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Overdue Reviews: 'Johnny Mnemonic'

Overdue Reviews takes a critical look at tech-centric films that are well-loved, well-loathed or eye-rollingly obscure.

'Johnny Mnemonic' is frequently considered one of the worst sci-fi films of the modern era. It is not! In fact, it stands up exceptionally well after 16 years -- especially if you're drunk. (Seriously, alcohol really helps.)

To refresh your overloaded memory (storyline joke!): Keanu Reeves plays a futuristic courier who's dumped his childhood memories in order to jam a hard drive into his skull. One night, he downloads too much "product," which turns out to be the cure to a worldwide epidemic called Nerve Attenuation Syndrome (NAS). Johnny then gets embroiled with a series of bizarro villains -- like Dolph Lundgren as a cyborg Jesus -- before saving the world with the help of Ice-T and a dolphin.

Roger Ebert said this movie "doesn't deserve one nanosecond of serious analysis but has a kind of idiotic grandeur that makes you almost forgive it." I'm willing to forgive 'Johnny Mnemonic,' not because it oozes camp, but because the movie really meant to be better. The problem is, we've all been watching this movie the wrong way.

Turns Out, It's An Art Film! Kinda?

'Johnny' was directed by Robert Longo, a New York-based painter/sculptor most famous for his works in the late 1970s and early '80s, part of a troika of artists-turned-filmmakers [1] -- with David Salle and Julian Schnabel -- often considered the face of the yuppie art boom. Longo worked closely with William Gibson (the sci-fi author and coiner of the term "cyberspace") on the film's arguably tortured screenplay. Most famous for his 'Men in the Cities' series (which may or may not have inspired those iconic iPod ads), Longo played the brooding artist during the film's production process in Canada, dressing in all black and offering reporters pithy bon mots like, "Artists are the last people left who can tell the truth." [2] 'Johnny' was his first and last foray into film.

A Maclean's article [3] from 1994, which interviewed Longo as the film was in postproduction, notes that "eminent U.S. critic Robert Hughes once denounced Longo as an emblem of everything that was wrong with American art during the past decade: 'an oversize melange of technical sophistication and sentimental blatancy, with more wallop than resonance.'" Oof. But hey, couldn't you really say the same thing about his film? (I happen to be a fan of Longo's artwork, but only because I like all of that larger-than-life, economic boom '80s-ness. Greed is good, kids.)
Anyway, 'Johnny' may have been doomed from the get-go, but Longo inexplicably dismissed warnings from seasoned film people who maybe knew a thing or two better than him. A 1994 Newsweek article [4] notes that Longo complained of being criticized "every day from somebody on the set" because he was so green to the biz. "There's an incredible assholism in the movie industry," he told Newsweek. "I'm up front with everybody about my limitations... The woman from continuity said that I broke four basic rules of filmmaking in one scene. Fortunately, the editor was able to cut it so that it came out right."

You could blame Longo, and even Gibson, for over-thinking the film. The two met in the late 1980s and began talking up an adaptation of 'Johnny' almost immediately. After several years of shopping around a low-budget, art house pitch, Tri-Star and Alliance magically came on board, signing Longo as director with a budget of $32 million. (Fact: 'Alive' was produced for the same amount a year earlier, and the modern classic 'Snow Dogs' received the same budget seven years later.) But Gibson worked very closely with Longo on the film; he told a pre-New York Times Manohla Dargis [5] that he was "involved to an abnormal extent, by Hollywood standards."

So you have a visual artist with little prior directorial skill (outside of some experimental shorts and music videos) and a sci-fi author with exactly the same amount of filmmaking experience, both helming a $32 million production that was originally intended as a $1 or $2 million indie picture. What could possibly go wrong?
william gibson and robert longo

All The Stuff That Went Wrong, or "The Film"

While Longo has more or less remained mum on 'Johnny's legacy (as far as I can tell, at least), Gibson has frequently complained that the film they set out to make was slashed by the studio into the dreck we know now. "I would blame Sony Pictures Imageworks [for the film's failure]," he told Suicide Girls [6] back in 2003. "Nobody got to see the film that Robert Longo shot." In a 1998 interview with The Peak, Gibson said "[It] was taken away and re-cut by the American distributor in the last month of its prerelease life and it went from being a very funny, very alternative piece of work to being something that had been very unsuccessfully chopped and cut into something more mainstream."

