"These days, you need to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness."

Johnny Mnemonic was one of William Gibson's first published short stories, published in Omni in 1981 and later reprinted in the collection Burning Chrome. The first of his published works set in the BAMA Sprawl, it was the story of a courier (known only as "Johnny" in the story) who found himself stuck a parcel full of data. The difference, with Johnny, is that the info is stored in his head. "Hundreds of megabytes, on an idiot/savant basis," were stored in a computer in his head, with no way for Johnny to see, read or delete the info, without the password. Trouble is, the Yakuza wanted the info back. Badly.

Without spoiling any more, the story races from memorable scene to memorable scene, starting with Johnny's gym bag and ending with Molly Millions on the Killing Floor and the revelation of the password, all tied together with Johnny's observations and descriptions of the whos and wheres. It's hard, after reading the story, not to have a sharp mental image of at least one of the scenes, as Gibson's style can be likened to a series of snapshots, taken from behind the eyes of the protagonist.




"...or it might microwave your frontal lobe."

Johnny Mnemonic was also a memorably awful movie, released in 1995, directed by Robert Longo, and starring Keanu Reeves (in probably one of his best-played roles) as Johnny. Using the short story as a skeleton, it fleshes it out to a two hour movie by adding some frankly ridiculous elements, like an irrelevant story thread about a "ghost in the machine," the cyborg psycho Street Preacher (hammed up amusingly by Dolph Lundgren), or Ice-T playing a gangster....IN THE FUTURE! This wouldn't be so bad, except for the fact that the most memorable character from the short story (Molly Millions) is replaced by a bland character (Jane, played by Dina Meyer), and many of the most memorable scenes are cut out, only to be replaced with boring cyberpunk cliches.

With the loss of the memorable scenes, though, comes a few gems to make the movie worth seeing. For one, it's probably the closest movie (bar Blade Runner) to Gibson's original vision of the Sprawl, with its bleak vision of urban sprawl and high-tech low-lifes. A number of throw-away visuals are brought to the screen vividly (the monowire whip that Shinji, played by Dennis Akayama, wielded, and the Magnetic Dog Sisters, for a couple of examples). But, most memorable, is Henry Rollins as Spider, ranting and raving and exuding...well, whatever the hell it is that Henry Rollins exudes.

After all of the changes, though, the story is still similar. Johnny, now with 300 gigs of Pharmacom data in his head on a rapidly-degrading (and life-threatening) "wet-wired" disk, is racing against time to get the information to someone who can pay him for it, dealing with the betrayal of Ralfi (his fence, smarmed competantly by Udo Kier), a Yakuza assassin, Shinji, and a worldwide epidemic along the way.

Financially, Johnny Mnemonic was a bomb. According to the IMDb, the movie required $26 million to make, and grossed only $19 million in the US, and was panned by critics as a nonsensical, generic action movie. Said Roger Ebert:

The plot of this movie is breathtakingly derivative. In essence: The hero is entrusted with a valuable cargo, which he must get from A to B without being killed by the bad guys or stepping in anything. There is a pretty girl, evil villains, a weird prophet and of course a violent final shootout in an Abandoned Flame Factory. (You know what an Abandoned Flame Factory is; you've seen them a zillion times in the movies. It's a big clanky warehouse where the hero and the villain stalk each other for an ultimate confrontation, while pointless and sourceless sheets of flame burst out as handy background visuals.)

As a viewer, the only real reasons to see this movie are to simply revel in the badness, MST3K-style, or to watch Keanu Reeves's wooden sullenness contrast with Henry Rollins's insane energy.

Plus the explosions are really pretty, too.

Sources: IMDb, Robert Ebert's review of Johnny Mnemonic in the Chicago Sun Times, the William Gibson node

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