A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 312 – Johnny Mnemonic

Johnny Mnemonic – January 6th, 2011

When we finished watching this Andy and I had a little discussion about the timeline of the internet and modems and methods for getting online. I vividly remember my first email account, which was a bare bones account I used pine with. My second email account was on AOL, which is also where my internet addiction formed. I had a hard time making friends in school who shared my interests, but AOL had a great group of MST3K fans and they met in a chat room every night and I usually joined them for at least an hour. Oh, the money I must have cost my parents with that habit. But my point is that by my early high school years getting online wasn’t super difficult. By my sophomore year I know I was browsing the web. Which is what makes movies like this and Hackers so amusing to compare.

Both this and Hackers came out in 1995. By the time Hackers was out in theaters the characters’ amazement at 28.8 baud modems seemed quaint, and they were only supposed to be present-day. This movie is set in 2021, about 25 years after it was made (allowing for production time and whatnot). The story it’s based on was first published in 1981, expanding that to a 40 year gap. So I’m not going to snark too much about the dated technology. Sure, it’s amusing to hear someone reference people using VCRs, and the televisions are all CRTs and yes, the VR gloves and mask are highly amusing. But well, Nintendo’s Virtual Boy came out in 1995 too. So really, the reason the tech seems so very silly in here is that I think it’s a slightly updated view of what might be possible in the future, but not straying terribly far from what was possible at the time. Hackers stuck to what was possible at the time, but they were set present day. I want more from the future than some VR gloves and bundles of coax.

Unavoidable issues of dated science fiction aside, there’s a lot more wrong here. I am not unfamiliar with the cyberpunk genre, I promise, but while I’ve read other works by William Gibson as well as a number of other authors, this particular story slipped right by me. So I can’t say for certain just how it was shifted for the screen but I can say this: William Gibson wrote the screenplay. And I hate to say this, but he should have stuck to prose. Ye gods, what a clunky movie. Now, I’ve read a quote from Gibson where he states that the movie was heavily recut before release and that it ruined a lot of what they’d made, but I’m sorry. Recutting does not explain Johnny’s ridiculous speech about wanting his shirts pressed. Recutting does not excuse the exposition spouted by a bit character at the beginning so we in the audience can learn how a courier like Johnny works and the risks inherent in the job. I mean, does a courier who carries data in an implant in his brain really need to be told “If you carry too much there’ll be seepage and it could kill you.” because I’m pretty sure he’d know that.

Then again, while I do think that a lot of the dialogue is awkward at best, the plot issues I’m willing to blame on the editing. Johnny gets a huge download of very sensitive data and suddenly finds himself on the run from the Yakuza. But then there’s actually two factions from the company that hired the Yakuza? I think? It’s possible the Japanese version explains the antagonists better but the US version, which is ten minutes shorter, doesn’t. And then there’s the mysterious ghost in the machine, and a street preacher who’s got tons of cybernetic implants and also acts as a hit man? Cause the Yakuza, working for an evil pharmaceutical corporation, wasn’t enough. But like I said, who knows if the preacher (played by Dolph Lundgren to make him even more bizarre) was better explained and incorporated prior to editing. Who knows if the evil corporation and the people involved got more background. I would hope so. I would hope that the plot with the plague that’s sweeping through the population would be given more time since it’s a crucial part of the movie. But in the movie we get, none of that happens. So it’s just a muddled mess.

Now, all that being said, I did have some things I liked about the movie. Sadly, this is not a high point for Keanu Reeves, who I think tried to emote too much here. It comes off so very artificial and forced and it’s painful to watch. But balancing him out are Ice-T and Henry Rollins, playing secondary characters who help Johnny out when he ends up running, forced into the slums and underground world of people fighting against the all powerful corporations that run everything higher up. Ice-T is the leader of the LoTeks, a band of rebels who strip information out from the big guns and fire it back out to the public. Rollins plays Spider, a doctor who helps care for people struck by the plague and who also does cybernetic implants as a side gig. They are the best things about this movie. Spider has some of the best lines in the movie and Rollins plays him well. Ice-T as J-Bone gets to be a bad ass, which he is quite excellent at. Sadly, J-Bone doesn’t get to do as much as I’d like, but he gets a couple of moments. I was disappointed in the character of Jane, a stand-in for the original Molly from the story thanks to some rights issues. I don’t blame Dina Meyer. It’s just that the character only gets a couple of very short bursts of awesome and then she’s sick and desperate and they even shoehorned in a romantic moment between her and Johnny. But I was talking about what I liked. Sorry.