Has Gibson been pulling a Wiseau all these years? Or is the key to understanding 'Johnny Mnemonic' is that it's supposed to be funny? "I'll tell you something you may not believe," Gibson wrote in a blog post in 2003. "Dolph Lungren [sic] can actually do *comedy*." He goes on to say that he published the original screenplay because "I wanted to be in the position to demonstrate the difference between what I wrote, and we shot, and what they released."

Editing can change a film significantly, but only if you have decent raw material to begin with. As Gibson says, no one's ever going to see the film Longo intended to make, so it's easy to backpedal and say the one you shot was brilliant. (Maybe Gibson just has really terrible taste in films?) Because the film's very wooden style of acting, known henceforth as the Keanu Method, would be difficult to swallow even in the knee-slapping version [7] of 'Johnny' that never made it to theaters.

In the Suicide Girls interview, Gibson insisted that "we shot an ironic, broadly comic action film that at some level was supposed to be about bad science fiction movies" but was turned into a Hollywood-style blockbuster as soon as 'Speed' became a hit."[We] had guys from the studio coming out of the woodwork telling us that we shouldn't shoot a funny movie, 'Where's the bus?' It just got worse from there. We kept doing what we wanted to do. Keanu and Dolph were both doing exactly what we told them to do."
That, though, may have been the problem. While Gibson thought he was making an "ironic, broadly comic" movie, Longo seemed to be creating a decidedly more dark and brooding one. [8] Even the artwork that he made during the film's production -- the 'Johnny Paintings' that he sold at a Toronto gallery for upwards of $110,000 -- are nebulous, rare experiments with abstraction. Not exactly funny stuff.

Add in the studio's vision of a balls-to-the-wall action flick, and you have a seriously botched direction. There wasn't a consistent tone in the film (except for the robotically consistent Keanu Method) because you had two filmmaking neophytes with different visions, and a studio with final cut. Sure, studios have been known to fuck up good edits from time to time. (Many sci-fi nerds would give the 'Dune' director's cut as an example of a good film that got mangled.) But can Gibson really blame the studio for the dialogue that did make it in? (J-Bone: "The only way is to hack your own brain.")

Also, who greenlit the dolphin?

Of Dolphs and Dolphins

When Dolph Lundgren exclaims wild-eyed, "It's Jesus time!" with a Bowie knife crucifix in hand, we laugh. But it's that old question: are we laughing with the film, or at it?

Despite the fact that Gibson has said that 'Johnny' was supposed to be a bit of camp comedy, would it actually have been funny if Longo had kept the edit he wanted? On paper, turning an iconic '80s action star into a psychotic cyborg Jesus sounds intriguing. But does his character jibe with the rest of the story's tone? The two main plot devices -- a protagonist stripped of his childhood and a crippling, worldwide epidemic -- are pretty heavy. Where does the hilarious but deadly robot Christ fit in?
And then there's the dolphin -- Jones, the aquatic hacker that ripped off his headgear from Locutus of Borg. Jones represents the fundamental conflict between the three directions in which this film was intended to go. There's a perverse (funny?) weirdness in making a dolphin a critical part of the climax of your dystopic narrative, a conceit courtesy of Gibson. But he's no jovial dolphin -- no, this is one BAD ASS MOTHER who saves a virtual Johnny from digital demise -- and you can maybe blame the studio edits for that. And then there's the post-apocalyptic aesthetic, jointly conceived by Longo and Gibson. But Longo's touch is most obvious in his references to iconic works of contemporary art -- namely Nam June Paik's pile of TVs in the LoTek den and Jones' tank, a seemingly direct reference to Damien Hirst's 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.' You know, the shark vitrine.

My point here is the 'Johnny' is an essentially postmodern exercise that somehow made it in to mainstream theaters. It's a pastiche of imagery -- sci-fi nuts will also note all of the rip-offs of/homages to 'Blade Runner' -- that's also a pastiche of genres. It's art by committee, a confluence of art and commerce; the film features a fractured narrative, an incongruous tone and a dehumanized subject, mostly thanks to shitty editing. For Gibson, and perhaps even for Longo, 'Johnny' became an ironically unironic experiment with irony.

