All the Things 1995’s ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ Got Right About Life in 2021

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Johnny (Keanu Reeves) and Jane (Dina Meyer) battling cyber scares and a pandemic in 1995's 'Johnny Mnemonic.'
Johnny (Keanu Reeves) and Jane (Dina Meyer) battling cyber scares and a pandemic in 1995's 'Johnny Mnemonic.'  (Tristar)

On May 26, 1995, the day Johnny Mnemonic first hit movie theaters, Roger Ebert declared it “a movie that doesn’t deserve one nanosecond of serious analysis.” Critics across the board were in agreement. “A disaster in every way,” said The New York Times. “Utterly devoid of suspense,” Empire reported. And it’s true: Johnny Mnemonic was (and is) a total clunker; that special kind of movie that succeeds in being consistently preposterous and kind of boring, all the way through.

Twenty-six years later, however, it’s impossible to pay any mind to Ebert’s suggestion. Because William Gibson’s story is of course set in 2021, which means movie masochists like myself can’t help but dive back in and pick apart this nonsense for timely meaning. And while Johnny Mnemonic got a lot wrong—the fashions, the internet, the ability of mutant dolphins to fry human men using small satellite dishes (no, really)—some of it is surprisingly pertinent.

First and foremost, Johnny Mnemonic is set during a global pandemic. Nerve Attenuation Syndrome—or NAS, for short—is ravaging the planet, and scientists are struggling to get a cure to millions of infected and ailing civilians. (Sound familiar?) Standing between the scientists and the civilians are evil corporate entities who want control of the cure for their own social and financial gain. (Do with that what you will.)

NAS thrives because the feeble bodies of humans simply can’t cope with the amount of information and technology they are forced to absorb on a daily basis. (And who can’t relate to that right now?) At one point, Henry Rollins, playing a 5G conspiracy theorist doctor named Spider, attempts to explain how NAS contraction happens, and the scene is too gloriously stupefying not to share here.

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Johnny (Keanu Reeves) has so much information in his skull, his brain is about to literally explode. (This is because he’s a clandestine courier who stores and transports secrets in his head.) His bodyguard Jane is infected with NAS, so she has similar, though less urgent, problems with her brain. Both of them occasionally lose all motor functions and writhe in agony as their bodies battle with the strain of it all. (Nine months into Zoom meetings, I can relate.)

In Johnny Mnemonic, the stresses of the TMI pandemic have grown so strenuous that a great division has grown across the United States. (Uh-huh.) On the ground, armies of resistance fighters, known as LoTeks, fight for justice and the greater good. (Ice-T is one of their leaders, in a role that’s only about one step above the humanoid kangaroo he played in Tank Girlanother dystopian mess from ’95.) Several cars get set alight in the process, which is not an image that’s hard to conjure for anyone who lived through last summer.

And the movie captures more than shades of 2020's social justice protests. At one point, Johnny has a massive tantrum about all the nice things he’s missing out on because of the pandemic, and his duties within it, and it’s astoundingly akin to the anti-lockdown protests from last spring. In this moment, Johnny—self-absorbed, screaming, and sick of being forced to think about other people—momentarily transforms into a walking “I NEED A HAIRCUT” placard with Nic Cage sensibilities. Only, he’s more concerned with “room service” and “laundered shirts” than his already perfectly coiffed hair.

Johnny Mnemonic’s broad themes are right on the money, but some of its details are also eerily accurate: the mass monitoring of personal information, communication via video calls, electronic passports, airport full-body scans, and the occasional jarring sight of a man bun.

It’s true that Johnny Mnemonic gets as much wrong as it gets right. In actual 2021, we’re lacking electronic whips that can slice a man in two, and women aren’t walking around with pink hand grenades on key chains. (We wish!) We don’t go to clubs to listen to opera singers backed by heavy metal guitars. We have neither computer chips in our brains, nor miniature fax machines in our pockets. And most of us wear much less latex. But it is genuinely surprising how much this quantifiably stupid movie understood about where the world would be at this very moment.

Truth be told, much of what we see in Johnny Mnemonic that rings true are 2020 problems. But, in the end (spoiler alert!) Johnny, Jane, Ice-T and that magic dolphin I mentioned earlier do figure out how to share the cure for the pandemic with the world. If there’s something about 2021 to cling to from this movie, it’s that. Minus the electro-dolphin, for reasons that should be obvious.

‘Johnny Mnemonic’ is streaming now on Hulu.