Saturday, January 2, 2021

2021 Watch: Johnny Mnemonic (1995)

Watched:  01/01/2021
Format:  Amazon Watch Party
Viewing:  Second
Decade:  1990's
Director:  Robert Longo

I saw this movie in 1995, and it was pretty terrible then.  It's really hard to put your finger on, but the closest comparison I can make is what happened/ happens with superhero movies when someone comes along and decides to use pieces of what's there, but doesn't really get it is about the thing that makes it work.  

Looking back at 1995, explaining what was going on in science-fiction, the rapid development of the internet, and how those two things intermingled - as well as who from the world of music, film and art and basically "got it" is mostly long since forgotten.  But, yeah, there was a time when we honestly thought people would basically use the internet like a great big VR simulation with avatars, "physical" items to look at using our headsets and manipulate haptic gloves.

And by "we" I mean * everyone* was excited about the internet and the cool toys until you actually tried to use the internet and it all fell apart upon first contact,  and you realized a mouse, keyboard and a decent monitor were terrific and cheap and got you where you needed to go.

Weirdly, the movie doesn't really get the notion of the internet or personal computers, which is a really, really weird conceit for a movie about a guy storing and transporting data and which opens on "The Internet 2021" and seems to not understand what it is nor make it relevant to the rest of the story.  By 1995, I believe ftp was pretty standard stuff.  And the movie doesn't explain why they aren't just shooting files around.  Except - I don't think anyone who worked on this movie owned a computer.  Instead they seem invested in the idea that corded videophones are very, very cool.  

But, if you agree to the idea that a guy has to have a USB drive inserted in his head and that he can store more than the maximum allotment in his brain  with some nasty side effects, okay.  It is what it is.  

A bit nerve-jangly, the movie takes place in a 2021 which is beset by a pandemic which we're told is caused by *waves hands around at technology*.  It's a real Future Shock sorta problem, and I've definitely had my own moments of thinking "maybe sitting in the middle of a planet's worth of cell phone signals passing through my body isn't going to have great longterm effects".   We learn it's impacting our "oh, she's attractive and is a female with speaking lines in a 90's movie, so she will be our heroic love interest" supporting character (Dina Meyer).  

Along the way we get a techno-obsessed-body-building pastor/ assassin in Dolph Lundgren, Henry Rollins choosing "angry shouting" for every line delivery as a doctor, Ice-T as a sort of rebel leader named "J-Bone", and a porpoise with a purpose.  Oh, and a literal ghost in the machine, which they take the time to describe as "a ghost in the machine."

The ending seems to be tying of over a half-dozen storylines, only one of which ever got fleshed out, so it's hard to say what it happening, why people are turning turncoat, and what the deal is with a profit-seeking company withholding a vaccine that will literally help everybody.  Like - that's not how money works.  

Over the course of 24 hours, it is perpetually nighttime. everything takes place in Newark (shrugs) and there's some hilarious CGI and Ice-T repeatedly stating "he has to hack his own brain and loop it through the dolphin" - although they never explain why.  Or what that means.  Or what is happening.  And while the movie suggests that the implant Keanu Reeves has needs to be removed from his skull for him to regain his memories - that does not happen and he gets them back.

It's @#$%ing dumb.  But so was EVERY movie made about technology in the mid-90's as computing, the internet, etc... were all getting sorted out and it was hard to separate what the progonosticators were saying* and what was happening on the ground, especially for people who were still using type writers. 

So, yeah, you can kind of see some of what Gibson had in his novels (I believe I read two of them, but I'd have to check) going on, as well as discussions of technologies - Hollywood was wildly pumped about VR and made it a thing in mutiple TV shows and movies between 1994 and 1999.  "Cool" dudes such as Ice-T gave the film some cachet at the time (it was @#$%ing wild to see this guy people kind of knew had been a semi-gangster as well as a best-selling artist suddenly on screens AFTER he'd had the "Cop Killer" controversy.)  And, of course, concerns already being discussed about the growing separation of socio economic classes in an increasingly corporatized world.  But this film sort of has all those elements (and a porpoise) and just kind of dumps them all out without making any particular point or - in fact - telling a cohesive story.  

But everyone in the movie has VERY large coats.  Because it's the future.

*so, yeah, there was a very (at the time) famous instructor at my college who was very much into the idea that we'd all be living as avatars in a VR simulation.  I remember people trying to design websites to look like shopping malls and villages to make them easier to understand.  And then we invented drop down menus and search bars and all of that went away.  Except for Second Life, which is goofy as fuck.

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