A Bizarrely Terrible Keanu Reeves Science-Fiction Film Is Leaving Netflix
The Keanu Reeves cyberpunk film Johnny Mnemonic is leaving Netflix on October 31.
Keanu Reeves is one of the great action heroes of our times and, not coincidentally, one of the great science fiction stars. Though he has made less science fiction films than you’d think (Bill & Ted still counts), The Matrix films alone make him one of the central icons of cyberpunk fiction. However, the 1995 film Johnny Mnemonic is almost bad enough to singlehandedly knock him off that pedestal. The movie is leaving Netflix on October 31, so now is as good of a time as any to marvel at whatever happened here.
Johnny Mnemonic stars Keanu Reeves as the titular character, an information courier in 2021 who transports sensitive data via his own brain. More specifically, he can carry encrypted information in a device implanted in his own brain, at the cost of his own early memories; Keanu Reeves can carry up to 160 gigabytes of data, which in 1995 was a science fiction concept in itself. In the tradition of the film noir that so influenced the development of cyberpunk as a genre, Keanu Reeves is roped into a dangerous job that could overload his storage capacity and cause brain damage, but the money is just too good.
Johnny Mnemonic is based on a short story by William Gibson, who adapted it himself to a screenplay. Gibson is perhaps the single most important figure of cyberpunk (even having coined the term “cyberspace”) and codified its central imagery of urban decay, cybernetic body modification, punks, ninjas, and a whole big splash of the aforementioned film noir. Despite the involvement of William Gibson and first-time director Robert Longo (a well-regarded visual artist), Johnny Mnemonic utterly fails to translate the haunting imagery and tone of the genre to the screen.
This both is and is not William Gibson and Robert Longo’s fault. On one side, they were both largely unfamiliar with the film industry and production and thus pushed around, edited, and creatively controlled by Sony Pictures. On the other hand, they were both largely unfamiliar with the film industry and probably not the right people to try to adapt the heady concepts involved without some actual cinematic experience. However, Keanu Reeves was just coming off the enormous commercial success of Speed and Sony Pictures was not about to let Johnny Mnemonic become some art film when it could potentially be Speed 2: Cyber Control.
Unsurprisingly, Johnny Mnemonic did not match the box office draw of Keanu Reeves in Speed. While it made a decent $52 million of a $26 million budget (in large part because of an innovative, Internet-focused marketing campaign), bad word of mouth kept it from achieving real blockbuster status. Critics were even harsher, with the movie still holding a dismal 18% on Rotten Tomatoes and no sign of a critical reclamation project anywhere in sight.
On paper, Johnny Mnemonic could actually seem to have promise. It uses the same mega-corporation and Asian-inspired aesthetics as the far more successful Blade Runner from over a decade before. It has Keanu Reeves as a black-clad hacker type who suddenly becomes to focus of multiple mysterious forces, much like in The Matrix a few years later. It has Dolph Lundgren as an assassin named “The Street Preacher,” Ice-T as the leader of a revolutionary group called the Lo-Teks, and a cyberpunk dolphin. What’s not to like?
Unfortunately, while Johnny Mnemonic may contain interesting ideas and themes, they are utterly in the service of a confusing mishmash of a story and visuals so ugly they verge on Super Mario Bros.: The Movie levels. Where the Wachowskis were canny enough filmmakers to recognize that Keanu Reeves’ sometimes flat acting could be repurposed to a narrative about artificial intelligence and reality, it just comes off as bland and disaffected here.
Since Johnny Mnemonic, the broadly similar William Gibson film New Rose Hotel starring Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe was released to similar levels of disinterest, and many more of his works have been optioned but not produced as films. Robert Longo has not produced a theatrical film since, which seems to be a personal choice. Keanu Reeves has gone on to become one of the most beloved actors (and memes) of his generation, so it seems that Johnny Mnemonic ultimately hurt no one. Except maybe the viewers.