The problem is that while this movie has a crapload of potential and what should have been a fun cast, it ended up being a morass of dystopian cliches and junkyards and dated tech and GUIs. And that I could have handled, had the plot been tighter. Had the writing been sharper. Had everything come together gracefully. But it didn’t. None of that happened. And that’s sad to me. It’s disappointing, and so I’m glad I didn’t go see this when it came out. I liked Gibson and I liked the possibilities the internet had at the time and if I’d seen this then I would have been crushed. Now I knew better before we put the disc in. And so I could content myself with Rollins and Ice-T and that will have to be enough.

January 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Johnny Mnemonic

January 6, 2011

Johnny Mnemonic

Long before I read any of William Gibson’s books I played in his worlds. In college I had a cyberpunk role playing game based entirely on Gibson’s work. It was awesome and cool, full of strange technology and a bleak vision of the future. I loved just creating characters to play there, pushing the limits of how much tech you could pack into a single body without having the character descend into madness. In the late eighties, before mozilla when the internet was all gopher and unix command line I used to play in a cyberpunk game on a dial-up BBS that was all about staking a claim on the ‘net – hacking into corporation databases and trying to use black ice viruses to fry the brains of people trying to get your data. It wasn’t until years later that I finally got around to reading Mona Lisa Overdrive. By then my ideas of what the ‘net should be like were already being shaped, and it was mostly based on the imaginings of William Gibson.

So I have respect for his world building. But none of that prevents this movie from being unbelievably bad. I had heard some about how bad this movie was, but, really, it’s the kind of thing you have to experience for yourself. I remember one night flipping channels looking for something to occupy my time and coming across a cheesy looking low budget made-for-TV movie. I love bad cinema so I paused to see what it was and was kind of surprised to see Keanu Reeves show up on the screen. I did a bit of a double take. Because what I thought was something made for local cable access TV was actually a theatrically released movie.

So much of this movie looks so cheap. It’s not just that it’s dated. (Amanda and I both got a chuckle when Johnny logs on to the ‘net and there’s a modem dial-up noise.) It’s not that the world Gibson envisioned has failed to happen quite that way. (Virtual intelligences are part of his world by 2006. People used goggles and VR gloves to manipulate what appears to be one of the most confusing GUIs ever devised. Something like a mad combination of Second Life and Windows 3.0.) It’s that the production values are just low. The punkish future depicted is like the lower budget version of the world of Max Headroom. There’s a scene in a bar early on in the film that reminded me of the cheesy cinematics in the old PC game Privateer 2 (starring John Hurt I seem to recall.) I don’t know – maybe they blew their whole budget on the “cutting edge” computer graphics. If so I hope they kept the receipt.

For the first twenty minutes of the film I had a theory, which was this: director Robert Longo was concerned that Keanu’s awkward and wooden acting would ruin the film, so he instructed the other actors on the set to try and be more unwatchable than Keanu in an attempt to make him look good. Some of the performances here are just… awful. Particularly during the plot-exposition-heavy scene where Johnny first gets the head full of juju which haunts him for the rest of the movie.

Luckily there are a few bright spots here. I really enjoyed seeing Dina Meyer. I was worried for a while because her first scene in the bar is dreadful and she acts so poorly that I had trouble believing it was the same actress who played one of the only good parts in Starship Troopers. Soon, however she lets her hair down (literally) and actually manages to bring some life to the movie. Henry Rollins is also fantastic as the black-market meat mechanic Spider and manages to steal every scene he’s in. And Ice-T hams it up as the rebel LoTek leader J-Bone – though I kept wondering what happened to his kangaroo ears. (I am amused to note that his role as T-Saint was in the same year – was he being typecast?)

I’m actually pleased we own this. Because I do so love a bad movie. As we watched it Amanda kept asking “why do we own this?” I don’t have a good answer. I just like to torture myself I guess. And I like to be able to say “guess what awful movie I have?”

January 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment