Johnny Mnemonic, the movie, is the day when cyberpunk died.
Its failure is interesting less for aesthetic reasons – acting, screenplay, cinematography, special effects – than for what it says about the hyper-modern mind and its taste for shifting cultural signs. Killed by sheer cultural acceleration, by the fact that 80s cyberpunk metaphors don’t really work anymore in the virtual 90s, the popular failure of Johnny Mnemonic testifies to the end of the charismatic phase of digital reality, and the beginning of the iron law of technological normalization. In the age of Neuromancer we could still believe for one charismatic moment that the body could deep-dish its way past screenal telemetry into galactic flows of data, that Molly could vamp her way to mind fusion, that Case could jump out of his flesh and byte-fry his way to Freeside, that somehow we could become data, and it would be good.
Now Neuromancer hit just when hi-tech was in its charismatic state of innocent grace, still a crazy fusion of computer visionaries and outlaw businessmen and hacker writers coming in for a moment from the back alleys of the digital frontier to check out the daytime scene with all the T-shirts in the software labs. Like all cultural movements before it, tech charisma lasts for only one brief, shining instant, and then it fades away into the grim sociology of rationalized technology or, failing which, it quickly disappears from life. The lessons of the 90s have been multiple and they’ve been harsh: not the least of which is that data will find a way, and it’s way is not necessarily about becoming human. While the charisma of tech will never be retrieved again, its memory lingers on the horizon like a beautiful beckoning dream, all the more seductive for its absence.
And Johnny Mnemonic? The movie suffers the very worst fate of all: it’s been normalized, rationalized, chopped down to image-consumer size, drained of its charisma and recuperated as a museum-piece of lost cybernetic possibilities. Perhaps that’s why the film provokes such intense resentment among the cyber-crowd. Its presence is a bitter reminder of the decline of cyberpunk into the present state of hyper-rational (hyper-marketplace) technology. And cyberpunk? It will remain a permanent part of the American literary landscape as a simulation of sci-fi transgression, but only in the doubled form of the transgresion that confirms. That’s Johnny Mnemonic: the difference that recuperates: a cinematic tombstone for the cyberpunk that was its own creation.