By Patrick Metzger
We open on a scroll of text that fades from blood red to white. In a jam-packed paragraph of exposition, we learn that we’re about to watch a movie that somehow involves hackers, powerful corporations, a resistance movement, the yakuza gang, a fatal epidemic, and mnemonic couriers with “wet-wired brain implants.”
After the movie’s title explodes, an inter-title informs us that the setting for the first scene is: “Internet – 2021.”
Thus begins Johnny Mnemonic, the 1995 cyberpunk not-quite-B-movie action thriller starring Keanu Reeves. Four years before his performance in The Matrix, Reeves plays a strikingly similar protagonist who can use his brain for data storage, needs to save humanity, and occasionally navigates cyberspace by flying around a simulated world.
The Matrix Resurrections comes out this December, 2021—twenty-two years after the original, if you can believe it. While we wait to see how far down the rabbithole this sequel will take us, let’s spend some time and reflect on the movie that the Wachowskis referred to as, “the template for The Matrix.”
Johnny Mnemonic is full of moments of sincere and ironic delight, and the all-star cast does not disappoint in this regard.
Ice-T plays J-Bone, leader of the Lo-Teks—a Luddite resistance movement fighting back against the monolithic corporation, Pharmakom.
Beverly Hills 90210’s Dina Meyer plays the Jane to Keanu’s Johnny, and later went on to a leading role in Starship Troopers (1997).
Dolph Lundgren, famous for his portrayal of the Soviet boxer in Rocky IV, plays a Jesus look-alike assassin.
Udo Kier, who plays Johnny’s handler, had previously played Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein in Paul Morrisey’s 70’s art house films and later appeared as the vampire Dragonetti in Blade (1998).
Takeshi Kitano, following his landmark performance in Sonatine (1993), plays Takahashi, head of the yakuza.
Henry Rollins of the punk rock band Black Flag plays Spider, who runs a clinic, treating people suffering from Nerve Attenuation Syndrome (NAS)—the plague affecting half the planet in the movie.
And Keanu Reeves, of course, plays Johnny.
An Action-Forward Cyberpunk Romp
Let’s be clear: Johnny Mnemonic is first and foremost an action movie. Notwithstanding the production team’s use of Autodesk for 3D animation, Johnny’s character is fairly one-dimensional. This is explained away in the script when Johnny relates how he had to “dump a chunk…of long term memory” and replace it with a harddrive so that he can securely transfer sensitive data across the globe.
A lack of childhood memories may not give us a lot of insight into Johnny’s heart and soul, but it makes plenty of space for worldbuilding and plot development. The same essential strategy was used to propel The Bourne Identity into a box office smash six years later.
Just to fully articulate the lack of depth in Johnny’s character, let’s examine a scene near the end of the movie in which he delivers what is intended as a dark-night-of-the-soul monologue. He’s contemplating the magnitude of sacrificing himself for half the inhabitants of planet Earth. But his white-man-tears can only come out as, “I want room service!” He enters into one of the most immature and selfish speeches ever put on the silver screen, where presumably we’re supposed to empathize with him for wanting, “a $10,000-a-night hooker.”
Johnny’s diatribe is essentially the 90’s version of the insane thinking of incels. It can be seen as an exaggerated expression of the creature comforts that dominant white patriarchy still clings to so desperately. Billionaires like Jeff Bezos could help avoid total apocalypse if they weren’t so fixated on taking joy rides to space, making cheap products on the backs of child slaves, or building a global shipping leviathan that every year produces the equivalent carbon emissions of 5 coal power plants.
It remains to be seen whether we’ll be able to convince billionaires to give up material obsession in order to stop the worst effects of climate change. But I imagine that if we took their toys away they’d sound a bit like Johnny boy.
9 Ways Johnny Mnemonic inspired The Matrix
So what precisely makes Johnny Mnemonic “the template for The Matrix?” Here’s a brief list:
1. Jacking In – Similar to Neo and Trinity, Johnny “jacks-in” with a wire inserted into the back of his head when he’s downloading data.
2. I Know Kung Fu – The process of instantly accessing massive amounts of information that Johnny can carry with him through the rest of the movie is very reminiscent of the “I know kung fu” sequence where Neo downloads a lifetime’s worth of knowledge and training into his brain over the course of a few hours.
3. A Simulated World – Through a VR headset, Johnny can access a computer simulation that is as fully expansive as the real world (though not nearly as high fidelity). The entire premise of The Matrix is that we might one day spend so much time in a photorealistic virtual reality that we don’t recognize we’re living in a simulation. In this way, spiritually Johnny Mnemonic is a prequel to The Matrix, just set a couple hundred years beforehand.
4. Flight – In both simulated worlds, Keanu gains mastery enough to break the rules—flying through the air, evading death, and eventually saving the world.
5. Streaming Code – The background for Johnny’s 3D virtual world made out of information involves bright lights and streaming code, much like the green cyphers that rain down to symbolize the code that runs the Matrix.
