The Turing test is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit the same intelligent behavior as a human. It often shows up in cyberpunk movies, so I’ve devised my own test. The ancient future test is one to determine if the movie that you are watching fits into that genre, a time when books like Neuromancer were being strip-mined for ideas to make high concepts films that were five minutes into the future in the 1990s but are now hopelessly mired in the past.
Let’s give Johnny Mnemonic this test.
Does it have the title of a Philip K. Dick book but not really have much to do with it?
Nope, but it was based on the story of the same name by cyberpunk godfather William Gibson — who wrote the aforementioned Neuromancer — so it’s the next best thing.
Is there a lot of rain?
It doesn’t have to rain all the time, unless you’re in this movie.
Does the male hero wear dress clothes and/or a trenchcoat?
It’s Keanu. Of course he has on a black tie.
Do Keanu Reeves, Ben Affleck, Dolph Lundgren or Udo Keir appear in it?
Beyond Keanu, Dolph and Udo show up.
Does the internet do something it can’t do yet, yet look dated AF?
It’s 300 baud in a 5G world, baby.
Are Stabbing Westward, KMFDM, Ministry or God Lives Underwater on the soundtrack?
Oh man, does it ever. You get Stabbing Westward twice, KMFDM, God Lives Underwater and Orbital, as well as Helmet and Rollins Band for the kids who like it loud. And oh yeah. Bono and The Edge for some reason.
Is it a crappy version of Blade Runner?
Actually, it’s a crappy version of William Gibson.
Are there numerous Asian-influenced scenes?
This movie is so Japanese that it debuted in Japan and has Takeshi “Beat” Kitano in a major role.
Do people use future terms that make no sense?
Bleep boop yep.
Are there a lot of whirring sound effects?
The movie is mainly people making whirring sounds at one another. I’m joking, but it feels like it.
Do people stare at the camera as it moves through a neon-lit strip club?
This movie takes place in numerous neon-lit strip clubs and drinking establishments.
Are there rock stars are in it?
Are there ever! Ice-T and Henry Rollins! Plus Coyote Shivers from Empire Records, who was kind of a rock star!
Is there a feral child?
This is a trick question. A feral child means that you are watching a post-apocalyptic movie and not a cyberpunk film.
Director Robert Longo is a real artist, making everything from music with his band Robert Longo’s Menthol Wars to creating a series of drawings called Men in the Cities (you can see some of them in Patrick Bateman’s apartment in American Psycho), who found his way into making music videos for New Order (“Bizarre Love Triangle”) and R.E.M. (“The One I Love”).
After directing “This’ll Kill Ya” from the TV series Tales from the Crypt, he started talking to Gibson about making a low budget art film for the story Johnny Mnemonic. He told Wired in 2010 that the film “started out as an arty one-and-a-half-million-dollar movie, and it became a 30-million-dollar movie because we couldn’t get a million and a half.”
The movie is quite different from the source material — a common ancient future/cyberpunk trope — particularly because the Molly Millions character didn’t belong to the film’s producers, so Johnny had to become the action hero. Plus, well, this was cyberpunk’s mainstream debutante ball, so rough edges like drug addiction had to be deleted.
Gibson would say, “Basically what happened was it was taken away and re-cut by the American distributor in the last month of its pre-release 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.”
The Japanese version of the film is much closer to the original cut, if it helps.
This film takes place in 2021, a time when everyone is on the internet all day, something that could never happen. All this overuse has led to NAS (Nerve Attenuation Syndrome), a disease that causes hostility and black outs. One company has figured out the cure and has hired memory courier Johnny Mnemonic (Reeves) to allow them to hack his brain and transport the information.
Oh man, this movie. The images in Johnny’s head are wanted by everyone, like the Yakuza — of course — and Japanese and Chinese corporations. One of them, Pharmakom, is run by Takeshi and he’s sent a man named the Street Preacher (Lundgren) to cut off our hero’s head and get his brain.
Luckily, a cybernetic bodyguard named Jane (Dina Meyer) saves him, along with the Lo-Teks gang led by J-Bone (Ice-T) and a cybernetic surgeon named Spider (Rollins). There’s also an AI ghost inside his brain and, of course, a psychic Navy dolphin that is ready to help him hack his own brain.
Sony went all-in to market this movie, with video games, soundtracks, a pinball machine and one of the first web experiences that offered $20,000 in prizes. Gibson referred to their web promotions as “kind of cute.”
Johnny Mnemonic disappeared from theaters but hasn’t gone away. The mega-hyped release of Cyberpunk 2077 had you play a character with information in your brain that everyone wants, as well as the avatar of dead rock star Johnny Silverhand, played by — you guessed it — Keanu Reeves.