Johnny Mnemonic is the first of only two adaptations of the work of self-proclaimed cyberpunk writer William Gibson. His most famous novel, Neuromancer, has been in development hell ever since it was published, but elements of it have been used in numerous sci-fi films—most notably The Matrix. Gibson wrote the script for Johnny Mnemonic, but constant studio interference meant that it had to be approved by others, and eventually it was watered down.
Robert Longo, who directed the film, was involved with the no-wave art/music scene in New York from the late ’70s to the early ’80s. He is best known for his brilliant series of paintings entitled “Men in the Cities,” which invoke that time but are equally cinematic, drawing on La Jetée and Fassbinder’s The American Soldier. The paintings are used prominently in American Psycho to decorate Patrick Bateman’s apartment.
Gibson teamed up with Longo to adapt his short story Johnny Mnemonic, the first story Gibson had been able to sell to a publisher. They envisioned it as a small, black and white, art house sci-fi film—they were heavily influenced by Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville during the concept stage of the film. Ironically, while they couldn’t raise a couple million to make the film they originally wanted, eventually TriStar picked the film up and gave them a 30 million dollar budget. The internet and cyberpunk culture was starting to go overground at the time, so Tristar thought they could do something with this really uncommercial project.
Keanu Reeves stars as the title character, who is smuggler of data in his head. He must bring it from Beijing to Newark, but the data is can destroy Johnny. The corporation Pharmakom Industries, who are supported by the Yakuza, want the data for themselves, and will do anything to get it back. The data has the cure for Nerve Attenuation Syndrome (NAS), which half the population is suffering from, and the anarchist group the Lo-Teks tries to break the missing code so they can upload it on the net.
The casting of the film was a prime example of studio interference. Longo agreed on Reeves, but only after Val Kilmer dropped out after he was offered Batman. Keanu Reeves’s performance is very much doing a dry-run for The Matrix. He is effective as the lead, and didn’t deserve his Razzie nomination at all. The biggest battle was Dolph Lundgren as a Jesus-like street preacher, whose casting Longo protested but had no control over. Longo admits in retrospect that he works somewhat in the film. The studio wanted actors who were big in different territories so they could sell the film. The rest of the cast is interesting array of different actors, such as Takashi Kitano, Udo Kier, Ice-T and even Henry Rollins: it was a mixture of Longo’s choices and people who were forced on him, but he ended up getting on very well with all of them.
The film’s aesthetic choices are very much a product of Longo devouring all the sci-fi films he could. It clearly lifts from Blade Runner, Brazil, Alphaville, The Terminator and so on. Longo, in the disc’s brutally honest commentary track, admits it’s all way too cluttered and visually too bright, and states that he should’ve gone for a darker look. He speaks of maybe doing a recut, putting the film in black and white and dumping it online. However, it has moments of visual brilliance, and even the very ’90s computer graphics have a certain charm to them.
Johnny Mnemonic could have been the great sci-fi film of the ’90s, but due to studio interference from the get-go and Longo being a first-time director, he had little to no power. Longo says about 70 percent of the film is still what he wanted, and he remains proud of it. He also hasn’t completely given up on being a filmmaker, as in the commentary he says he might do another film at some point. From a viewer’s perspective, it’s a total mess with some poor pacing, too many characters, and visually too bright for the story, but it has rightfully gained its cult following.
The German company Turbine Media has really pulled out all the stops on this release. It has the film in four versions: two HD cuts with either German or English prologues, an SD open matte version of the theatrical cut, and the much sought after Japanese cut, which is slightly closer to Longo’s vision, in SD. Longo supplies a commentary track via Skype, which is slightly dry but insightful and honest, and the German film historian Rolf Giesen voices another. EPK-type interviews and short featurettes are included, along with a music video and trailer, and it’s all housed in a ggorgeous digiback packing with an essay on the film in German.
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