Friday, March 30, 2012

I want to get online, I need a computer: Johnny Mnemonic

Plastered across the box for Johnny Mnemonic (1995) is the vacant face of Keanu Reeves. There's a clear plastic window in his forehead, so when the tape is in place, it looks as if his brain is part reel-to-reel recorder. If the tape is removed, Keanu is empty between the ears. A cleverly disguised dig at the actor? We may never know.

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 New Jersey while 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.

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.
I remember Johnny Mnemonic being reviled at the time of its release. It was even a punch line on 3rd Rock from the Sun ("We still have nine copies of Johnny Mnemonic"). But I liked it then, and I still do. It's got Dolph Lundgren as an amoral and augmented street preacher, Ice-T as an anti-technology rebel, a cybernetic dolphin (I still can't tell if it's animatronic or a real dolphin with appliances added), Udo Kier as a sleazeball (of course) and Dina Meyer in her breakout role.

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.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Teratology of

Lady Terminator

"The REAL Iron Lady"
Have you ever dunked French fries in milkshake? It does not make sense: You’re taking a salty, hot, crunchy thing and placing it in a sweet, cold, smooth thing—mixing matter and anti-matter. There should be an explosion—signs should be placed outside restaurants forbidding it. This combination should only happen in laboratories located deep under the Rocky Mountains. It’s insane! Dangerous! But it works (try it yourself if you don’t believe). Lady Terminator (1989) is a fry-in-milkshake movie—it should not work, but it does. Trying to figure out why it works has left me hungry, not for milkshakes, but answers. I want to look deep into Lady Terminator’s eyes and see what it is, where it came from and how the damn thing ticks.
                Lady Terminator is an Indonesian rip off of The Terminator (1984). Our Lady is Tanis Wilson, an anthropologist who trades in her books for bike leathers and automatic weapons after possession by an evil Sea Queen. She then rampages through Indonesia to ventilate Erica, a pop-star descendent of one of the Queen’s old flames. The only thing standing in the way is Max McNeil, a cop with a troubled past and an inexplicably white complexion. What follows is a chase that ranges over highway, police-station and Indonesian jungle, to end in an airfield with flammable aircraft. In the final showdown, Max is joined by  three American buddies: Joe, Tub and Snake. Despite being played by Indonesians, you can tell they’re American because of their mullets, Southern accents and tendency to say “Let’s kick this bitch’s ass!”
                Lady Terminator is like a mechanical bull: It may not have been built for style, but it's well-made and a hell of a lot of fun. The music sounds like it came from a Nintendo cartridge, and whenever the dialogue has to do any heavy lifting (such as move the story along instead of just spitting out bizarre American catch-phrases), the movie begins to sag. Thankfully, these moments are few and followed up with an unsafe car chase or someone being shot repeatedly in the crotch. The director, Jalil Johnson, does an excellent job directing explosions and collisions, so he can be forgiven for clunky romantic scenes. You have to admire his creativity: In the beginning of the film, he needed a tidal wave crushing a small boat. So he cut back and forth from a cowering ship captain to stock footage of waves. It’s just absurd enough to be hilarious. At its core, it’s a well made quirky B-movie with a foreign flair.

"Tanis, I am your FATHA!" 
When I see an oddity like Lady Terminator, I want to find out about its parents—what cinematic ancestor spat out its narrative DNA. The proud papa in this case is a little movie Arnold Schwarzenegger managed to squeeze in between doing Conan the Destroyer (1984) and Red Sonja (1985) (apparently there are over-muscled Austrians in our past, present and future). For being a ripoff, Lady Terminator is a good ripoff. Whole sequences are lifted, sometimes shot for shot. In the original, the Terminator walks to a young Bill Paxton and demands the punk’s clothes. When Bill refuses, the Terminator pulls out the boy’s heart. Lady Terminator has the same scene—moon backlights naked figure, punks out having a good time, massacre ensues—except she sexes the punks to death, pulling off another organ in the process. It’s never explained how this works, but whenever Lady Terminator sleeps with a man, he makes odd faces, blood spurts out of his groin, and he dies. Whether it's vagina dentata or a strange East Asian STD is up to the audience.
                The Terminator’s attack on the night club is also redone, bullet for bullet. So is the shoot-out at the police station, except Lady Terminator’s is in a multi-level mansion with army-men and people in lab-coats. There’s an auto-surgery scene, which is odd, considering Lady Terminator is magic and doesn’t need to rip off defective flesh that’s getting in the way of circuitry. Lady Terminator even has Terminator vision; she literally sees red. Lady Terminator looks so much like its papa that you wonder if it’s not more of an imperfect clone than a son, a Bizarro to Superman, a Tab to any soft drink, a cheese-food to real cheese. But what about Terminator’s papa? Where is the T-1 of this story? What model set this horrible rampage into motion? Let’s wind the clocks back 50 years.

"Yeah, that looks futuristic enough.  We'll go with that."

The original Terminator story came from a 1964 Outer Limits episode entitled "Soldier." This element of inspiration is not well publicized and required a legal dispute to resolve, but at the end of The Terminator, a title card flashes up acknowledging the works of Harlan Ellison, the writer of "Soldier." On watching The Terminator and "Soldier" back to back, it’s easy to see the correlations: Both stories include two futuristic soldiers traveling back in time, one defending members of the present time-stream, while the other tries to destroy them. They both start the same way: The future-man teleports into a back alley and is chased by police. Both Kyle and Qualo (the time traveler of "Soldier") are placed in a mental institution upon capture. Both movies have a gun fetish; while the Terminator murders a gun owner for his merchandise, Qualo breaks into a gun shop because “every soldier needs a gun.” Qualo and the Terminator even look the same—big intimidating guys with protruding brows. However, enough cultural telephone has taken place that Lady Terminator looks nothing like its granddad. Only the skeleton is the same—warriors out of time fight in a modern setting. This concept shows up in a host of other films: Time After Time (1979), Warlock (1989), Demolition Man (1993), Outlander (2008) all have two combatants chasing each other over the years.
                These stories all work for two simple reasons: They have an immediate conflict and a fish-out-of-water-learns-to-walk sentiment. Dudes from another time are trying to kill each other for some reason. That moves a story along. One dude learns about a new culture. His lessons provide a buffer between the time-traveler’s shooting, clubbing, stabbing sessions. Oddly enough, Lady Terminator doesn’t have this because the only time traveler is the evil queen, and the closest she gets to understanding a modern human is by seeing what their insides look like. This omission is why Lady Terminator is schlock—it only has the first element. But that element is decently done, and it has enough hilariously garbled American-film tropes that you can’t help but love the damn thing. All the weird Americanisms, all the clothes and the hairstyles—it’s like watching yourself with someone else’s eyes. You find out what people really think about you. And if you combine that with explosions, naked breasts and Uzis, you have yourself one hell of a movie.