Heartthrob Cop. Cyberpunk Courier. Kung-fu Criminal. Hacker Christ. Keanu Reeves’ charm and consistency have kept him in the echelon of America’s movie-star sweethearts, particularly in an age where everything else has gone to complete shit. This September, Midwest Film Journal is shining a spotlight on some of his best roles. Replacement Quarterback. Garage Rockstar. Devil’s Advocate. Haunted Assassin. It’s a Keanu World Order. We’re just living in it.
Johnny Mnemonic is so hilariously outdated. If cyberpunk is that intersection of low life and high tech, then we’ve certainly had more up-to-date films to enjoy that qualify as cyberpunk. The Matrix immediately springs to mind as the standard-bearer (with a familiar face to boot). But cyberpunk at the dawn of the Information Age is like watching spaceships in The Twilight Zone: There sure are a lot of blinky lights we don’t understand, but they look important. Our world a quarter of a century later wasn’t ever going to be built on the computer screams of the dial-up modem, but damn did our movies believe it.
That’s what draws me in like a gravedigger to Zydrate. Give me tape-based futurism. Down with the cloud! I don’t care about steampunk or atompunk. Give me modempunk covered in grime.
When technology is new and fresh and exciting, there’s no one to tell speculative fictioneers they’re wrong (or soon will be). Sure, in retrospect, Hackers looks ridiculous. Anyone knows that now. You can’t just tappy-tappy on your keyboard, bark orders into a headset, magically get into the mainframe and have your way with it. But nobody knew that then.
And in that lack of common knowledge, speculative fiction thrives. Our dumb, underinformed brains fill in the gaps and are eager to buy whatever’s being sold.
Technology, first revealed and first used, is always equal parts scary and fascinating. I saw this years ago while studying under Jon Eller in the editing program at Indiana University — Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), home of The Center for Ray Bradbury Studies. The center has been the driving force behind publishing Bradbury’s short stories in chronological order with the author’s first settled intention. It’s an interesting editing philosophy, and I won’t geek out about the details here, but Bradbury was a habitual reviser. He didn’t merely tweak stories. He would rewrite them almost entirely.
One such story was published in December 1943 under the title “King of the Grey Spaces.” Bradbury reworked the story, changed the title to “R is for Rocket” and published it again for the short story collection under the same name in October 1962.
When studying his edits to the story, which were significant, I was asked to construct an interpretation. To me, in the 1943 version there was a subtle ambivalence and tension that simmered beneath the surface. I compared it to Lois Lowry’s The Giver or Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” The concept of space travel seemed tempered with dread. In 1962, however, boyish, lyrical excitement replaces this dread, and it is almost boundless in that quintessential Bradbury way.
So what happened in the intervening years? Well, actual science. Common knowledge budded and grew and spread. Sputnik was launched in 1957. Yuri Gagarin went to space and orbited Earth in 1961. In the next month, JFK promised Americans that he’d love them to the moon and back.
In short, space was less scary. We had been there, and the spooky stories we found in our radio programs and pulp magazines could now be seen as laughably improbable.
But you don’t need an interplanetary moment to see how information changes us. With the advent of cell phones, we also got movies like Pulse (2006) and One Missed Call (2008). Cell phones were certain to be the thing that would doom us. Until they weren’t.
Huh. It’s almost like exposing yourself to new ideas and learning what makes them tick also makes them less terrifying. But the boogeyman is always the Unknown. And it’s always been that way. When we get familiar with it, it’s like turning on a light in a dark room. The shadows disappear, and the boogeymen are just dirty clothes.
In Johnny Mnemonic’s case, the unknown frontier is storage served on a motherboard platter in a tech-obsessed restaurant. He’s the man with the 80GB brain! Doubled to 160! But needing to store 320! Oh, the humanity! Never mind that the average adult human brain has the ability to store the equivalent of 2.5 million gigabytes of digital memory. Or that we could foresee fiberoptics by 1995 and fully negate the need for wet-wired human carriers. Or that no one’s going to grow epidemically ill because of using technology.