The 'Johnny' Legacy

Gibson has said that the look of the film was supposed to be un-trendy and anti-futurist, an aesthetic that has since become commonplace itself. "The old futures have a way of hanging around," he told Dargis back in 1994. "[I] find that very poignant. We wanted to scatter that feeling through the film. There's a sense of dead technology and dead platforms, as they say in the computer-game business. This is like a world built out of eight-track tape recorders."

That appropriation of dead tech has now become the odious trend of steampunk [9], but 'Johnny's aesthetic legacy is more important to the world of sci-fi film. 'The Matrix' probably wouldn't exist -- at least, not in the way that we know it -- without lifting heavily from Longo's film. The main character's introduction in both films involves the camera passing through "the Internet" and exiting out of blinking computer/TV screen, opening on a sleeping Keanu.

Sure, the Wachowskis reversed the perspective and Longo shot Reeves from overhead. You could argue that the other similarities -- the "port" on the back of character's heads, the city of Zion being similarly built from "dead technology" -- are now just touchstones of the cyberpunk genre. But the film version of 'Johnny Mnemonic' helped to build a collective recognition of what cyberpunk is, and I'd bet a whole month of blogging wages [10] that the Wachowskis consciously ripped off portions of 'Johnny,' just the way 'Johnny' ripped off everything from 'Total Recall' to the early '90s Saatchi collection.

That being said, the American cut of 'Johnny Mnemonic' is an objectively terrible film. But it's also a curious artifact of the '90s, a time when "the Internet" was only starting to enter the mainstream vocabulary, and an earnest -- but highly clueless -- effort by two incredibly talented people who stepped out of their own artistic mediums. At the very least, it's breathtaking to watch all of those highbrow intentions completely disintegrate over the course of 107 minutes. Definitely worth a second look. [11]


[1] Actually, there were a lot! At the time, Salle was working on 'Search and Destroy' and Schnabel -- who has most successfully made the crossover to film -- was writing the screenplay for 'Basquiat.' Cindy Sherman directed 'Office Killer' a few years later, while Matthew Barney started bringing his 'Cremaster' films to the art house cinemas. In 1995, Longo told Brian D'Amato in Artforum that "Cindy's horror flick'll put us all to shame." It didn't.

[2] Smallbridge, Justin. "Kinetic artist." Macleans 12 Sept. 94.

[3] This Maclean's piece is really a must-read, peppered with tidbits like: "Longo is downloading a new set of skills and hoping to quash charges that he is a facile dilettante."

[4] Dargis, Manohla. "Cyber Johnny." Sight and Sound 5, no. 7 (July 1995): 6-7.

[5] I ought to be in pictures. By: Plagens, Peter, Malone, Maggie, Newsweek, 00289604, 4/18/94, Vol. 123, Issue 16

[6] Who knew, right?

[7] Gibson gives an example of the comedy gold that was cut from the original in a scene with Dolph "in which he preaches, buck nekkid and skin-studded with creepy nano-gizmos, to a congragation [sic] of adoring female NAS victims. He delivers a bombastic, faux-Sterlingesque, literally balls-out *sermon* on the virtues of posthumanity. It came off sort of like Fabio as the Jesus you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. It *rocked*. Hilarious." Gibson suggests the scene was cut so that it wouldn't offend "the religious right."

[8] In an interview with Libération (Libération, 22 November 1995) Longo said, "I would have done a more nihilist version; TriStar insisted on making Johnny/Keanu Reeves likable."

[9] Yes, the concept of steampunk predated 'Johnny,' but its popularity in mainstream culture has been recent. Now it's a lame buzzword.

[10] Literally tens of dollars.

[11] Also, Ice-T? Hello! Amazing.

Tags: dolph+lundgren, dolphlundgren, features, johnny mnemonic, JohnnyMnemonic, keanu+reeves, keanureeves, movies, overdue reviews, overduereviews, robert longo, RobertLongo, top, william gibson, WilliamGibson