The Cinematic Sprawl

2009 April 16
by Zachary McCune


Like Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers,” the film adaptation of William Gibson’s short story “Johnny Mnemonic” enlarges the supplied narrative by inserting new plot elements, and stretching out things that took only a hundred words to describe into sequences ten minutes and longer. It also affords the cyberpunk scholar a unique opportunity, as this film represents first direct translation of American cyberpunk from text to film. As such, one can really engage it thoroughly as an opportunity for a comparative media study, interrogating textual choices made visual.

Seeing Gibsonian cyberpunk is a rather underwhelming experience in Johnny Mnemonic the. This may be because it opens in a mundane hotel room, with Keanu Reeves posturing as both cool and indistinctive (a recurring acting strategy for Mr. Reeves). Perhaps this scene is meant to be extremely mundane, as it instantly humanizes the intense contextualized scrawl with preceded the scene and introduced the film’s plot. In a nod to Star Wars and other cyberpunk films such as a “Lawnmower Man,” this scrawl re-interprets the individual episode of Johnny and Molly and the Yakuza from Gibson’s short story collection, into a major global plot. It situates the individual struggle of Johnny in a cosmic experience.

Second decade of the 21st Century.

Corporations Rule.

The world is threatened by  a new plague: NAS

Nerve Attentuation Syndrome,

Fatal, Epidemic,

Its cause and cure are unknown.

The corporations are opposed by the Lo Teks.

A resistance movement risen from the Streets:

Hackers, data-pirates, guerilla fighters

In the Info Wars.

The corporations defend themselves.

They hire the Yakuza,

The most powerful of all crime syndicates.

They sheath their data in black ice, lethal viruses

Waiting to burn the brains of intruders.

But the Lo Teks wait in their strongholds,

In the old city cores,

Like rats in the walls

of the world.

Short, copy and almost poetic, this text reeks of technospeak not only in its use of Gibsonian compound nones (like data-pirate and info wars) but also in its brevity. It is language filtered through the early net, when memory was thin and messages needed to be as succint and essential as possible.

The Lo Teks, more than any other group, have fundamentally reimagined by this movie from their role in the short story. They have been changed from individuals uninterested in society to societal heroes, a reistance of conscience that opposes the unfeeling corporations and seems preoccupied with redeeming humanity as such. In this capacity, they are funny, playful, omnipresent, vulnerable, and resourceful. They make use of what they can get, which is routinely less than adequate so it requires a particular human ingenuity that has been lost by corporate humanity. The Lo Teks are freedom fighters, or neo-luddites made romantic. They are also against technology, but pragmatic enough to understand that technology is the only way to overthrow a society mediated by it.

Molly is VERY disappointing. First because she doesn’t have her silvered glasses, and second because she doesn’t have her micro knives. Most directly, however, Molly sucks as a character in this movie because she has been domesticized by Hollywood. Gone is the femme fatale who is as capable and deadly as she is unfeeling and in control of her life. Gone is the threatening woman who exerts a presence in almost every piece of Sprawl-related cyberpunk that William Gibson has ever written. One would be tempted to say that Molly has been castrated by this movie, and there really seems no good reason to marginalize her virile feminity except insofar as it threatens the male hero ideal and the ability for Keanu Reeves to be the unsurpassed star of the film.

Speaking of Keanu, his portrayal of Johnny lacks depth. In the short story, we find Johnny to be an almost neurotic individual, but in the film this neurosis is only skin deep. It is the superficial performance of the man-who-will-be-neo telling us that he “needs to get this thing out of his head.”

Despite adding all sorts of dramatic tensions to the film’s plot, such as multiple assassins instead of one, a whole freedom fighter vs. corporation tension, and the idea that Johnny is compelled to get the memories out of his head because there is a temporal limit to his ability to store them, this film lacks a uniting tension, splintered as it is into too many things to be concerned about. It is also too obsessed with presenting a superficial depiction of a cyberpunk future (ironically not very effective) which further cheapens the narrative. What is lacking is a film that interrogates the state of the individual in the cyberpunk dystopia of the future. But perhaps appropriately, there is no individually in cyberspace, and thus there is no opportunity to ask the big questions about the hyperreality that these characters live in.

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