EXPLODING BRAIN SYNDROME
Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
THE 1995 FILM JOHNNY MNEMONIC IS based on a short story by William Gibson, the author credited with first naming and visualizing cyberspace. It opens on the morning of January 17, 2021 on Johnny, a good-looking data smuggler played by Keanu Reeves. Johnny smuggles data inside a hard drive which is located in his brain but which is also, somehow, part of his brain. To access this hard drive, he plugs a stereo jack into his scalp, then uses a “memory doubler” to up his cranial storage from 80 gigabytes to 160 gigabytes. Because Johnny is young and dumb and desperate, he takes a job twice that size, then spends the rest of the film fighting the clock and yakuza dudes who want to lop his head off. “What did they upload... the goddamn library of Congress? It feels like my brain's gonna explode,” he groans, handsomely.1
In January 2021, 320 gigabytes of storage cost about $50, although I’m sure Staples sold no-name flash drives for significantly cheaper. Films that dramatically underestimate the future are rare. Most worlds of tomorrow overshoot the runway. But Johnny’s world is one in which “long distance phone call” is still a phrase. There are references to faxes and VCRs, and characters entrust mini-CDs with their data, when not using human heads (the original short story mentions microfiche). In the Making Of video, author William Gibson described the film as “hip,” a word that hadn’t been current for at least fifteen years at that point.
But the film is not hip. The only feature directed by the visual artist and music video director Robert Longo, Johnny’s badness seems artisanal, studied. Interiors and exteriors, filmed askew, show that the world has gone very wrong. Actors deliver expository dialogue with the timidity of high school thespians. There’s that weird mean cheapness of ‘80s cop dramas, and the bits inside cyberspace are pointy and repugnant. At the end, there is a battle between a man and a computer virus rendered in 1995 CGI (but not really: the gorgeous, all-CGI Toy Story came out just six months later).
Ice-T and Henry Rollins are in this. Rollins plays Spider, a gruff crank with a heart of gold; this was the film that let a generation know he was not going to be a movie star. Ice-T plays J-Bone, leader of a gang of squatter anarchists. His hideout looks like a nightclub in a music video. Both men had toured with the first Lollapalooza four years earlier, and the soundtrack, which includes a Rollins Band song, reflects the alternative rock moment (although the people of the film’s 2021 apparently listen to speed-metal hip-hop opera). Ice-T appears on the similar indiepalooza-style soundtrack for Tank Girl, which came out two months earlier, and in which he also plays T-Saint, leader of a gang of mutant kangaroos, for which he was paid one million dollars.
ALL THIS, AND YET Johnny Mnemonic does something unique in the history of cinema. It happens at the one hour mark. In the scene, the evil businessman Takahashi (played with utter indifference by the filmmaker and former standup comic Takeshi Kitano) deceives Keanu during a video phone call. As Takahashi talks, he mimes his hand like a sock puppet over some sort of futuristic hand scanner—‘gestural interface’ is the proper term—which animates the photorealistic avatar that Johnny thinks he’s talking with. The avatar is stiff and sounds off. After the call, Takahashi removes his hand from the hand scanner, and the avatar slumps backwards on his computer screen, like a physical hand puppet with the hand removed. It’s a weird little effect that makes no less sense than the rest of the film.
Johnny Mnemonic is the first movie to depict real-time deepfake deception, something that will be commonplace—in film and in life—before the end of this decade.2 In the world it depicts, television is apparently hacked frequently (probably influenced by the 1987 Max Headroom TV Piracy Incident), although nobody seems to care. Maybe everyone already knows not to trust onscreen faces. And yet Takahashi himself shares several crucial video calls, and it never seems to occur to him that someone else could be duping him.3
HOLLYWOOD PITCH MEETINGS CAN require maddening levels of dumbing down, so even clearly novel ideas must be presented in relation to preexisting concepts. Johnny Mnemonic was the pitch meeting reference for The Matrix, another high-concept science fiction film again starring a dapper Keanu Reeves. The success of The Matrix, the cultural weight of that film now, would have itself seemed like dystopian science fiction in 1995. In the aughties, this film inspired stuffy essays on semiotics. In the 2020s, ‘red pill’ is a verb to a huge swath of conservative Americans, reworking it into a grand consensual hallucination of conspiratorial mental illness designed to troll the rest of the human race.4
Oddly, you can see traces of our world in the world of Johnny Mnemonic. The opening exposition crawl uses the phrase ‘info wars.’ In the first shot of the world outside Johnny's hotel room, in the streets of Beijing, protestors wear N95 respirator masks, just as they did in the real world January 2021. The film revolves around a conspiracy at the highest levels to hide the cure for a new and terrible disease. Ice-T says of J-Bone, and himself; “We’re the only people out there really trying to tell the truth.” In this film big pharma is the enemy (unlike in The Matrix, where a single pill sets you free).
There is a certain school of AI soothsaying which tells us that the worst thing to happen to humanity will be films like Johnny Mnemonic; movies written by machines, baldly built from better films, real films, with huge, dumb sets populated by gorgeous young dummies. This viewpoint is already waning. Every day now comes some news story of fresh advancements with implications so far beyond the threat of inferior entertainment. This decade will clearly be far weirder, if not far worse, than the 2020s of Longo’s impressively sucky movie. To me, at least, there is something comforting in the idea of such a quaint dystopia as Johnny Mnemonic. Viewed from here, it's not such a bad world after all.
You don't get the feeling that Johnny’s Johnny is doing the best with a bad script; he appears to be acting to the best of his abilities (in the Making Of reel, he compares the role to Hamlet). There was a long period in Keanu’s life when he was considered a punchline of a bad actor. The Internet that Gibson predicted made Reeves beloved in a way that feels both heartwarming and random.
Science fiction seeps into real world design. The original clamshell cell phones were allegedly inspired by the communicators in Star Trek. And author Russell Gold notes that the spelling of ‘fracking’ (hydraulic fracturing) has changed over the decades. Where it once was ‘fracing’ with a soft ‘c,’ by the time of the current boom it’d mutated into the more common ‘fracking.” Gold credits the change to the 2004-9 reboot of Battlestar Galactica, which used ‘frack’ as a stand in for the F-word, something unintentionally funny enough to migrate over to mainstream comedies like The Office and The Big Bang Theory and from there general usage.
Although there was one slightly similar moment two years later, in David Fincher’s The Game. Real-life journalist Daniel Schorr begins speaking, through the TV set, to fictional billionaire Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas). As he talks, Schorr glitches slightly, Max Headroom style. The film never explains the scene, but it feels like an early example of the kind of non-science fiction technological advancement that later saturated Marvel movies, billionaires having apparently early access to advanced AI and AR and, in 1997, deepfake technology.
“Red pilling” is a term shared by white nationalists, men’s rights groups, and covid denialists alike, despite the original film’s multiculturalism (and gender dysphoria subtext). When Elon Musk, then the richest person in world history, tweeted his “red pill” status to Ivanka Trump, Matrix co-director Lilly Wachowski replied, “Fuck both of you.”