The Internet 2021 shot that begins the film ends in a hotel suite, where it wakes up lead character Johnny. This is where we see the first real interface in the film. It’s also where this discussion gets more complicated.
A note on my review strategy
As a 3D graphics enthusiast, I’d be happy just to analyze the cyberspace scenes, but when you write for Sci Fi Interfaces, there is a strict rule that every interface in a film must be subjected to inspection. And there are a lot of interfaces in Johnny Mnemonic. (Curse your exhaustive standards, Chris!)
A purely chronological approach which would spend too much time looking at trees and not enough at the forest. So I’ll be jumping back and forth a bit, starting with the gadgets and interfaces that appear only once, then moving on to the recurring elements, variations on a style or idea that are repeated during the film.
The wakeup call arrives in the hotel room as a voice announcement—a sensible if obvious choice for someone who is asleep—and also as text on a wall screen, giving the date, time, and temperature. The voice is artificial sounding but pleasant rather than grating, letting you know that it’s a computer and not some hotel employee who let himself in. The wall display functions as both a passive television and an interactive computer monitor. Johnny picks up a small remote control to silence the wake up call.
This remote is a small black box like most current-day equivalents, but with a glowing red light at one end. At the time of writing blue lights and indicators are popular for consumer electronics, apparently following the preference set by science fiction films and noted in Make It So. Johnny Mnemonic is an outlier in using red lights, as we’ll see more of these as the film progresses. Here the glow might be some kind of infrared or laser beam that sends a signal, or it might simply indicate the right way to orient the control in the hand for the controls to make sense.
First thing every morning: Messages
After silencing the alarm, Johnny, like so many of us today, checks his email. (In 1995 doing so before even getting out of bed might have been intended to show his detachment from humanity. Today, it seems perfectly natural!) He uses the remote to switch the display to the hotel “Message Centre”. We see his thumb move around, so the remote must have multiple buttons, but can’t tell whether this is a simple arrow keypad or something more complicated.
The message centre of the New Darwin Inn system both displays the text message visually and also speaks it aloud in the same synthesized voice that woke him up. Voiceovers are common in films so the audience doesn’t have to try to read the cinema screen, but in this case it would be genuinely useful. Guests could start doing something else without needing to pay full attention to the display.
Is it necessary for Johnny to explicitly switch to the Message Center? The system could have displayed this message automatically after the wakeup call, or shown the 2021 equivalent of his InBox. On the other hand, this is a giant, clearly visible screen and Johnny was not alone in the suite. Johnny, and other guests, might wish to keep their communications private.
As Johnny has no messages, he uses the remote to switch the display to a TV channel.
The hotel room “phone” call
Next he uses the remote to make a phone call. He starts by using the remote to dial the number, which appears on the display. We can’t see whether he is typing numbers directly, or using arrow keys and an Enter or OK button to navigate around the onscreen keypad. It’s certainly convenient for guests to be able to make a call without getting out of bed, but a voice recognition interface might be even easier. We’ll see a phone system that accepts voice commands later on, so perhaps using the remote is just a preference.
What is the strange blue window to the right of the keypad? It’s there because all phone calls in 2021 are in fact video calls. The equivalent to a busy waiting tone in this world is a video splash screen. These can be customized by the recipient, here showing the company name, Dataflow.
And finally both parties can see and hear each other. Note also the graphical reverse, stop, and play buttons at the bottom right of the keypad. These imply some sort of recording capability, but we never see them used.
I’ll discuss the 2021 phone system in more detail later on, so for now we just need to know that this phone call is the setup that sends Johnny to Beijing for his next, and hopefully last, job.