Love The Matrix? Then you need to watch Keanu Reeves other, weirder cyberpunk movie

Three years before the Wachowskis took us down the rabbit hole with The Matrix, Keanu Reeves starred in another, much weirder cyberpunk movie: Johnny Mnemonic. The Robert Longo-directed movie might as well be The Matrix’s wackier older cousin, exploring similar themes – but in a very different way.

Johnny Mnemonic is a film that simply must be seen to be believed. Adapted for the screen by influential cyberpunk author William Gibson, who wrote the short story the film is based on (and whose 1984 novel Neuromancer used the term ‘the matrix’ for cyberspace over a decade before the Wachowskis), the film focuses on Reeves’ titular character, who stores gigabytes of data in a brain implant. He’s a mnemonic courier, which means he smuggles the information stored in his head from client to client. To get more space, he had to delete his childhood memories – and, despite knowing that overloading his brain-drive could be fatal, the film begins with him taking on far more than he can handle. That information lodged in his head turns out to be very important, but in the short-term, it’s about to kill him if he can’t remove it in time. If that wasn’t dire enough, the Yakuza is on his trail, intent on slicing and cryogenically freezing his head to preserve the precious data inside. 

Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic

(Image credit: TriStar Pictures/Alliance Atlantis/MDP Worldwide)

Still with me? It only gets weirder from here. A mercenary sent after Johnny is called the Street Preacher – played by Dolph Lundgren – and he’s dressed a lot like Jesus. It’s something of a theme for him. At one point, he fires out the one liner “come to Jesus” as he closes in on his prey, and he wields a knife attached to a massive crucifix. He’s also cybernetically enhanced and nigh-indestructible: imagine the Terminator, but with long hair. 

Then there’s Jones, the dolphin who can take Johnny online and safely extract the deadly data. Yes, you read that right. Jones, Johnny’s last hope, is indeed a dolphin, and a war vet to boot. “It’s a fish,” Johnny says, only to be corrected that Jones is, in fact, a mammal. 

Johnny Mnemonic

(Image credit: TriStar Pictures/Alliance Atlantis/MDP Worldwide)

Even stranger (and eerily familiar), the film is set in 2021 amid a pandemic. The virus is called ‘nerve attenuation syndrome,’ or NAS, and is ravaging the planet. When Johnny asks Henry Rollins’ Spider, a former doctor, what causes NAS, the answer is: “Information overload, all the electronics around you poisoning the airways! Technological fucking civilization, but we still have all this shit because we can’t live without it!” Johnny Mnemonic is very concerned about our relationship with technology – and while The Matrix veers into territory Johnny Mnemonic avoids, questioning the nature of reality and raising philosophical questions surrounding fate and destiny, both movies do have a similar outlook on how technology deepens the divide between rich and poor, even if Johnny Mnemonic makes the theme far more prominent.  

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Best Keanu Reeves movies

(Image credit: Lionsgate/Warner Bros/Orion Pictures/De Laurentiis Entertainment Group)

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In Longo’s film, megacorporations control the world, employing the Yakuza and protecting their data with deadly viruses. The information Johnny is smuggling is from defectors from one such corporation: Pharmakom, an aptly named big pharma company more interested in profit than saving lives. Johnny willingly overloads his brain because the job’s pay would allow him to afford implant-removing surgery that would recover all of his memories. While unplugging from the Matrix doesn’t cost a fee, it does come with a rejection of certain luxuries in favor of the spartan lifestyle of the rebel city of Zion (and remember, Joe Pantoliano’s Cypher chooses to re-enter the simulation for material joys like eating steak again).

Johnny Mnemonic

(Image credit: TriStar Pictures/Alliance Atlantis/MDP Worldwide)

Speaking of Zion, there’s also a shabby rebel group in operation in Johnny Mnemonic. The ‘LoTeks,’ which the opening crawl calls “a resistance movement risen from the streets: hackers, data-pirates, guerrilla-fighters in the info-wars,” fight back and live in dilapidated areas, described “like rats in the walls of the world.” Johnny’s travelling companion Jane (Dina Meyer) is from this wrong, rebellious side of the tracks. At one point, an overwhelmed Johnny tells her, “that’s where I’m supposed to be,” meaning the bright lights of the big, wealthy city nearby, “not down here with the dogs and the garbage and the fucking last month’s newspapers blowing back and forth!” Both Zion and the LoTeks’ domain share a rusty, broken down aesthetic: only by complying with the megacorporations and the machines can you enjoy the big city and the simulation. 

Look beyond Johnny Mnemonic’s madcap elements, then, and you’ll find a fascinating and all too relevant treatment of issues that still plague our society over 20 years later, just like The Matrix. While both films are nowhere near identical, they share similarities that makes Johnny Mnemonic the ideal double feature with any of The Matrix movies. And who could turn down Keanu Reeves being rescued by a cybernetic dolphin?

The Matrix Resurrections is out in theaters and on HBO Max now. Make sure to catch up on everything that’s happened so far in the Matrix with our ultimate Matrix recap.

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