Johnny Mnemonic and the perfect cyberpunk movie it wasn't
Before The Matrix, there was this, starring Beat Takeshi and Keanu Reeves. Cyberpunk's truest vision lurks not in gnostic fantasy but in the cheap mediocrity of corporate power.
Someone made an excellent cyberpunk movie once. It crowned a form of science fiction that emerged in the 1980s, defining our now-familiar discomforts with corporatization, internationalization, and the dehumanizing effects of being able to talk to anyone, anywhere, at any time. This forgotten film expertly exploited American anxieties about Japanese hegemony to shine a light on its own cultural imperialism, presenting a world in which Hollywood itself clumsily aped the cinematic styling of dominant foreigners. In this excellent and sadly hypothetical cyberpunk movie, Johnny Mnemonic is playing on the monitors in the background, a knowing semiotic joke.
Johnny Mnemonic is the story of hapless Americans (embodied by hapless American character actors) who flee the grasp of international Pharmakom, represented by bankable Japanese actor/director Beat Takeshi, and their Yakuza hirelings. Along the way, they get in poorly-staged firefights and exchange confusing expository dialog that never properly explains anything. At the end of the story, they run out of antagonists, so Pharmakom bursts into flame.
It’s exactly the sort of movie a dystopic corporate hegemony would produce.
At every level, it bears the stamp of a Japanese world, long-feared but clearly not going to happen by its 1995 release date. The film projects stereotypically American depictions of Asian actors, and places, onto a western cast and locales. The only character with any emotional weight is corporate boss Takahashi, played by Takeshi. Everyone else is a walking echo of a better b-movie.
Each character is drawn thinly, as though meant to be stereotypical. Keanu Reeves’ character even has no backstory beyond his name, Johnny, and his apparently American nationality. Joking about Americanisms (“Double-cheese, anchovies?”) and his desire to live in a frictionless corporate bubble are all he has to his personality. Character actor Dina Meyer plays a wannabe bodyguard with “augments”, presented as a barely-concealed metaphor for drug abuse. Henry Rollins plays a doctor-cum-babbling street person everyone seems to be taking seriously, for some reason. Ice-T is a future gangster. Dolph Lundgren is a murderous cyborg preacher, adding “JESUS!” to all of his one-liners.
The dialogue is awkward. Scenes are obviously rerecorded over the original soundtrack. It feels like a translation dub, even though it is clearly not. Characters grudgingly spout one-liners. Nobody is smug. Nobody is relaxed. Nobody is having fun. The movie is endured by its cast.
While Johnny Mnemonic was produced in the United States and filmed in Canada, it premiered in Japan. The Beijing of the movie is sleek and rich, but with a core of unrest. All we see of the United States, outside of corporate offices, is ruins and slums.
Consider how, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the idea of asian cultural and industrial dominance seeped out of science fiction to flavor thrillers, procedurals, and business dramas. It is a measure of Johnny Mnemonic's badness that, having stumbled its way to a place of insight into corporate hegemony, as illustrated by an ahistorical caricature of Japanese power, it then fails to comment on it at all.
Real brands that existed at the time, like AT&T, are freely intermixed with fictional brands like Infobahn and Sino-Logic. With greater self-awareness, this could have worked well. For example: the psychedelic view of cyberspace isn’t computer hacking, it’s product placement for CyberSpace Attack, available this Christmas as a launch title for the Sino-Logic 16 (with a prominent “As seen in Johnny Mnemonic” on the box). The gloves sold separately, of course. You didn’t think they were actually going to teach people to hack computers, did you?
Instead, the result is bland, evoking product placements for things that don’t exist more than world-building detail.
Taken as a metafictional product of a fictional cyberpunk dystopia, much of Johnny Mnemonic makes sense. By 1995, many of the predictions of cyberpunk were coming true. The internet was — and is — a place where people live and work and socialize. Liberalism slowly elevated corporate interests above national ones. We never did get the cybernetic arms or brain jacks, and nobody really wanted the virtual reality, but that’s like mistaking Heinlein’s classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress for being about rocket ships or nuclear fusion. Science fiction is the fiction of ideas, and cyberpunk is fundamentally about how people come to terms with technological progress that has outpaced the ability of people to understand and morally adapt to it, in societies that feel as if they are “designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button.”
In the same short story collection as “Johnny Mnemonic”, the novella this film is based on, is another, less famous story by William Gibson: “Gernsback Continuum”. This story, named for science fiction author Hugo Gernsback, is Gibson showing the full extent of Philip K. Dick’s influence on his writing. The story is about a photographer whose pictures (of what appear to be the cynical present of the 1980s) trigger visions of the Gernsback continuum, an idealized, brushed-aluminum-and-glass ideal of what golden age science fiction writers imagined the world would be like. The protagonist struggles with visions of spacesuits and zeppelins and flying wings, and it’s never clear if he’s seeing into and photographing an alternate timeline, or if he’s merely hallucinating. He can’t escape it until he throws himself entirely into the ugliest and seediest parts of reality, and even then, the doubt lingers.
Johnny Mnemonic almost works in this way, as metafiction produced by an implied Gibson continuum, the 1995 of the world that would go on to produce cyborgs and cyberspace. It almost forces the viewer to observe the technological and corporatist progress of their own lives. The blatant branding for fictional brands, the odd casting, the reversal of cultural sway. All of these could combine together to criticize the corporate machine that produced this movie, to criticize the hegemony of Hollywood.
In practice, though, Johnny Mnemonic only has an odd feeling of kitsch, as though it were the earnestly bad product of an only slightly different present. While much about cyberpunk holds true today, especially the core idea of culture shock caused by technological progress making life unrecognizable, Johnny Mnemonic falls into the gap where dystopic ideal met with dystopic reality. In a 2007 interview, Gibson described his writing as no longer being about the future, but rather “speculative fiction of the very recent past.” While Gibson caught up, and, in his own words used “a toolkit that was in large part provided by science fiction” to “a handle on the world today,” Johnny Mnemonic fell just short. But somewhere inside that deeply mediocre movie is a vision of that Gibson continuum, just out of reach.
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