And now after the trailer: Johnny Mnemonic

The “Internet 2021” shot introduces the cyberspace interface and environment that forms the backdrop for the film. (There’s also a lengthy and unhelpful text crawl, but we’ll pass over that.) Now let’s introduce the film using plain words instead.


When discussing the interfaces in a film it helps to know a little about the context in which it was made. I’ll talk more about this at the end, but for now you need to know that Johnny Mnemonic was released in 1995 and is both a cyberpunk and virtual reality film.

Cyberpunk was a subgenre of science fiction which began in the 1980s. Cyberpunk authors were the first to write extensively about personal computing technology, world wide computer networks, and virtual reality. By the end of the 1990s cyberpunk ideas had been absorbed into mainstream science fiction.

At the time of writing, 2016, virtual reality is a hot topic with megabytes devoted online to the prospects and implications of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and others. This “VR Boom” is actually the second of these, not something new. The first virtual reality boom took place in the mid 1990s, and Johnny Mnemonic was released in the middle of it. By the end of the 1990s virtual reality, like cyberpunk, had largely faded away.

Everything about the cast and crew

Everything about the tropes

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The plot.

Johnny Mnemonic takes place in 2021. It’s a cyberpunk world, with corporations that are more powerful than governments and employ Yakuza gangsters to do their dirty work. There’s also a serious new disease, Nerve Attenuation Syndrome, with no known cure. The Johnny of the title is a mnemonic courier, someone who physically transports important data from place to place by embedding it in their brain. He needs to do one last job before retiring.

In a Beijing hotel he uploads 320G of “data” from a small group of renegade scientists employed by the Pharmakom medical corporation, to be delivered to Newark, New Jersey. The 320G is significant because it has overloaded Johnny’s capacity, and he will die if the data is not downloaded soon. In what will be a recurring plot element, heavily armed thugs who want to prevent the data being released kill the scientists and attempt to kill Johnny. During the fight, three images, the “Access Code” needed to download the data, are partly lost.

Johnny arrives in Newark, where the same people try to kill him again. He is rescued by the other lead character, Jane, a bodyguard who comes to his aid on the promise of lots of money. On the run from an ever-increasing number of people trying to find and kill them, Johnny and Jane fall in with the LoTeks, resistance fighters who hack into corporate networks and release information that corporations want to keep secret. (The LoTeks themselves are not against technology, but their chosen lifestyle restricts them to using what they can scavenge rather than being lavishly equipped with the latest and greatest.)

Johnny learns in quick succession that Jane has early onset NAS symptoms and that the “data” locked up in his head is a cure for NAS. As a cyberpunk corporation, Pharmakom is naturally keeping it secret just to make more money. Without the full access code, the only hope to extract the data is Jones, a cybernetically enhanced dolphin working with the LoTeks. After a last climactic battle, Johnny with the help of Jones is able to “hack his own brain” and recover the data, the cure is released to the world, and Johnny and Jane can live somewhat more happily (this is cyberpunk) ever after.

Johnny Mnemonic (in this review always referring to the film, not the short story, unless stated otherwise)  is packed with interfaces, of which the most interesting and memorable is an extended cyberspace scene around the middle. Like the gestural interface of Minority Report, it is a wonderfully, almost obsessively, detailed imagining of the near future. The value of these predictions, as with most science fiction, is not whether they were correct or not. Predictions are much more interesting for what they tell us about the hopes, expectations, and dreams at the time they were made. Johnny Mnemonic, made in 1995 and set in 2021, shows us how the Internet and World Wide Web were expected to develop over the next twenty five years. As I write this, there’s five years to go.

Let’s jack in and see how it holds up!

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