Carrying on from my William Gibson post, featuring a half hour recording of the great man talking to me - which you can listen to here ... I thought I would also present the article that interview turned into. This was written for the book The Crime Time Filmbook which I editing in (oh, God) 1997. The movie adaptation of Johnny Mnemonic had not been out long, then, so I reviewed it and used that as my hook on which to hang the text of the interview. So, now you can compare the text to the original recording and see how many of those beautifully turned quotes I simply made up.
|He ISN'T The One, just deal with it ...
Johnny Mnemonic opens with a slow crawl of text, explaining that the world of multi-national power corps is falling apart because of a cerebral disease called Nerve Attenuation Syndrome. The Holy Grail of the Man/Machine Interface is now a global reality, replacing hardware and software with wetware - wiring that is woven into the tissue of muscle, or replacing selected synaptic matter in the brain. The NAS disease is the organism’s rejection of the artificial implants.
It is a world of new flesh, where no one has to be how nature made them, where roles are constantly being re-negotiated. This is the future, and it doesn’t work. Welcome to 2021, some eighteen months after the setting of Blade Runner, the original science-fiction noirmare and spiritual father of Cyberpunk culture. This slow-crawl of information is designed to evoke Blade Runner, the swooping flight over a virtual landscape that follows reminds of the apocalyptic LA skyline of 2019.
There are several reasons for writer William Gibson and director Robert Longo to evoke Blade Runner, partially, I expect, because comparisons were always going to be inevitable, so why not acknowledge the fact; more significantly, Gibson has never hidden the fact that his seminal creations of The Sprawl and Cyberspace came out of his perceptions of the early eighties, a time when popular culture was swamped with Blade Runner references, from fashion fads (such as the re-birth of the padded shoulder) to the grandiosity of Russell Mulcahy’s Duran Duran videos (particularly Union of the Snake and The Wild Boys). By return, nineties dance culture and ‘net’ culture have heralded Gibson as some notional messiah, and appended the modifier ‘cyber’ to any number of nouns and verbs:
|Those 'wild' boys. The title might be William Burroughs, but the look is pure William Gibson.
When asked about this, Gibson is nothing if not philosophical: “Well, considering the way that I quite consciously appropriated the visual aspect of my work, if you can call it that, from pop culture at large and particularly from rock culture, it seems only appropriate. It’s the sort of thing that goes around and around - y‘know, I appropriate, they re-appropriate, then the whole thing gets re-comodified and goes around again to sell another batch of magazines, games, bands or whatever. It‘s the nature of late-stage capitalism, it‘s what we do. So I can scarcely complain if they do to me what I did to them.”
Unlike many S.F. writers who seem to write their first bestsellers in their early twenties, promptly going on to win the Hugo and Nebula, and then embark on sickeningly successful careers as research physicists and S.F. novelists, Gibson approached writing more steadily, engaging first in what he likes to refer to as ‘some sort of life’.
“Of course, the real classic career for a science fiction writer in America is to be a child prodigy, twenty or twenty-one is quite a late start. A lot of them, especially the last couple of generations, would start in their late teens; but that wasn’t my experience at all. I forget the actual ages involved, but if you look at Asimov or Robert Silverberg, people like that, they started really young. Silverberg put himself through college in high style by writing and selling lots and lots of pulp S.F.
“Coming at it late just gave me a different kind of aesthetic agenda. I started writing science-fiction after having been exposed to literature of various kinds, and after having had some adult experiences. That just made me a different sort of animal as far as writing this stuff goes.”
Having read a lot of his work, I always imagined him to be a keen science-watcher, with expertise in many areas, but he denies this with, I might add, just as much grace as he deflects compliments:
“No, no, quite the opposite; it’s just that, in order to do my job, I had to leave that impression! An important thing to remember when you read science fiction, is that it is the work of a charlatan, possibly a benevolent charlatan, but a charlatan none the less. No, science fiction writers are not the God-Priests of high-technology they're credited with being, far from it. We are, by and large, a delightfully shabby lot, particularly intellectually. We are not necessarily your hot ticket to the future. If you’re interested in what the future’s really gonna be like, you should temper a little more serious thought. Go and see what professional futurists are doing, not just the kind who try to write bestselling books.”