6. Techie Heaven – The set design for Spider’s safehouse, with computer terminals and hundreds of wires running across the walls, makes you feel as if you could walk around the corner and find Dozer and Tank operating the Nebuchadnezzar.
7. Ghost in the Machine – There’s a character who had her brain copied into a neural net and now haunts Takahashi as an artificial intelligence that can seemingly move in and out of all computer systems across the planet. This AI, Anna Kalmann (played by Barbara Sukowa), is essentially a mix between the Oracle and Agent Smith.
8. The Black Trenchcoat – While Johnny occasionally wears a film-noir-style tan trenchcoat, he can also be seen sporting a black trenchcoat. This, of course, is the preferred attire of multiple characters throughout The Matrix, including Neo and Trinity as they storm a building to save Morpheus.
9. Cyberpunk – William Gibson—who wrote Johnny Mnemonic as a short story in 1981 and adapted it into the screenplay—actually coined the term “matrix” and its relation to cyberspace. It appears in his book Neuromancer (1984) to describe the interconnected computer systems that characters access in the story, “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators.” Johnny Mnemonic was an earlier foray by Gibson into this cyberpunk territory.
Johnny Mnemonic Predicted the Future of Culture
So what does the world actually look like in 2021? Unfortunately, not that different from the original broadcast in Robert Longo’s interpretation of Johnny Mnemonic.
First off, we are living in the middle of a global pandemic. Wide shots in the movie portraying crowds of Chinese citizens protesting an oppressive government while almost entirely masked could have been taken a few weeks ago.
A scene filmed in Toronto’s Lower Bay train station (though likely meant to be Pennsylvania Station or Grand Central Terminal since we just came from Newark) depicts a train station being used as a giant triage center for sick patients during an epidemic. It’s not that far off the mark from April of 2020, when Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York—the largest tennis stadium in the world—was converted into a hospital to treat COVID-19 patients. Dodger Stadium in L.A., among others, was similarly used for mass Covid testing.
Although many blame technology for all our current woes, in and of itself it’s not the villain of our society. The way we use technology and the virality of the content that pervades it is ultimately merely a side effect of the consumerist, industrialized, globalized, suburbanized, financialized culture that we live in. Not unlike the portrayal of Pharmakom in Johnny Mnemonic, we live in a world where many corporations are permitted to cooperate in oligopolies that prioritize profit over all else. It is these corrupt profit motives that have led to rampant exploitation and wealth inequality.
Externalities—the human and environmental costs that don’t make it onto the balance sheet of “goods and services”— are almost entirely ignored in contemporary business. Derek Muller puts it plainly in his analysis of how the Phoebus cartel of the 1920’s intentionally prevented longer-lasting lightbulbs from making it to market: “This is why we can’t have nice things.” Most businesses these days are a little more subtle about their price-fixing, utilizing planned obsolescence and finding more creative ways to exploit their workers. That said, cartels still have a significant impact on the global economy—not unlike the yakuza in Johnny Mnemonic. Oh, and as of last year there were still over 14,000 active yakuza members.
Johnny Mnemonic Predicted the Future of Technology
And how about the “Internet – 2021”—how did that turn out?
While Johnny Mnemonic was totally wrong in thinking that, “All the electronics around you are poisoning the airwaves,” there are some very real consequences to the hyper-technological world we now live in.
We’re in the midst of an epidemic of isolation. The paradox is that while technology has connected us more than ever, the black mirrors we hold in front of our faces also divide us from each other. Filter bubbles surround our communities. Humans are social primates, and we were never meant to sit staring at a piece of metal and glass for three to nine hours a day. There are strong indications that social media makes us feel more alone rather than less. And loneliness can impact our mortality to the same degree as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
If the pseudo-jargon technobabble language of Johnny Mnemonic seems silly at first, it may be jarring to make it 38 minutes in and suddenly hear Keanu Reeves say the word iPhone in 1995, twelve years before it was released. He doesn’t actually, of course. He says “Thomson Eyephones.” But it’s not hard to imagine Steve Jobs pondering what to name an earth-shattering new technological innovation, and then having an acid flashback to the cyberpunk stories he read in his twenties (before he even released the Macintosh).
The mere presence of smartphones in our environment has made us more absent-minded and shortened our attention span. Short-form video platforms have directly taken advantage of this shift, with some researchers calling TikTok digital crack cocaine.
On the flipside, long-form YouTube videos help our imaginations run wild on the latest conspiracy theory. This is particularly troubling given recent neuroscience research that suggests the typical human brain internalizes fictional imagery as if it’s a depiction of actual events. This has ramifications from UFO conspiracies becoming a kind of religious movement all the way to QAnon and white supremacist mobs storming the U.S. capitol.
The New York Times podcast Rabbit Hole has expertly dissected the ways that the YouTube algorithm optimizes for endless engagement. YouTube’s autoplay feature has accidentally radicalized thousands of people into becoming neo-Nazis, all while profiting off the advertisements on these videos. Roughly 11% of Google’s revenue in 2020 came from YouTube ad revenue—almost $20 billion. And while YouTube has multiple times taken steps to remove content and ban white supremacist channels, in a February 2021 study conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, 9% of participants encountered at least one video made by extremists.
