Before The Matrix blew everyone away with a single karate kick, sci-fi authors like William Gibson imagined similarly dark futures where technology and authoritarianism reign supreme.
It’s important to note that Gibson was not the inventor of the cyberpunk subgenre — Gibson himself claims influence from the likes of Samuel R. Delany — but he is indisputably a giant in its realm. In 1984, Gibson published his first novel, Neuromancer, in which a washed-up hacker is hired on one last job that unwittingly places him at odds with a powerful form of A.I.
But Gibson had a working shared universe before Neuromancer. Published in the pages of Omni magazine in 1981 was the short story “Johnny Mnemonic,” which introduced the Neuromancer character of Molly Millions. In “Mnemonic,” data traffickers undergo cybernetic surgeries to have data storages implanted in their heads, essentially turning their brains into flash drives.
This was a high concept in 1981, but by the ‘90s, computers had found their place into the everyday home. With the dawn of the internet, even mainstream moviegoers could grasp things like hard drive space and young people finding like-minded people to define themselves against a conservative ruling class. In 1999, The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves, would use the many subgenres of sci-fi (including cyberpunk) to create a mosaic that pushed cinema forward for the next twenty years.
This is not an article about that movie. Instead, it’s about the 1995 film Johnny Mnemonic, the other Keanu Reeves sci-fi from the ‘90s that also explored a metaversal internet, cybernetic body modifications, and rebellion in the face of capitalistic oppression. (Spoilers: It’s not as good as The Matrix, but with the right mindset, you might find it just as appealing.)
Directed by Robert Longo (in his only theatrical film to date), Johnny Mnemonic stars Reeves as “Johnny” (not to be confused with Reeve’s video game character Johnny Silverhand), a courier who transports precious data across borders. The year is 2021, and technological mega corporations rule while a deadly virus known as “nerve attenuation syndrome,” or NAS, continues to spread. (Did I mention this was science fiction?)
At the start of the film, Johnny takes a dangerous job carrying more data than he can physically hold from Beijing to Newark. What Johnny doesn’t know is what’s contained in the data, but it puts him in the crosshairs of a powerful Yakuza gang hired by a corporation to retrieve the files. With the help of a novice “bodyguard,” Jane (Dina Meyer) — a character who takes the place of Molly Millions in the film due to weird copyright issues with Neuromancer at the time — Johnny races against time to unload the data before it overloads his own brain.
Comparisons to The Matrix are obvious only at first. Like Neo, Johnny appears aloof in a world of technology that is Gigeresque, with lots of tubes connecting other tubes and all flavors of headsets that look like rejected Sharper Image products. Also like The Matrix, Reeves’ character is aided by a group of underground rebels in rags who operate patched-together machinery built from scraps.
But comparisons end about there. While The Matrix dared to push the medium of film forward with innovative designs inspired by Hong Kong masters, Mnemonic is far more conventional as a Hollywood movie eager to coast on its then-cutting edge CGI, which has aged worse than a PlayStation 1 game.
But Johnny Mnemonic still offers fun, even for an audience actually living in 2021. It’s amusing to see what the movie gets “right” about its future (aka, our present). The image of Reeves walking through masked protests in mainland Beijing is strongly evocative of the pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong in recent years, while its depiction of “video calls” isn’t too far off in this world of smartphones. It is also deeply funny to see said video calls be choppy and laggy because of the film’s sponsored service provider — AT&T.
Adding to Mnemonic’s appeal is its supporting cast of masculine male character actors. Dolph Lundgren, Ice-T, Henry Rollins, and Japanese icon Takeshi Kitano all star alongside Reeves, effectively making Johnny Mnemonic perhaps the most “Dudes rock” sci-fi film ever made.
Of special note is Kitano, the film’s primary villain who runs the megacorp that literally wants Reeves’ head. While the Japanese cut of Mnemonic features more of Kitano’s character to make him a sympathetic character, the American version is ruthlessly efficient, gutting just enough to get the point across without allowing it to simmer.
It’s unfortunate because Takeshi Kitano has never achieved any real success outside his native Japan despite his long career. (His last American picture was the maligned 2017 adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, which made pitiful use of his talents.) At least Mnemonic glimpses what Kitano and Reeves could be capable of together if they were both given a more worthy platform.
Johnny Mnemonic is an overlooked gem in Reeves’ filmography that does deserve to sit in the shadow of The Matrix. It lacks the careful, cerebral elegance of The Matrix and unwisely doubles down on its video game-esque worldbuilding. (One of the film’s more laughable lines is when the year “2006” is uttered as “Twenty Oh-Six.”)
Not even the actual involvement with William Gibson salvages Mnemonic. The author, who wrote the screenplay for his own adaptation, even admits he had to compromise in order to get the movie made.
In a 2010 interview with Wired, Gibson and Robert Longo said they both wanted an “arty” one and a half million dollar movie. Ironically, no studio would finance an art film at 1.5 million dollars. But for $30 million? That’s a blockbuster the Hollywood suits could wrap their heads around.
“We went in and asked for a million and a half, and they laughed,” Gibson said. “It wasn't until we started asking for much more that they started taking it seriously.”
In an earlier interview from 1998, Gibson recalled what happened to Johnny Mnemonic and its muted response at the box office. (It grossed $52 million worldwide against a budget of $26 million. Not bad, but not great.) “Basically what happened was it was taken away and re-cut by the American distributor in the last month of its pre-release life,” he said, “and it went from being a very funny, very alternative piece of work to being something that had been very unsuccessfully chopped and cut into something more mainstream.”
Chillingly, it was the marketing of Johnny Mnemonic — and how the studio thought of it not as a film, but as a product — that gives it any real legacy. Despite championing freedom from corporations, Mnemonic was a big deal for Sony’s vertical integration as nearly every arm in the Sony empire was weaponized, from Columbia Records to ImageWorks, which made a CD-ROM game after the movie. (Though not for Sony’s own PlayStation, weirdly.)
In a 1995 L.A. Times story, a Sony executive said: "We see the Internet as turbo-charged word-of-mouth. Instead of one person telling another person something good is happening, it's one person telling millions!"
In 1995, Johnny Mnemonic foresaw our present in ways no one, not even itself, could imagine.
Johnny Mnemonic is now streaming on Netflix.