15 February, 2011

The Terrible Movie About the Matrix That Wasn't a Matrix Sequel

There's no doubt Johnny Mnemonic is a bad movie. History has proven this. There hasn't been any kind of redemption through a director's cut and there no cult following has ever materialized. The crowd of ironic cinema goers has moved on to much shoddier fare than this. The only people who ever wind up watching this. . . thing are people like me, movie nerds with too much time on their hands and who want to see sub-genre train wrecks complete with Dolph Lungren as a fanatic cyber-monk and a junky dolphin that Ice-T owns that can hack government super computers*.

I'd wager that it did more damage to science fiction and the cyberpunk sub-genre than we'll ever know. It's kind of amazing that it's this bad, considering that it's based off of a short story by one of the better science fiction writers of the past thirty years (William "I Created the Term Cyberspace" Gibson). Making a movie about this subject look this crappy and sound this goofy would presumably take far more effort than making a film that was actually good.

Johnny Mnemonic is one of those silly movies of the 1990's and reeks of being a work made on the fence between two eras. It came early enough to know about the internet and the revolution of technology that would ensue, but not late enough to know what the actual shape of things would be. On the one hand it knows that the internet would be a daily part of our lives-- something most movies about the future can barely even comprehend-- and on the other hand it didn't manage to predict cell phones or that a terabyte hard drive would be smaller than the book the original short story was included in. It's also one of these weird 1990's movies that thinks that people would actually want to go into the internet. While he isn't a speculative futurist, Dave Chappelle got one thing right: If you could actually travel to the internet, nobody would ever want to.

Chappelles Show
If the Internet Was a Real Place
Buy Chappelle's Show DVDsBlack ComedyTrue Hollywood Story

To quote Roger Ebert:
`Johnny Mnemonic" is one of the great goofy gestures of recent cinema, a movie that doesn't deserve one nanosecond of serious analysis but has a kind of idiotic grandeur that makes you almost forgive it. Based on a story by William Gibson, the father of cyberpunk fiction, it has the nerve to pose as a futuristic fable when in fact all of its parts were bought off the shelf at the Used Movie Store.

That's probably sums up what this movie is more than anything else. With that said, even though it doesn't deserve it, I really do want to seriously analyze this movie. Why? Because I'm almost positive nobody else on earth has ever felt the slightest desire to. Being first as something is a rarity nowadays, even if it's under as ignominious circumstances as critically analyzing Johnny Mnemonic.

The movie is dumb as dirt, Ebert is right about that, like most things that are stupid, Johnny Mnemonic doesn't know that it's stupid. Despite being Blade Runner's thalidomide baby, it has serious pretensions about being a well-thought out movie. I guess, maybe if there was some thalidomide baby born into really supportive (and borderline delusional) parents, that didn't want to tell junior that it had anything wrong with it, that kid's future would look something like this piece of crap.

It reminds me of much better films, so with that said, it isn't entirely without merit. It's kind of worthwhile, if only due to reflected glory.

From the first few minutes on it's clear that this flick is referencing the cyberpunk Holy Grail, Blade Runner. The entire aesthetic of the film is ripped off wholesale from the adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, with a few added plot points about the internet. Besides the seedy, rain-slicked streets packed with Asians and neon, there's at least two shots that are direct send-ups of its better (those being when Johnny first arrives in China, he stands on top of his car a la Deckard in his foot chase with Zhora and the second shot is just a simple panorama of the city).

Despite having all of the budget and technology that Blade Runner didn't have, Johnny Mnemonic looks like a bad film school knock-off. It's profound, that kind of incompetency. How hard could ripping Ridley Scott's last sci-fi movie be when you've got all of the blue prints at your finger tips? Someone already did it! All you have to do is follow the instructions. It must have taken them far more effort to make a crappy, knock-off version of the movie considering the newer, quicker resources they had at their finger tips. I mean, even Keanu Reeves' hair looks bad and that's probably the easiest thing in the world to fix.

Shameful shit.

There must be an over/under for making movies looks good. You've either got to go way high on the budget-- like Avatar, Terminator 2, or Superman Returns or something-- where you end up with a true, larger than life spectacle, made by the best in the business with as much time as they need. Or you've got to shoot low like with Monsters or District 9, where the effects become more impressive because of how little they cost. Now, while Mnemonic didn't have the technological resources as any of the above movies, I think it might be a victim of being neither a flawed, low-budget art house picture and it isn't a big-budget summer blockbuster. It's this lukewarm sci-fi nothing that is only really notable for its intense goofiness.

Or in the director's words:
"[The movie] started out as an arty 1½-million-dollar movie, and it became a 30-million-dollar movie because we couldn't get a million and a half."