Our attention is the primary currency of today’s economy. Advertising is propping up the majority of technology companies, who buy and sell access to our eyeballs with the automated precision of machine learning.
Just in time for the release of The Matrix Resurrections, Facebook earlier this year launched Horizon Workrooms, their next step toward “the metaverse.” Virtual reality doesn’t look quite like the cyberspace portrayed in 1995. Mark Zuckerberg’s vision seems more likely to turn Planet Earth into the dystopian theme park that Ernest Cline envisioned in Ready Player One. As natural disasters become more common in our ongoing climate crisis, people are finding new and ingenious ways to escape into other realities, in search of a little bit of everything all of the time.
Should we rely on Facebook to architect the virtual universes for people to escape into more and more frequently?
In October, Facebook lost $65 million in an afternoon when a quirk in the company’s BGP routing caused all its properties to go down for 5 hours (and then again a few days later). Families and friends who use WhatsApp to communicate securely across borders at no cost were unable to reach each other. People whose business depends on Facebook Marketplace or Facebook Pay were stalled in sales. And, of course, we couldn’t see our friends’ most recent Instagram stories. 3.5 billion people are estimated to have been affected—almost half the planet.
This outage was an important reminder of the dangers of centralization. The original vision for the Internet was of distributed networks of connectivity—a radical democratization of information and the people who control access to it. It’s not clear whether breaking up Facebook would solve anything, but it sure is sobering to realize how many people depend on such centralized technologies.
But Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp aren’t the only way we spend our time in cyberspace. In line with Johnny’s fixation on sex workers, porn sites have been among the top 10 most popular websites on the Internet since 2017. In July, four of the top 20 most popular websites were porn sites. 35% of all downloads on the Internet are porn. PornHub recently had to remove millions of videos from the site (80% of its content) to prevent child sexual abuse material from being hosted there. And during the aforementioned Facebook outage, PornHub’s traffic went up 10%.
Near the end of Johnny Mnemonic, Takahashi uses his hand to puppeteer a photo-realistic video of an entirely different person. We now recognize this sort of video manipulation as a deepfake using a “sockpuppet.” The prevalence of deepfakes is increasing, and they’ve even been used try and frame people in court cases.
While we haven’t quite gotten to the point of working with dolphins as expert codebreakers, a lot of the tech throughout the movie has a direct parallel to a real technology that emerged in the years since it was released.
Where do we go from here?
For over 100 years, authors have been envisioning dystopian futures. Following the Industrial Revolution, visions of utopia just seemed passé and naïve. Rationalism had “killed God” and began to see the world as a mechanical system in disrepair. People thought of all the horrors that might emerge from the Pandora’s box of new technologies. To imagine that only good lay ahead was to be a delusional Pollyanna.
Then came the Great Depression, two world wars, the atom bomb, suburbanization, the Vietnam War, Reaganomics, mass incarceration… Suffice it to say, futurists did not become optimists during the 20th century.
Now we’ve perfected the genre, with many varying sub-categories. Zombies, natural disasters, pandemics, artificial intelligence, nuclear holocaust—you name the doomsday scenario, we’ve got it covered, with hundreds of movies exploring every permutation.
But as Pete Seeger would say, “Any mule can kick a barn down. It takes a carpenter to build one up.”
Somewhere along the way, we lost sight of the point of dystopian fiction. The goal was never to revel in bloodlust and gleefully race toward a real-life dystopia. We were meant to reflect on the flaws in our own social, political, and natural environment, to consider how we would want the world to be instead.
The story of Johnny Mnemonic is, at its core, pointing to the corporate corruption that runs rampant in our world. A few hundred gangsters pillage the planet to live in luxury, while the rest of us are left scrambling for scraps. This is elegantly illustrated in a striking shot where Jane has an NAS-induced seizure and falls back against a pile of store mannequins. A haunting image looks back at us as her eyes roll back, the hollow simulacrum of a face beside her. She lies lifeless upon the wreckage of consumerism.
Questions are implied by the movie’s dystopian counter-example. How can we work to lessen the power that corporations hold over our democracies? How can we practice a more sane balance of technology usage in our day-to-day life? How can we shift our isolationist perspective to cultivate communities that allow for resource-sharing and collective action?
I would dearly love to see popular fiction that portrays a realistic view of the solutions needed in order to survive the calamities currently facing our planet. Singapore is a model city for climate resilience—where is the sci-fi book that extrapolates that to the rest of the world 100 years from now? Where are the adventure stories of a beautifully reforested world where consumption is no longer the primary pursuit of our species? If we can’t imagine it, we can’t live it.
So let this be an encouragement to you, dear reader: Live the future you wish to see, because the future is now. If all we can imagine is dystopia, we may drift ever closer to the worlds of Johnny Mnemonic and The Matrix until all that’s left is automated code streaming through wires across the planet, “an endless tone poem in the artificial language.”