So what was it he saw in the early eighties, bumming around the West coast of his adopted Canada, that led to formation of the great urban cage of The Sprawl, where mutated people are kept in technological bondage by unbelievably vast zhiabatsu corporations? What led him to explore the conceptual space inside a computer, now universally known by his term ‘cyberspace’?
|'Cyberspace' as envisioned in Johnny Mnemonic, one part Tron to two parts 2001.
“It wasn’t really that I knew about VR before other people did, I still deny that what I did was predictive. Besides, my real ability in what appears to be a predictive function, is really nothing more than a kind of trend spotter, if you will. I’d never heard the term ‘Virtual Reality’ then, I’m not even sure it existed, but there were enough bits of nascent VR technology around in 1981 to put it all together.
“There were things you could look at - such as the rumours floating about, about various pilot/aircraft interfaces the American Airforce was working on. Fighterplanes to be flown by computers, where the computer would fly the plane, while the pilot interfaced with the computer. And I’d heard various stories about pilots sitting at the hearts of windowless aircraft, which were covered with television cameras. The pilot’s head was inside a huge helmet with all these screens inside, so the plane, in effect, became transparent and he was looking through it, except he was looking at television pictures. So, just from that image, from about 1980, you can infer the kind of VR technology we have today.”
However, the idea of total immersion experiences (more real than real, to coin a phrase) is hardly a new one, Aldous Huxley called it ‘The Feelies’ in Brave New World, where a combination of drugs and recreational technology kept a whole society docile, functional and at peace. In the Sprawl, the drugs are digital and flight into the non-dimension inside the computer is the only escape from a cracked and leaking real-life society. Never the less, Gibson was more likely to take his inspiration from The Scientific American than the literature section.
Thusly, the ideas of VR and telepresence, had been around in a larval form for quite a while, but never before had their use and popularization afforded their author the chance to influence a technology’s development as it happened. Most of the ex-hippy scientists we see in documentaries working out on the virtual cutting edge, insist on referring to VR as ‘Cyberspace’.
“ I’m quite pleased, my hopes for ‘Cyberspace’ are coming true, in so far as it is my baby. Y’know, when I produced this neologism, it was hollow; it kinda came out of the oven empty. And since then various people, including myself, have attempted to fill it with meaning. But my real ambition for it is that it will wind up in the dictionary. I’ve been watching the updates on the new OED with some interest.
“ ‘Cyberpunk’ has already appeared in some dictionaries specializing in American contemporary language, but that’s not my word, and I’m not particularly fond of it. But I would love to contribute a word to the language, that would be a great coup! I think the only other science-fiction writer who’s done that is Robert Heinlein with the term ‘waldo’ for those remote control robot hands they use for handling isotopes. I suspect that in laboratories, even now, people are referring to those things as waldos, never knowing where it came from or why they’re calling ‘em that. “
And so it came to pass. The Cyberpunk Movement was a product of the early eighties, a metaphor for the cold, dark hole western society was being propelled towards. Now, in the late eighties, we’re so far down the hole it is hard to see Gibson’s work as fiction. And now, finally, his vision hits the screen.
“ Johnny Mnemonic was only the second work of fiction I ever wrote, it would be about 1980, and it was the start of it all for me, got the creative juices flowing, and led right on to Neuromancer. That’s why I wanted to write the script for the movie-version myself, I wanted to see how well it stands up after all these years, and it stands up pretty well.”
Gibson’s previous experiences with Hollywood had been abortive: a rejected script for Alien3 ( “I think the only thing of mine that remained in the film was a barcode on the back of someone’s neck”), several futile attempts to hang on to his vision with adaptations of Burning Chrome and New Rose Hotel (both Sprawl stories) which slowly suffocated in development hell. Consequently the plan for Johnny (originally hatched in 1989) was to do it small - to be filmed in Toronto and directed by Gibson’s very good friend, sculptor and painter Robert Longo. “This is his first feature after working on things like REM videos, so for Robert and for me, it’s a sort of shot in the dark. ‘Cos I’ve never had a screenplay produced before, and he’s never directed a film before.
“Unfortunately, making it small and personal proved difficult: We weren’t asking for enough money. We were going to financiers and asking for one million dollars, which is nothing for a movie. They didn’t take us seriously. So we re-worked it, made it bigger, more complex, more expansive, then Robert went to Hollywood, took the script and his design sketches and asked for 30 million dollars. Suddenly they were impressed.”
