Swedish is my native tongue, and I speak it fluently. I knew it long before I learned English. Once when I was in Sweden a friend of mine introduced me to an acquaintance as an American, and the latter slipped into his rather poor English. As he did, the volume of his voice increased noticeably, and the more trouble he had expressing himself, the louder he got. When my friend pointed out that I understood Swedish, her acquaintance relapsed into normal volume but now began to speak to me in a Swedish of childlike simplicity with agonizing slowness, as if to make sure I wouldn’t miss anything.
Johnny Mnemonic (1995) is kind of like that friend’s friend. At first it overwhelms by the sheer decibel level, and then it begins to decelerate in predictable ways. In addition, out of some atavistic fear that its ‘meaning’ will not be clear, it relies to great excess on computer graphics — not uninteresting visually in their own right — to make the point that Mnemonic is mentally surfing the net — it’s kind of an updated mix of Blade Runner (1982) and Tron (1982). And like all too many movies today, anxious perhaps about their ability convincingly simply to tell a story, it trowels on the pyrotechnics and the graphic violence — I don’t mind that in a film except when they are meant to substitute for story. Confusing loudness and a retarding obsession with visuality of narrative are grievous errors to which all too many film-makers have recourse today.
The concept in Johnny Mnemonic is actually a quite clever extrapolation from contemporary technology (as all good sci-fi is) and earlier film (notably Michael Crichton’s Westworld  and The Terminal Man ). I know people who port their data, and I myself often pocket a flash drive as I go about my business. Why not just scoop out some disk space in your intercranial computer so you can carry it all up there? All you need is some kind of plug-in interface in the back of your skull, and then upload. Arrived at your destination, you plug in and download. Johnny Mnemonic can port massive amounts of data in his head.
The only catch is you have to lose some core memory to make the room — in Mnemonic’s case, it’s his childhood. But with his new ability he’s turned himself into a data-courier, and he’s trying to deliver a head-full of Pharmacon data from Beijing to Newark. In fact, his head is so crammed he has periodic seizures and desperately needs to download — but the access code has gone astray! What follows is a standard katabasis [search on this term in the box beneath the tiger at the head of this blog] narrative: instead of a detective looking for a missing child or a cowboy rescuing a wife from Indians, here we have a techno-freak from the 2020’s trying to find a computer to do his thing with. All the wondrous katabatic territory is there: the night time journeys through smoke-shrouded alleys in the urban wasteland of Newark, a descent into tunnel-like sewers, the aiding female (Jane), the black Hermes (J-Bone) who guides and protects the hero, the obstructing minions of the underworld — literally and figuratively — and the harmer who in the end turns helper (Takahashi).
As in so many of these stories, beginning with that of the Homeric Odysseus, the journey is in some central, irreducible way always a journey of self-discovery, a trek toward identity, a quest for a lost self. Mnemonic’s ostensible search for a computer on which to download Pharmacon data is really a hunt for his missing childhood, a far-out trip that literally blows his mind before it gets rearranged the way it used to be — and the past comes into focus. This is yesteryear’s acid trip morphed for the cyber generation.
Despite the intriguing premise of this film, wedding ancient narrative typology to drawing-board computer technology, as film Johnny Mnemonic forgets its mission. It does not compute. It loses its way somewhere along the net in a kind of mindless iteration of modern film’s self-absorbed fascination with dazzling technique, an MTV version of a sixties’ happening — sound, flash, camera angle; flash, camera angle, sound; camera angle, sound, flash.
It’s a reasonable see, though, but it’s also a film that should have been a much better story.