To those who didn’t have a grasp of what tech would all be, though, Johnny Mnemonic probably seemed plausible enough to enjoy, just like scary space stories or ghosts in our phones. As Giorgio Moroder would say, “Once you free your mind about a concept of harmony and of … being correct, you can do whatever you want.”
Johnny Mnemonic, in that grand tradition, does whatever it wants. And Keanu Reeves, perhaps the most unlikely action star Hollywood has seen, is the vessel it’s delivered through, doing whatever he’d want as Johnny as he’s done throughout his career.
Ebert called the movie a “great, goofy gesture,” and it so wonderfully is. Getting the science and technology wrong is one thing, but this movie just decides to eschew anything that made sense, starting first with a dramatis personae described by some as “woefully miscast.” Ice-T plays a rebel named J-Bone who seems to channel Gandhi. Henry Rollins is a doctor-hacker-black marketeer. Dolph Lundgren is there as cybernetic Jesus or something. Keanu’s Johnny sums up everyone’s thoughts when he declares he doesn’t know what’s going on and just wants room service. Did I mention the Yakuza? Yeah, there’s Yakuza. Oh, and a military-grade clairvoyant dolphin at the end.
Thank goodness Dina Meyer was able to squeeze out a role in Starship Troopers from this.
The movie sputtered at the box office, and Reeves got a Razzie nomination for his trouble (in addition to a nod for his performance in A Walk in the Clouds). But I think that’s because everyone still didn’t know what to make of Reeves. At this point in his career, he’d had roles in Speed, the Bill & Ted films and the adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Casting him must have been like sending Jell-O through email.
But Reeves didn’t give up on acting or on sci-fi, starring in Chain Reaction (for another Razzie nom) the next year and a series of underwhelming movies that could have easily derailed a career. But to this day, Reeves conducts himself as if he’s a boulder in a stream. The world crashes around him like water, and he remains steadfast and always his own essence. It’s never seemed like Reeves gives a singular damn and does what he wants. We ended up getting The Matrix out of that, and Reeves is nothing if not utterly beloved.
Johnny is visually striking in some ways, nauseating in others. Nothing about the plot seems awfully risky because it’s hard to follow. There’s a couple of cool fight scenes and some weird laser-decapitation whip / garrote thing that would make the Umbrella Corporation aroused. But Johnny Mnemonic remains one of my favorite movies because, like Reeves, nobody who touched it gave a shit.
Free your mind. Do whatever you want.
While Johnny doesn’t get much of anything right and reminds us of how silly early cyberpunk appears now, the focus on decaying social order extends the rich tradition of dystopian fiction. The first dystopian novel — the Russian We, which inspired Aldous Huxley and George Orwell — was published in the 1920s, and we’ve been trying to caution each other about moving too fast into the future ever since. Johnny’s source material by William Gibson is still widely popular (although the dolphin is addicted to heroin in that version), and Gibson’s opinion was that the 1995 film was more a victim of editing than execution. The pieces were there, if only the target were hit.
It sounds like someone came in at the end to meet expectations. How foolish. As Moroder observed, preconceptions can limit creativity. By not knowing limits, sci-fi has done plenty right or inspired others to do the same. The inception of the rocket and the cell phone are both credited with sci-fi sources (War of the Worlds and Star Trek, respectively).
It’s just a shame Johnny Mnemonic didn’t even get a chance to get close.
Anyway, I was going to write a very clever opening to this Reeves article, but then I forgot. Perhaps if I had an Amazon’s Choice cybernetic brain implant energized by lithium under control of a megacorporation that exploits the laborers who mine it, I would have remembered. But that’s nothing like our world today.
After all, Johnny Mnemonic takes place in our very near future of 2021, and its opening crawl ridiculously begins:
“In the second decade of the 21st century, corporations rule. The world is threatened by a new plague: NAS Nerve Attenuation Syndrome. Fatal, epidemic, its cause and cure unknown. The corporations are opposed by the LoTeks. A resistance movement risen from the streets: Hackers, data-pirates, guerilla-fighters in the info-wars. The corporations defend themselves.”
Ain’t like nothing we’ve got today. It’s so hilariously outdated.