How ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ Predicted the World of ‘Internet 2021’
If you haven’t seen it on social media yet, you will. A big, high tech — or 1995’s concept of high tech — virtual reality space full of digital architecture and Japanese characters, with the words “INTERNET - 2021” superimposed over all of it.
As we all know, this is exactly what the internet of 2021 looks like.
This newly ubiquitous meme, which has already started showing up on social media, is over 25 years old. It’s one of the opening shots from Johnny Mnemonic, a big science-fiction movie that flopped upon its initial release in theaters in 1995 and quickly faded into obscurity thereafter. In his two-star review, Roger Ebert wrote that the movie “doesn't deserve one nanosecond of serious analysis but has a kind of idiotic grandeur that makes you almost forgive it.”
Whether it deserved serious analysis or not, Johnny Mnemonic happens to be set in the far-flung “future” of 2021. In fact, its story begins on a precise date: January 17, 2021, which is seen on the video screen of the title character’s hotel room. Johnny’s setting suddenly gives it renewed relevance and interest for the first time in decades. And while Johnny Mnemonic’s vision of the internet circa 2021 isn’t strictly accurate, the film rings truer overall to the world around us that you might expect.
Among the film’s more impressive predictions: Its fervent belief that Keanu Reeves would look the same in 2021 as he did in 1995. Reeves stars as the title character, a courier who ferries sensitive information in a hard drive installed inside his brain. The procedure that installed the computer in his head also erased most of his long-term memory and identity, so now he just goes by Johnny as he tries to save enough money to reverse the surgery. (In a peculiar twist, Johnny also goes by the alias “Mr. Smith” while dressed in the same black suit and white shirt combination that would become the uniform of his adversary Agent Smith in The Matrix four years later.)
In a bid to get all the cash he needs in one fell swoop, Johnny accepts a risky job delivering an enormous cache of computer files from Beijing to Newark. Johnny’s head hard drive can hold 160 gigs of memory; any more of that could corrupt the data and destroy his brain. So obviously Johnny’s accepts an upload of 320 gigs, then must race to Newark before the information bleeds into the rest of his brain and effectively lobotomizes him.
Obviously, the internet has rendered the notion of sending important information on floppy disks — much less on floppy disks embedded in a handsome dude’s skull — obsolete. And the nuts and bolts of Johnny Mnemonic’s future is a lot clunkier and more analog-based than the sleeker real world of 2021. Still, a lot of the spirit of Johnny Mnemonic’s future hits close to home, like its world dominated by enormous tech corporations, the opening scene where Johnny roams through a street filled with people in surgical masks, and this speech from Henry Rollins’ hacker/doctor character about the immense damage wrought by excessive technology.
Johnny Mnemonic’s internet supposedly causes something called “nerve attenuation syndrome,” which destroys people’s brains — a pretty effective stand-in for the metaphorical “brain worms” that seem to afflict a lot of people who’ve spent so much time scrolling through our internet, especially on social media, that they’ve lost their perspective on reality. Everyone uses a form of FaceTime for communication, although most of their phones are stationary and attached to television screens. There’s even a reference to an “eyephone,” which sure sounds a lot like the gadget that would begin to take over global communications about a decade after Johnny Mnemonic’s release.
Johnny’s fancy virtual reality visor and gloves, which he uses to surf the world wide web without getting his feet wet, is a bit on the goofy side — and the digital effects used to create the imagery of exploring the internet are very dated — but the basic functionality of this technology is fairly close to the headset and controllers of the Oculus Quest.
Johnny Mnemonic was based on a short story and screenplay by William Gibson, one of the godfathers of the cyberpunk genre. Gibson maintains that the theatrically released Johnny Mnemonic is not the script he wrote; the distributor cut the film down from 103 to 95 minutes in an attempt to appeal to a more mainstream audience. (In another sign of Johnny Mnemonic’s impressive legacy, one of the new video games currently available on the actual Internet circa 2021 is called Cyberpunk 2077, starring Keanu Reeves as a character named Johnny Silverhand.)
Johnny Mnemonic is a fascinating text to watch in January 2021, but the same flaws that were apparent in 1995 are still present today. It’s a chase movie where there is a lot more sitting around explaining future technology than actual chases. As an amnesiac, Johnny isn’t much of a character to follow, and the film becomes so focused on the plot involving the data in his head that it doesn’t have much time to explore Johnny’s wounded psyche or his desire to regain his memory. The more colorful supporting players — like Ice-T as the “Lo-Tek” revolutionary J-Bone, or Dolph Lundgren as a sadistic mercenary known as the Street Preacher — only appear for a scene or two each. Most of its best elements have appeared elsewhere, in stronger films and television shows. (The grimy world of the Lo-Teks reminds me a lot of the resistance group in Demolition Man, which was released two years earlier and contained much better action and sharper social satire.)
Despite its shortcomings, Johnny Mnemonic has endured long enough to see society catch up to its bleak vision of the future. If anything, the movie is more uplifting than our world. In Johnny Mnemonic, it turns out there may actually be a cure for brain worms — excuse me, “nerve attenuation syndrome.”
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