The characters in Johnny Mnemonic make quite a few video phone calls throughout the film, enough to be grouped in their own section on interfaces.
The first thing a modern viewer will note is that only one of the phones resembles a current day handheld mobile. This looks very strange today and it’s hard to imagine why we would ever give up our beloved iPhones and Androids. I’ll just observe that accurately predicting the future is difficult (and not really the point) and move on.
More interesting is the variety of phones used. In films from the 1950s to the 1990s, everyone uses a desk phone with a handset. (For younger readers: that is the piece you picked up and held next to your ear and mouth. There’s probably one in your parents’ house.) The only changes were the gradual replacement of rotary dials by keypads, and some cordless handsets. In 21st century films everyone uses a small sleek handheld box. But in Johnny Mnemonic every phone call uses a different interface.
First is the phone call Johnny makes from the New Darwin hotel.
As previously discussed, Johnny is lying in bed using a remote control to select numbers on the onscreen keypad. He is facing a large wall mounted TV/display screen, with what looks like a camera at the top. The camera is realistic but unusual: as Chapter 10 of Make It So notes, films very rarely show the cameras used in visual communication.Continue reading →
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.Continue reading →
With the salacious introduction, “Itchy, I know what you’d like,” Saun Dann reveals himself as a peddler of not just booby trapped curling irons, but also softcore erotica! The Life Day gift he gives to the old Wookie is a sexy music video for his immersive media chair.
The chair sits in the family living room, and has a sort of helmet fixed in place such that Itchy can sit down and rest his head within it. On the outside of the helmet are lights that continuously blink out of sync with each other and seem unrelated to the actual function of the chair. Maybe a fairy-lights power indicator?
Saun first powers the device by inserting a “proton pack” into the back of the chair. This is kind of strange since none of the other devices seen in the home require batteries or charging. Are they lower power so batteries last longer? Is there an unseen electrical infrastructure but that monitors any plugged in object for illegal-device signatures? Whatever the reason, the battery pack plugs in and the chair comes to life.
When Itchy sits down, he rests his head in the helmet, and Saun puts a media cartridge into a tray sticking out of the armrest. There is a single red button on the forward edge. He then engages the cartridge by slapping it on edge so the tray slides into a recess. Then he lowers the forehead plate of the helmet over Itchy, who sits back to enjoy the show. Saun wishes him, “Happy Life Day!” and then with a nudge-nudge-wink-wink-you-know-seeeeexxxxx tone in his voice, leans in to reiterate, “And I do mean Happy Life Day!”
Itchy punches the top of the armrest with his hairy finger, and the media plays, full of theremin meanderings, stage lights and spandex dancers shot through a kaleidoscope-refraction lens, and a scantily-feathered singer (IMDB tells me the character name is Mermeia Holographic Wow, played by the diva Diahann Carroll) who purrs out a full 5 minutes of mind-numbing introduction before a 4-minute musical number. You can almost hear the director saying over a soggily-chewed stogie, “Sorry, Diahann, but we don’t have a lot to work with, here, you’re really going to have to stretch this out.”
I know you’re searching for me
I am here
My voice is for you alone
I am found in your eyes only
I exist for you
I am in your mind
As you create me
I can feel my creation
I’m getting your message
Are you getting mine?
Itchy growls and spasms in his chair enthusiastically.
Oh, oh! We are excited aren’t we?
Well just relax
[More Itchy grunting]
We can have a good time
I’ll tell you a secret
I find you adorable
Itchy loves this assertion so much that he punches a control on the armrest, and the playback jumps back to replay the line again. And again. And again. Four times in total.
(I find you adorable)
(I find you adorable)
(I find you adorable)
I don’t need to ask how you found me
You see, I am your fantasy
I am your experience
So experience me
I am your pleasure
So enjoy me
This is our moment together in time
That we might turn this moment an eternity
[Music mercifully begins]
I’m sorry to have to remind people about this point in your career, Diahann.
So…Exactly what is this machine?
So, if the words of the recording are to be believed, this machine automatically reads the mind (or stored preferences) of its user to create a custom, on-the-fly immersive video.
Here you should note that Itchy’s species of sexual preference is human, not Wookie, and then note with sadness that Chewie is not mixed-species. Itchy is living an unfulfilled life.
If it constructs its visions on-the-fly, then what is the cartridge for? It can’t be Itchy’s preferences. Why would Saun have them? My best guess is that the cartridge contains the template of the song, This Minute Now, and the device reads the wearer’s in-the-moment preferences to pick the avatar that sings it. That template isn’t neutral, though. It has to be a sexy template, because Saun does all the nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat routine. Aww, yeah, sexy template for Life Day.
Knowing that this might be a privately-observed sexytime moment, I’d recommend the designers add a curtain or perhaps situate the chair inside a private chamber to make the user less exposed. Otherwise it might be awkward—for a human user at least—for other members of the family to observe him becoming visibly and audibly aroused (the panting), much less do…uh…anything about it. Of course I don’t know Wookie social rules, so this might be well within their social norms. Kinda makes you wonder about how Chewie spends his idle time on the Falcon in front of Han. “Chewie. Do you mind? Take it into your berth!”
The instant replay feature is useful to the task. And it’s quite well executed, since it’s a quick-to-press button to replay the last moment, and that moment is of unspecified length. The media must have very sophisticated and detailed markup for a “repeat that bit” to work, and it does. Of course, it also can read Itchy’s mind, so maybe it just knows to play across the most-recent high-excitement part. It’s a self-administered dopamine hit.
A better tool might monitor the user’s brainwaves for a perfect combination of tension and release to ensure a perfectly satisfying experience. No button needed. That would also alleviate the problem that the user’s hand might be otherwise engaged during the exciting part to try and target a button. The (prolly NSFW text, even if it’s WebMD) sexual response cycle of humans is a known thing, so surely a Wookie’s is too. Let me disturb you by visualizing the combination of concepts so implied.
But we also have to ask after the placement and purpose of that sole red button. Saun slapped the cartridge edge-on to lodge the tray in place. But that’s where the button is. Did the lodging activate the play, or did pressing the button?
If the cartridge, what does the button do? (Not replay, Itchy clearly presses the top of the armrest for that.) And how does it avoid accidental activation while being slapped in?
If the button, why have the tray slide in and out? To keep it private? Sorry, you lost that battle with the living room masturbatorium. To protect the media? Then why have it in the armrest where it’s sure to be subject to the bangings of Wookie demands for again!?
With the commercial release of Oculus Rift just about to ship post-CES, let’s not turn to this device for any immersive-media lessons. There is better blind-use masturbation VR in Strange Days, more dystopic ones in THX-1138 (yes, I now realize, it’s a recurring Lucas theme), more private ones in Sleeper, and less creepy things almost anywhere you turn.
Let’s just let Itchy have his personalized-avatar, happy Life Day, there, in the middle of the astroturfed family room.