Alright, enough of that. We know it's bad. As I said before, even though it has no real worthwhile qualities of its own, it reminds me of much better pictures. For whatever reason, one of those is Persona.

That's right, this fuckin' film--

Ingmar Bergman is one of the great artists of the 20th century and for whatever reason one of the dumbest movies of the 1990's reminds me of what is perhaps his greatest work.

There's a reason for this. So, let me show you the method to the madness, While the subject matter of either film diverges greatly, there is an interesting overlap between the time and I think if even Johnny Mnemonic can understand one of the things that makes Persona great, then there's no reason you shouldn't understand that, as well(do I need to mention the thalidomide thing again?).

There is no doubt that there's a stack of thesis papers and critical studies as thick as my fist just on that opening alone (Hell, I'm sure I've written at least one of them) and they're all probably better thought out and better sourced than this little blogging here, so don't take my word for it. It's just funny, to me, and I thought I'd share it with you, that two years after I saw this movie and studied it that the one thing that would get me to think about it the most is bad sci-fi.

The opening and closing of Persona is famous for it's collection of unrelated and unexplained images that reads more like a cinematic free-association riff than it does an Eisensteinian montage. As an audience we have to assume that it is a metaphor for something rather than any kind of narrative. Bergman's body of work often concerns itself with psychoanalysis' conflict with art and the opening seems to encapsulate that idea because, if anything, it's Bergman at his most artsy and his craziest.

I suppose it is the idea of the montage (which, as you probably know, isn't always something people did in the 80's before a big competition, but, rather, the combination of two images that, as a result of their juxtaposition, create an idea larger than the sum of their parts) taken to its most abstract limits. It all of the trappings of a montage without anything to contextualize it.

What got this whole ball rolling is that the key to unlocking Johnny's woefully small brain hard-drive isn't a pin number or an decryption key, but three images randomly chosen from whatever happened to be on TV at the time. I like that. I like that a lot. It might just be the most clever thing in the movie. Now, while that makes it something of the tallest dwarf in the mine, it's still a good idea because in a way this is what Bergman was going for in the opening of Persona. In both cases it is images-- not words or technology, but art-- that are used to peer into the protagonist's mind. While the reasoning and execution is different, I'd like to think that this shows even the most imperfect pieces of art are not without fleeting moments of perfection-- even if they're accidental.

Now, watch this opening before you start calling me an idiot.

I can wait.

It's clear there's potential within this movie. It's based off of a William Gibson short story that has the same name. What drives me the craziest with works of art that don't work aren't necessarily their flaws, but they're wasted potential. Messy movies are fine, a film can survive being a mess. Some of the greatest films of all time are messes-- The Thin Red Line and Magnolia pop to mind. Movies are such an amazing art form and it hurts to see people with so many things to work with squander what they have.

SIDE NOTE: I like that Johnny carries a briefcase full of equipment. In my best-of-all-world's part of the brain, I want to believe that Christopher Nolan and his brothers saw this movie and at least thought that the brain-hacking briefcase was a good idea. Even if it didn't-- there it is-- It might be in one of the most infamously bad movies of the 1990's, but it shares a huge link with Christopher Nolan's most recent masterpiece, Inception.

Think about that for a moment.

SIDE SIDE NOTE: Watching bad movies is a lot easier for me to do than to watch a good movie. Artful films, important ones, take a patience and the right kind of mood. A lot of the time I don't have this. Either I'm busy or drunk, or I don't want to watch it on a shitty TV or whatever. It isn't a process that comes as simply as sitting down and watching something I know doesn't really deserve my time (see: Reign of Fire).

Over the past couple of weeks I rented a few movies that I would consider to be "great." There was Seven Days in May (which I've neglected to write about here, but I should get around to it) and Serpico. Each of these took me about a week to watch each, because I knew they were worth the time. This isn't something I'd do with an Earnest movie. The latest movie I've got from Netflix is Citizen Kane. I've only had it for two days, though, considering that it's supposed to be the best movie of all time, it could take me a month before I actually sit down for it.

SIDE SIDE SIDE NOTE: Also, you know what is a much better, much more fun, much more compitent (but no less silly) movie about cyberspace is?


I love Hackers.

LAST SIDE NOTE: Now that I'm going over this again, there's another couple of stories that are about enlightenment or salvation through information and through art. Recently the post-apocalyptic action movie The Book of Eli was about just that (in this case a book, not a bunch of screencaps from the TV) and, less recently, but more significantly, Fahrenheit 451. What is is about dystopias and their inability to properly store needed information? You think they'd at least have knocked that one out by then.

*Oh man, I would totally pay good money to see a super-intelligent dolphin go head-to-head against Ken Jenning on Jeopardy. Are you listening, Hollywood?