The end result book-ends Gibson’s career thus far. His first Sprawl story, the foundation-stone for so many disparate dystopias (including aspects of the one we all now live in) has become the first grown-up science-fiction movie in a decade, and an amalgam of all his works. The opening swoop through infospace is taken from Burning Chrome (via Steven Lisberger’s still-cutting-edge Tron). The law has broken down (or been privatized ... which is pretty much the same thing) leaving life-support to be the task of vigilantes, as in Count Zero. The tough underbelly of society - the lo-teks - don’t just live in a giant scaffolding web, as in the original story, but have woven their habitat between the high-tension cables of a suspension bridge - as in Virtual Light.
The obvious way to go would have been for the spastic lighting and ragged editing of Cyberpunk à la MTV, but they deliberately rejected that direction. “If we’d filmed the story as-is, it would have seemed passé, the ‘cyberpunk look’, if you will, has been very hip, but for how much longer? Billy Idol has taken it (with his ‘Cyberpunk’ album) and killed it dead, as far as I’m concerned. That aesthetic will now forever be identified with a particular movement of the mid-90s, which is already as good as over. If we’d followed that style, our film would have been born old.
|It's official - the day cyberpunk died!
“Johnny Mnemonic isn’t about flashy graphics and rock music, although we’ve used ‘em when appropriate, it’s about The Politics Of Information. It’s about a strange, but consistent world, not quite like our own, but similar.”
It’s a world swamped with devices, technologies machines that surround us and even penetrate us (the whole plot of the movie concerns the hard-drive Johnny has wired into his brain) yet that technology consistently fails to make the human condition happier.
“My response to this stuff is one of the deepest ambivalence, I’m inclined to think that that’s the only sane response. I wouldn’t want to be a luddite, but by the same token, I wouldn’t want to be a technophiliac sucker who’s just waiting for the next new medium to come down the pike, and who believes that science always makes it all better.”
How do the Americans, who are notorious for their love of a happy ending, take to his Dystopic vision?
“Well, y’know, I sell more copies overall in the United States, but I think I’ve probably always done better proportionally in the UK. And certainly there was recognition early on over here of a certain kind of irony and comic content which is remarkably rare with American critics when they look at my work. They just don’t see that grimness can co-exist with comedy. They don’t see that extremes, the very, very, very deadly grim, can co-exist with humour, so, with my work, they just ignore it.
“It’s like when they were looking at Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, it just baffled them, they said ‘My God, it’s neither fish nor fowl’. But with my work they don’t even see the humour, so they think, ‘Wow, this guy’s great, he’s deadly serious about this stuff, let's go and build these machines right now'!”
|Fascinating, is it not, that Brazil, one of the core texts of Cyberpunk, also had such a profound influence on the creation of Steampunk ...
“Well, actually, that was kinda predictive for me, because, when I wrote it, I hadn’t spent much time in Hollywood. I now sometimes think of Ralphie Face sauntering around Melrose looking at these technically very, very beautiful women who have lost any degree of individuality to the knife. Because something like that is actually happening. If plastic surgery became something you could get at the 7-11, or your local gas station, people would wind up with these rather unoriginal jobs that were a composite of three or four people; y'know, Sharon Stone and Bridget Fonda and Madonna, and by the time you’ve loaded six on, you’ve got a generic face. There are a lot of people around who wanna be actresses in Hollywood, who have generic faces, and if enough of them get into movies and become role models, well ...”
Finally then, accepting that he claims his fiction isn’t predictive, I was curious to know what one of literature’s more celebrated prophets of gloom really expected the future to hold in store.
“Well, on the whole, I’m as hopeful as I can be. There’s an American philosopher named Frederic Jameson, who’s the guy who brought the idea of post-modernism to literary criticism, and he said that the characteristic emotion of our era is something he called ‘The Post Modern Sublime’, which consists of an equal admixture of ecstasy and dread. And I think that comes pretty close to describing what I really feel, when I look at the future!”
|At the time, so soon after Bill and Ted and Point Break, it was difficult to imagine Keanu had anything in his head, let alone 300-odd gig.
