Looking back at Johnny Mnemonic

One of the few big-screen adaptations of William Gibson's sci-fi, Johnny Mnemonic was largely ignored at the box-office. Kyle looks back...

By the time Johnny Mnemonic was released in 1995, screenwriter William Gibson had been writing innovative science fiction for almost 20 years. Since his first short story – the brilliant Fragments Of A Hologram Rose – was published back in 1977, Gibson had been making serious waves in the sci-fi community. He’s perhaps most well-known for his game-changing 1984 novel, Neuromancer, a dark neo-noir filled with console-cowboys, sentient AIs and virtual reality – all common elements now, but Gibson’s work still stands as a milestone in sci-fi literature. Gibson created the term ‘cyberspace’ and is seen as one of the forefathers of cyberpunk.

It’s weird, then, that his novels and stories never translated to the silver screen before the mid-90s. Gibson himself had taken a pass at Alien 3 (though most of his ideas were quickly disposed of, not unlike Hicks and Newt in the film’s opening scene), but his own works were just waiting to be tapped. It’s easy to see why they remained unfilmed, though – while Blade Runner’s drizzly, neon-soaked urban sets could easily be replicated, the cyberspace sections would obviously require extensive visual effects. And, given that Gibson’s descriptions are somewhat sparse, trying to visualise his virtual reality world would be a headache for any VFX team.

In the early 90s, Gibson and artist-turned-director Robert Longo began pitching a low-budget adaptation of Johnny Mnemonic, Gibson’s short story of a data-courier who carries sensitive information in his head for maximum security. It’s easy to see why they thought this would work as a film – the story features a mysterious Yakuza hitman with a laser-whip for a thumb, a bodyguard with retractable blades inserted under her fingernails, and a cybernetically-enhanced dolphin. Who wouldn’t watch that? However, they found studios were reluctant to risk just a few million dollars on such a concept – instead, Gibson and Longo had to settle on a $26m budget. Due to the rise of the internet and computer technology, Sony Pictures wanted to grab the biggest audience it could.

By all rights, given the rich material present in the short story, as well as Gibson’s other works based in the same world (the Sprawl, a post-WW3 North America over-saturated with technology), Johnny Mnemonic should have launched a whole series of films. While an adaptation of Neuromancer has been in development hell for years, it should have appeared years ago. This could have been followed by adaptations of the novel’s sequels, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, both of which feature plenty of exciting elements which would work beautifully on-screen.

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But none of this happened. Johnny Mnemonic came and went, recouping only $19m of its budget back.

So what went wrong?

Johnny Mnemonic is not a bad film. Not at all. The world of the Sprawl is recreated pretty faithfully, and most of the story’s key elements are present and correct: Keanu Reeves’ Johnny has been implanted with sensitive data, but, on his journey to get it removed, he becomes embroiled in a plot involving the aforementioned Yakuza and just one of the massive corporations now running the USA. Along the way, he encounters the laser-whip-wielding hitman, a tough female bodyguard (sadly not Molly with her retractable finger-blades, for rights reasons), and Dolph Lundgren as a bizarre street preacher-cum-assassin. The film throws in some nifty virtual-reality sequences, which are more elaborate than those described in any of Gibson’s stories, and manages to be an intriguing, often exciting thriller. The world is fleshed out with the addition of NAS (Nerve Attenuation Syndrome), a disease caused by too much exposure to technological devices’ radiation, an interesting side-effect of the Sprawl’s inhabitants’ dependence on technology missing from Gibson’s stories.

However, while the screenplay was written by Gibson, certain elements just don’t work as well on the screen as on the page. While Gibson’s world was fresh at the time Neuromancer was published, in 1995, a run-down America feels quite familiar, and the virtual reality sequences are nothing we haven’t seen before. The Lo-Teks feel less like the anti-technology clan of the short story, and more of a standard rebel squad. The acting isn’t as good as it could have been – Reeves is fine in some scenes, and less so in others, while Udo Kier is as hammy as ever in a supporting role. Dina Meyer is decent but lacks the iconic touch Molly Millions would have brought, and, bizarrely, Lundgren gives what could be his best ever in an amusing role (perhaps because he says so little). Ice-T seems like an odd inclusion, but he manages fine. Jones, the cybernetic dolphin, looks exactly as one would imagine from his description in the short story, so it’s nice that they kept him in here – his military-enforced addiction to heroin is missing, however. It’s not hard to imagine why.

Really, it’s pretty difficult to figure out exactly why this film doesn’t live up to the brilliance of Gibson’s material, and why it didn’t find a wider audience. It may be down to the studio’s interference – allegedly, the film was re-cut shortly before its release, to be more mainstream; Gibson himself attests that the rough cut was funnier and more alternative. It may also be that the general cinema-going audience may not have known what to make of it – it was science-fiction, yes, but without the usual tropes they might expect of the genre. Virtual reality had also been done before, and Johnny Mnemonic’s cyberspace sequences are similar to those seen in 1992’s The Lawnmower Man, and 1995’s Virtuosity also played around with the concept a few months later – really, audiences were promised nothing new. And, of course, nobody knew The Matrix was only four years away, which would redefine the way in which simulated realities had been presented in films forever. Keanu Reeves’s presence could also have kept Gibson’s more hardcore fans from the multiplex, too – he may not have been everyone’s ideal choice for a grizzled noir badass.

Gibson’s Legacy

While another adaptation of a Gibson short story – New Rose Hotel – was released to a frosty reception in 1998, no other attempts to bring his work to the big screen have been successful. Well, not officially, anyway. There are various other films which owe a great debt to his work, in one way or another. The Matrix is an obvious one, given how cyberspace in Gibson’s work is referred to as ‘the Matrix’, and the sunglasses-heavy cyberpunk stylings are an obvious nod. Alongside this, however, are two little-known gems which borrow heavily from Gibson’s stories to great effect.

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One is Strange Days, a 1995 film co-written by James Cameron and Jay Cocks, and directed by Kathryn Bigelow. This is a brilliant film, featuring great performances (specifically from Ralph Fiennes, cast well against type as a jittery, sleazy ex-cop dealing in recorded experiences) and some terrific scenes. Set in LA during the final two days of 1999 and based around the concept of people using SQUIDs (Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices) to record and replay their own experiences, Strange Days features an assortment of characters right out of a Gibson story: grungy near-future locations; tough-as-nails female bodyguards; and black-market dealers pedalling illegal technology (characters even refer to their SQUIDs as ‘decks’, a term Gibson’s characters use for their cyberspace consoles).

The second is Cypher, from 2002, starring Jeremy Northam and Lucy Liu. Whilst involving no virtual reality and apparently set only in the very near future, Cypher echoes Gibson’s work due to its noir stylings, a kick-ass female agent not a million miles from Neuromancer’s Molly Millions, and massive global corporations manipulating people’s memories and identities to service their own needs. To say more would give it away, but there are clear parallels between this and Gibson’s writings which any fan will find unmissable.

So, while Johnny Mnemonic failed to kick-start a series of films based around William Gibson’s works, at least it gets certain elements right, and offers a glimpse into what might have been. While we may never get a Neuromancer film, if Johnny Mnemonic encourages anyone to explore the source material, we can count that as a big fat victory. Perhaps, in this age of reboots and ‘re-imaginings’, someone will decide to remake Johnny Mnemonic and give Gibson’s stories the official interpretation they deserve.

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