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Before The Matrix, There was Johnny Mnemonic: on Digital

  When history catches up with science fiction, the films are often derided for not having the foresight to predict exactly how the future would pan out, but even back in 1995 when Johnny Mnemonic was released, it was the victim of some very sneery reviews and reception from critics and public alike. The notion that 320GB of data would be so massive that you would need to store it in Keanu Reeves' brain seemed risible, and the fact that a stick drive could easily handle that amount in 2021, when it was set, did the movie no favours when it came time to reassess it for its twenty-fifth anniversary, but that was part of the reason it was entertaining, to see what it got wrong.

One movie franchise really spelled doom for Johnny Mnemonic, and that was The Matrix, which also starred Reeves as an extra-special person thanks to technology. But Johnny's ability was prescient towards the blockbuster in a manner that nobody could have guessed, for a start the trick of not giving jargon to the nerds to speak, but giving it to the coolest folk in the room was a major step up for the science fiction genre. Previously, if James Bond had been discussing his PC with Q it would have seemed like a betrayal of the hero's demeanour, but Reeves, whatever his drawbacks, came across as comfortable with that kind of dialogue and thus a new type of leading man had arrived.

Reeves got a lot of stick for his acting, not unjustifiably, but as a presence he was charismatic and good looking enough to be someone audiences would return to again and again. Immediately previous to this he had starred in Speed, one of the defining action blockbusters of the decade and still fondly recalled to this day, but Johnny Mnemonic was a different kettle of fish since it appeared to be appealing to a very specific demographic in '95. That was the members of the global population who were early adopters of the internet, at the time seemingly a niche interest full of users playing in Multi-User Dungeons and swapping hardware tips rather than anything valid.

Oh how the popular landscape changed, and director Robert Longo was well aware of what would happen, as was the writer William Gibson, the inventor of the concept of cyberspace. Therefore, naturally they would both disown this work thanks to studio interference from the suits who were convinced it would never translate to popular interest: you might as well make a thriller about trainspotting for all the use it was to the wider society. As they tampered with the end result, the issues with how high-falutin' this was were never resolved and by the point of its release, almost everyone was writing it off as impenetrable on one hand and ridiculous on the other. It was at least one of those.

What else can you say about a film featuring Dolph Lundgren dressed as Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments essaying a Jesus freak hitman who claims to be saving those he very pointedly crucifies with the sharp objects he has to hand? Yet it is this nutty quality that keeps the film compelling, whatever else it may be it's not boring, and the outdated elements centring around how 2021 just did not play out the way they expected adds a whole new layer of curiosity. Things it did get right: a scene with facemasks outside, a transgender character, facial tattoos, and so on, may seem like coincidences or lucky guesses, but the main thing it succeeded in was to portray the internet as part of the warp and weft of the twenty-first century.

And the internet was a big part of the science fiction of the day, from The Lawnmower Man to Ghost in the Shell: even Angela Lansbury had to solve a virtual reality murder on Murder, She Wrote. Weirdly, one integral aspect of the net decades later was almost completely ignored: the mobile phone, which connects the globe in a way that Johnny Mnemonic did not foresee, indeed it's a marker of films from the nineties to the early millennium that they do not feature their future with phone technology. Apart from one major phenomenon, that was, which was The Matrix from 1999, in which mobiles were crucial to the plot, and one reason that series has not dated as much as it would had it ignored those objects of desire rather than embracing them.

In fact, maybe The Matrix Reloaded, the first sequel, would be a better analogy than the first instalment, for both it and the 95 movie feature Reeves as a messiah, only Johnny is more a saviour of the sick thanks to corporate meddling in their lives, and Neo is supposed to be rescuing whatever is left of humanity. Yet both do so by entering cyberspace: each movie makes a big deal of presenting expensive computer graphics to indicate Reeves has passed into the realm of the digital and the analogue will become obsolete. Though where The Matrix sequel scores over the previous film is in the extravagant action sequences: Johnny should really have learned kung fu for his adventure to combat all those antagonists who want to do him harm; even Dina Meyer as his bodyguard simply throws punches.

The Matrix Reloaded, which incredibly was made a mere eight years after Johnny Mnemonic in 2003, its own sequel The Matrix Revolutions arriving hot on its heels a few months later, showed the benefits of the addition of a good old fashioned car chase in your science fiction effort, its example a tribute to William Friedkin's classic sequence in 1985's To Live and Die in L.A. and looking forward to Christopher Nolan's similarly highway-based instance in Tenet in 2020. But you could not really say one part of the Reeves and Gibson team-up had gone on to be influential, it was more that it caught a zeitgeist a little too early, Longo's direction a shade flat for the possibilities cyberpunk could bring about that the Wachowskis well and truly capitalised upon. Longo had such a bad time, he never made another movie, while the directors of The Matrix went on to create expensive, eccentric failures at the box office. Despite catching the wave, Johnny Mnemonic crashed prematurely, but if you want to see a future that both was and wasn't, it's recommended, if only for the weird cast.

[Johnny Mnemonic has been restored in HD for its twenty-fifth anniversary, making it far easier to reassess if you check it out on digital platforms from May 10th 2021: Amazon, iTunes, Google, Microsoft, Sky, Virgin and Sony.

Click here to watch a clip.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018