But what of the film? How does it fare in a market already cluttered with cyber-thrillers from The Net to Hackers? Well, as you might expect, Gibson digs further into the ramifications of future-tech than any of his competitors - even Cameron and Bigelow’s excellent Strange Days. He explores how an entire society - and a global society at that - can be affected by technological development. He shows how scientific progress can become evolution. Because he is accustomed to working in the future, he isn’t overawed by it, it isn’t a foreign country to him. Consequently, as with any science fiction story worth its Theramin, Johnny Mnemonic isn’t really about tomorrow, it’s about today, it’s about our Blade Runner Culture, it’s about techno-fascism and what we’ll really find at the end of the information superhighway.
Johnny is a professional, he is a courier who carries earth’s most valuable remaining resource - information- around in a chip wet-wired into his head. As the story begins he is about to take on board his largest and most precious cargo. He plays down what he is about to do - but uploading 320 gigabytes of information (which I am confidently assured is a hell of a lot) a shockingly visceral experience, like taking a stationary roller-coaster and pulling twenty virtual gees. The synaptic seepage he suffers (because 320 gig is way too much for him) has instantaneous affects and he has to repair to the bathroom to practice a few breathing exercises and re-compose his Zen ... or something. This just shows how far-Eastern fashion and practice has penetrated into the Western mindset by 2021.
Whilst Johnny is in there, re-composing, the other side of Eastern society - the Yakuza - arrive, including one soldier who has made the traditional sacrifice of having a finger removed - and has turned it to his advantage by having it replaced with a weapon capable of slicing people in half. We know this, because he demonstrates on more than one unwilling participant.
There is a refreshing mix of weaponry on show here, from cutting-edge pistols to bazookas, right down to a mixture of explosives and swords and Dolph Lundgren’s cruciknife. He plays the Street Preacher, a flamboyant hired killer, wet-ware addict and leader of the (seemingly one-man-operation) Church of the Re-Transfiguration. As insurance, he is hired by the Yakuza leader Takahashi to get Johnny’s head - with the chip intact - if the Yakuza troops should fail.
|This man has a Masters Degree ... Can you tell?
Takahashi is played with dry humour by Takeshi Kitano, probably better known over here as ‘Beat’ Takeshi, director of such odd-ball wonders as Violent Cop and Sonatine. His very presence in this film is a quote, his introduction - looking through a venetian blind at a night-bound industrial wasteland - is at once a nudge towards both Blade Runner and Apocalypse Now.
This film is crammed almost to choking with illusory and literal quotes, mostly from Gibson’s own previous works, and from Blade Runner: As Johnny is about to beat one of his assailants over the head he tells him Time to die! Ralphi Face, Johnny’s agent, holds court in a bar that is half Tech Noir, half Taffy’s. Finally, just to stretch the point to breaking, Jones, the wetwired dolphin (who eventually sucks the data out of Johnny, if you see what I mean) is a nod to Alien’s Jones The Cat and, of course, since Johnny’s only known name is John Smith, he and the dolphin together become alias Smith and Jones.
Okay, enough; but, on a more fundamental level, the very story of one man with a finite amount of time to download his data before it pollutes his nervous system and kills him, is taken as much from the computer game Burn Cycle as it is from Rudolph Maté’s 1950 noir D.O.A. It may well be that Gibson isn’t afraid to quote his peers, but there comes a point when doing so leaves room for little else.
Where Johnny Mnemonic falls down, it does so because of the self-confessed lack of experience Gibson and Longo have in movies. Gibson’s script, although messy, is simply in need of tightening up, but that needs a good strong director, which, unfortunately, Robert Longo is not.
This film pulsates with great ideas and convincing futurology, but the flaccid pace and frankly bizarre casting (particularly Lundgren and Henry Rollins as flesh mechanic ‘Spider’) betray the potential shown. Keanu Reeves has never been the most charismatic nor convincing of leading men, but Point Break and Speed both showed that he can cut the proverbial mustard when his performance is sculpted from a strong script by a stronger director. Lacking that, his big soliloquy about the iniquities of life, ending with his bellowed plea "I want room service!" creates great hilarity in all who witness it. Which, unfortunately, wasn’t the point.
Johnny Mnemonic is a disappointment, not just because I, along with many, many Gibson fans, have been waiting a long time for him to put his vision on screen, but because the lost potential bleeds out of nearly every scene. They came so frustratingly close, yet just missed.
Dir: Robert Longo.
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Dina Meyer, Dolph Lundgren, Takeshi Kitano
Dur: 103 mins
And, if you's like to know more about Mr. Gibson's movies, you can find my review of New Rose Hotel here.