The 80s were a turning point in media. Between the heyday of the music video, the breakout of shows like Miami Vice, and a new crop of writers. the approach to storytelling changed. One of the literary movements of the 80s was Cyberpunk, a mesh of man and machine in a distopian world where corporations have become monolithic and governments exist only at their pleasure*, where people outside pleasant society act as go betweens and expendable assets for the corporations and for the criminal organizations. The vanguard of cyberpunk was "Johnny Mnemonic", a short story written by William Gibson** and published in 1981 in Omni magazine.
The title character of "Johnny Mnemonic" was a data courier, with the equivalent of a hard drive*** implanted in his head. He ran into a problem with one client and had his bacon rescued by Molly Millions, a razorgirl with mirrorshade eyes and razors implanted under her fingernails. The criminal organization from whom the client stole the data now in Johnny's head wanted the data back and traces of it eliminated, sending a killer who had more replacement parts than original body to clean up. Johnny and Molly turned to Jones, a war vet dolphin with a smack addiction, to retrieve the passcode for the data and to the Lo-Teks, a anti-technology gang, for protection while sending a snippet of the data to the criminal group to get them to back off. The killer, meanwhile, has tracked the duo down and takes on Molly on the Killing Floor.
In 1995, Gibson worked with director Robert Longo to bring the story to the silver screen. Althought the original script was more an art film, desogned to be made for under two million, they pair went with Sony who saw the Internet as a potential draw. Sony provided $30 million. Several changes were made to the story. Because the character of Molly was already licensed out to another company, she was replaced with Jane. Unlike Molly, Jane was on her way down, having been infected with Nerve Attenuation Syndrome (NAS). The criminal organization was replaced by a pharmaceutical firm that had discovered a cure for NAS but wanted it buried because their treatment program would be more profitable.***** Johnny, played by Keanu Reeves, became the main mover in terms of plot and action, where as in the original short story, he directed the plot but left the heavy lifting for Molly.
With Gibson and Longo working together on the movie, what could go wrong?
Executive meddling. According to William Gibson himself, the movie was recut at the last moment by the American distributor, and recut badly. The flow fell off. There was some criticism of Keanu Reeves's acting ability, but, in retrospect, he managed to portray a man who had part of his brain removed and altered to become a data courier believably. Unlike How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Johnny Mnemonic didn't keep the creator in the loop at a crucial stage in editing, and the movie suffered as a result.
Next time, a summary.
* So, all we're missing today are USB ports in our heads.
** Other early cyberpunk works include /Neuromancer/ and /Mona Lisa Overdrive/.
*** I really hope IBM isn't going this route with racetrack memory.
**** Superconducting quantum interfence detectors.
***** Okay, cyberpunk waned because it started to look good compared to reality.