Review: Johnny Mnemonic predicts Virtual Reality HMDs and motion sensor tracking

This week’s Basilique Film Festival 2015 movie, written by William Gibson (the father of cyberpunk fiction) and featuring Keanu (the man who would be Neo) Reeves, Johnny Mnemonic is a disappointing film, in pretty much every respect. The acting is atrociously wooden, the plot is as porous as coral, the I’d rather listen to nails on chalkboard that bear another minute of its inane dialogue.

The very premise is ridiculous. I honestly have difficulty imagining William Gibson sitting at his desk conjuring up this one (but I will)…

“So, what would you do if you had this top-secret data you wanted to send to someone else in the future? Could you just easily send it by safely encrypted email that travels at the speed of light over ubiquitous fibre optic cables?”

No, no, no, who’d believe it? (Gibson shakes his head in disbelief)

Much more plausible would be to upload it into the brain of a human courier, so he can then drive the data to the destination, despite the possible risks of it getting damaged beyond recognition if he’s delayed en route, or stolen by his enemies when they try to cut his head off, or that he might just die along the way from ‘information overload’ before he finds a suitable, yet not easily found, computer terminal to download it with…”

Wut? That’s probably one of the silliest ways to transfer data one could ever dream of!

I know what you’re thinking Bill… Come on, Becky, what do you expect from me? I’m not going to write a book and a movie about a guy that sends an email to another guy!

Ok, fair enough, Bill. But, honestly, if you need to resort to monumentally bending the confines of logic to get your story published and your screenplay made into a movie, then you might as well suggest we’ll one day have a global network of millions of computers, or that we’ll all be fixated on technology, or that we’ll be having plastic surgery and prosthetics attached to our bodies, or that we’ll even be walking around in virtual worlds… Oh wait, you were astoundingly right about all of that.

For all the context you would possibly ever need, Johnny (played by Keanu Reeves) is the courier entrusted with smuggling this top-secret data on a computer chip in his brain. As expected, the action follows Johnny as he flees agents willing to kill for the chip, struggling to safely download the data before information overload causes his head to explode.

Along the way there is a cute girl who goes from being a really kick-ass fighter to just another damsel in distress, and weird prophet that seems inserted for no reason whatsoever, and Japanese Gangsters from Beijing to Newark. There you go, I just saved you 2 hours of your life you’d have wished you had back if you’d suffered through this movie, that would have been more aptly titled: “Johnny Moronic”.

As I was watched, I kept asking myself: “Why didn’t they just email it? Why don’t the good guys take out the sole bad guy, when they have him surrounded, and he threatens to kill them all? Why is he the only one with that nifty laser weapon? Why do the good guys hide-out in a broken-down bridge in plain sight of their enemies? Why is their leader a wired-up dolphin? Why is everyone in this movie so dumb?”

The biggest “Why???”, is why doesn’t William Gibson, who up to this point I’ve heard is a cyberspace visionary (he wrote Neuromancer for goodness sakes!), seem to understand basic computer networking? I mean… this was a movie made in 1995, set 30 years in the future where the internet is 3-dimensional, we can safely erase memories from people’s minds, and use human brains for data storage, and nobody knows how to use a modem?

With that said, there is one (and only one!) scene in the movie that demonstrates a bit of technology that – mercifully – is related to what this series of reviews are about: how the movies have portrayed virtual reality (otherwise it would have been a total waste).

So in the scene, we see Johnny making “a long-distance phone call”. My eyelids were threatening to eclipse my eyes at this point, so I can hardly remember why he was doing this, but that’s probably not so important right now.

As you can see, Johnny uses a visor to engage with the internet (that foreshadows the emergence of curved OLEDs nearly 20 years later) that many of us are certainly familiar with today. At first glance, the metallic Head Mounted Display (HMD) looks a bit like a Sony Morpheus.

The gloves he wears remind me of haptic versions of motion tracking sensor technology currently being commercialised by Leap Motion and Nimble. I’ve included some videos below to show the similarities between what we see in the movie clip, and what we actually have at our fingertips today.

So, while it didn’t offer much in the way of quality entertainment, Johnny Mnemonic certainly served up a prescient view of what virtual reality looks and feels like today. I don’t know if it was the first, but it definitely is different from how it was portrayed in both TRON and Total Recall.

It’s the first instance I’ve seen of how movie makers imagined we might physically interact with virtual reality hardware to use a 3D world, and might have just been an inspiration behind many of the new inventions getting very close to consumer availability today.

It’s also the second instance (the first being Total Recall) to show the possible real world benefits of virtual reality – from traveling to simulated reality environments to communicating with others – despite the fact that Johnny could have just used a mobile phone to make that long-distance phone call…

2 thoughts on “Review: Johnny Mnemonic predicts Virtual Reality HMDs and motion sensor tracking

  1. I vaguely remember the pain of watching this film when it came out on VHS, Terrible. I also remember at the time only one of my mates had the internet, and it was terrible! He showed me this 3D chat room thing that was made by MTV I think, and he was the only person who could even move about in it with his super fast 56k dial up o.o

    Not sure if it was a lack of imagination on my part, or the relentlessly appaling connection and high cost of BT’s internet, but the thought of what he was doing on the net in the film was like high fantasy star trek type thing. A 3D internet seemed as silly an idea as the rest of the film. Now we have 3g that beats our old dial up and we have fibre optic at our disposal. Funny how things turn out.


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