Before watching the movie:
I heard about this movie a long time ago, though I’m not sure what movie it was brought up in contrast to anymore. I know I already knew of Keanu Reeves as the central player in the Matrix movies, and that heavily colored what little I knew about the movie. I still really only know the core concept, but I’ve always thought of this movie as being very cyberpunk, and had a hard time separating the idea of “mind in computer (simulation)” from “computer in mind”.
Taking a look at the poster right now, it seems like it’s positioning itself as the futurist version of Speed, but that might just be because it’s an action movie with Keanu Reeves.
After watching the movie:
In the far-flung future of 2021, the internet permeates all daily life, corporations have more power than the government, information is the most valuable commodity, and class war has been inflamed by widespread, debilitating disease. In this thankfully fictional nightmare world, the internet cannot be trusted to carry the most sensitive information, and instead people like Johnny are paid thousands to smuggle data around the world, stored directly in their brains through neural download. Though this income pays for an extravagant lifestyle, Johnny has been saving for a long time now to be able to have his implant removed and restore the childhood memories that were erased to make room for his payloads, and his handler Ralfi promises him that while the surgeons have raised their price again, this last job will pay more than enough for him to retire. Johnny’s normal storage capacity is 80GB, though with a doubler, he can safely carry 160. The scientists he meets for this job have a payload of over 300GB, but the money is so good Johnny agrees to the deal, knowing that both his brain and the data will be at risk if he doesn’t get it downloaded in a few days. However, just after the download is made, the hotel room is attacked by Yakuza, and the fax of the three random TV images used to encrypt the data to the destination is interrupted. Johnny has one, the Yakuza have one, and the third was burned. Traveling to his destination point in Newark, Johnny finds that Ralfi has set him up to be captured by the Yakuza, who want to cut off his head to steal and destroy the data, which he soon learns is the entire database of megacorp Pharmakom, including information that could cure the rampant Nerve Attenuation Syndrome illness.
I’m not sure if this story shows a failure of imagination in depicting most people having access to cybernetic enhancement, or accurately portrays a world where people have to go into massive debt to acquire equipment they believe will help them get ahead, only to be betrayed by worse side effects than they were made aware of. The internet being a constant part of everyday life, with digital assistants providing update notifications from the time one wakes up in the morning was perhaps an easy one to get right, though it overestimates virtual reality as the most efficient interface for hacking into networks.
The disease running rampant, NAS (which was funny to me as someone interested in Network Attached Storage), is widely believed to be caused by bad upgrades, but a cyberneticist declares that the actual cause is just living in the electromagnetic fields of the technology all around us that nobody can live without anymore, and I was a little disappointed that that kind of paranoid assertion was never shown to also be incorrect. Maybe I’ve seen too many anti-corporate dystopia stories, but I was expecting it to be revealed that Pharmakom had created the disease to sell the treatment, when the much more mundane truth is that they suppressed a cure because ongoing treatment was more profitable. While one has to forgive a lot of design choices in early 90s futurist movies, the climax, which also sees runaway exposition of concepts I don’t think had come up before, is particularly ludicrous.
This seems to be trying to sit on the shelf next to Blade Runner, but the cynical and sideways tone reminds me more of the wilder side of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that didn’t make it into that movie. It’s also a bit reminiscent of Brazil in its cynical absurdity. It’s based on a short story by William Gibson, who also wrote the screenplay and kept enough creative control to include a lot of his weirder ideas like the dolphin hacker, though his coke addiction didn’t make it.
This is weird, wacky, and not my favorite era of futurism in movies, but it’s more prescient than most and though it’s incredibly dark and gritty, the action is also fun despite the author’s best wishes, and the technological concepts are familiar even if the execution is not. The characters are a bit flat, but they exist in a fascinating and exciting world, and that counts for a lot.