William Gibson adapted his short story for this 1995 movie starring Keanu Reeves, now on re-release, a cyberpunk action thriller set in the impossibly distant future date of 2021. It’s about a data courier, one of an elite crew of people with samurai discipline who have had brain surgery, and the removal of most of their memory, to make room for digital information to be implanted there, so that they can transport it discreetly across borders at the bidding of secretive and high-paying corporations.
The courier is called Johnny Mnemonic – though no one in the film uses that last name – and he is played with those weirdly childlike, vulnerable, faintly robotic-wooden mannerisms by Keanu Reeves, who four years later became Neo in The Matrix, a film to which this was in some ways a forerunner. Reeves is acting alongside cult-status stars whose styles and line readings are almost as distinctive as his own: Takeshi Kitano is the ruthless yakuza hired for security by the global mandarins; Udo Kier is Johnny’s unscrupulous handler; Ice-T is an anti-corporate activist, and Dolph Lundgren is a bizarre preacher-slash-hitman.
Johnny Mnemonic’s futurist production design, like many sci-fi films of those days, looks a bit dated now. In the 90s, we apparently thought that in the future, people would be always waking up to the sound of an eerily calm female computer voice asking what they want for breakfast. In the 2021 imagined here, people are still evidently without mobile phones (hotels are “paging” people in the lobby, as they might have done in 1921) and faxes are still a thing. But what is notable is how prescient it is. Data is the most important thing in the world, whose information portals are governed by the all-important “internet”, still a relatively unfamiliar word in 1995. The world is convulsed by a terrible pandemic, people are wearing masks, and big pharma rules.
Johnny takes one last job before planning to retire and have the long-promised remedial surgery that will reimplant his lost personal memories. He is hired by people he assumes are his usual corporate clientele, but who turn out to be representatives of the street-warrior punks who are opposed to big business; they have stolen top-secret information and placed it in Johnny’s head. But the size and amount of the information is – dangerously – far too large, and Johnny becomes sicker and more desperate, especially when he realises what this information actually is. The mega-rich owners decide that the only clean way to retrieve their data property is to cut Johnny’s head off.
Perhaps it’s quaint, but it’s also watchable, and it is the kind of sci-fi that is genuinely audacious, trying to envisage what the future will be like – and often succeeding. And it poignantly juxtaposes its futurism with a yearning for the past, in the form of Johnny’s abandoned memories. As for Reeves, he is always best when he is calm and frowningly subdued: it is disconcerting when he grins at the end (it reminded me of those rare moments in the original Star Trek when Mr Spock would smile). And his anguished, frustrated cry, yearning for his old life back: “I want room service! I want a club sandwich! I want a Mexican beer! I want a $10,000-a-night hooker!” is funny, but also very atypical. Johnny is really only his truest self when he is displaying that severe automaton discipline.
• Johnny Mnemonic is released on 10 May on digital platforms.