|A vacuum tube in the middle of his head would be more appropriate.|
It's 2021, and Johnny is transporting dangerous data to near-future
being pursued by bad men. If Johnny can't reach his destination in time, the information
will melt his brain--it's carried via hard drive inside Johnny's head. To make
room for this implant, he's sacrificed all memories of his childhood (and apparently all ability to use emotions other than Keanu's trademark nonplussed nonchalance). To understand why someone would put a lethal laptop in their skull, we have to talk about cyberpunk. New Jersey
Johnny Mnemonic is based off a story written by William Gibson and published in 1981. Gibson wrote many cyberpunk classics, a genre defined by noirish antiheroes and high-tech, low-life settings: Technology advanced but humans had not. Computers were powerful but only as portable as a bulky laptop. There were no wireless devices, and people could physically connect themselves to computer networks (a direct brain-to-wire transfer being faster than any other connection).
So when Johnny Mnemonic was translated into film fourteen years after its initial publication, the Internet and computer storage were hitting their stride, and real devices had outpaced fiction. Watching Johnny Mnemonic is opening up a time capsule from a parallel universe and discovering all sorts of technology that wasn't. Why bother with a brain implant when you can use a flash drive? We get viruses just by checking the Internet with a PC; can you imagine browsing with your brain and picking up spyware? There's a scene where Johnny, in 2021, borrows a phone card to make a call on a payphone. To record an important broadcast, Ice-T's character shouts for people to "Get your VCRs ready!"
That's the heart and soul of cyberpunk: A world with cranial computers still using VCRs. Technological innovation outstripping our ability to integrate it. Nothing illustrates this aspect of cyberpunk better than Johnny Mnemonic itself, a sci-fi film from the '80s arriving a decade too late and with two scenes featuring the early, clumsy CGI that characterized many action films of the mid-'90s. Johnny even uses a VR interface when he goes online.
|In the future, Virtual Boy still sucks.|
Keanu went on to star in The Matrix (1999), the popular cyberpunk movie of the '90s. The Matrix benefitted from four years of special effects advancements, an excellent marketing campaign and a visual style that was new to American audiences. The film still had all the cyberpunk trappings: Marginalized protagonist, corrupt authority, questions about the relationship of mankind and technology, human bodies riddled with implants. The scene where Johnny is receiving the data he must carry and the scene where Neo receives skill upgrades are similar--except that all Johnny's data gives him is a bad nosebleed, but Neo knows Kung-Fu.