (Nerve Attenuation Syndrome).
It’s understandable, the desire of to go big or go home and to its credit the prevalence of NAS is nicely integrated into Johnny Mnemonic. Both in the background andpersonified in the character of Jane (Dina Meyer), an augmented bodyguard suffering from the disease. However in the end Johnny Mnemonic had neither the budget nor the setting to achieve this kind of ambitious scale. Add to that the uproar at the creative compromises, with Sony editing out much of Gibson’s quirky genre touches (the removal of the codebreaker dolphin’s Jones’s heroin addiction being a particular point of contention). The film was received largely with derision as a neutered, miscast mess.
It is surprising then, that no one has attempted another meaningful crack at Johnny Mnemonic, or any of Gibson’s works, in the years since its release. With increased budgets and visual effects making Cyberpunk’s aesthetic far easier to realise. Gibson’s bibliography, particularly Neuromancer, has been optioned several times, only to be stranded in development hell. Meanwhile Johnny Mnemonic remains the oddity that it is. It likely laid the groundwork for much of Reeves’ later film The Matrix, whose stunning visual effects and philosophical implications have made it a cyberpunk exemplar. It is possible, in the current landscape, that Johnny Mnemonic could return in some form more true to the source material, however it’s more likely that we will simply see more works inspired by the early cyberpunk works. As innovators that led the way but were not ready to break the mainstream.