What if like, a serial killer committed suicide, but not before making sure that his soul would be uploaded into a computer server through some pseudo hacker wizardry, leaving his essence free to roam throughout entire systems of data and machine control, manipulating everyday household items into deadly weapons of murder? It sounds ridiculous and it is but it’s also a lot of fun, an old forgotten cyber horror flick called Ghost In The Machine. Now, obvious comparisons might be made to another 90’s cyberpunk SciFi/horror called Virtuosity with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe but besides having a way lower budget, scrappy feel to it, this film is about a serial killer who was already human and then died and went into cyberspace vs the other way round. The killer here (played by Ted Marcoux) is just a nondescript, nasty piece of work dubbed the “address book killer” for his arbitrary, imagination deficient mode of picking victims. One night he deliberately totals his car off a cliff and kicks the bucket, only to resurface in cyberspace to hunt a young mother (Karen Allen) and her kid using everything from toasters, home entertainment systems, crash test dummy courses and basically anything electronic he can posses using his weird supernatural hacker magic. Their only hope is a super hacker of their own, (played by Chris Mulkey aka Hank from Twin Peaks) a good natured dude who once embezzled a million bucks from the IRS and gave it back to the people. This is fairly lowbrow, schlocker type entertainment with really, really cheesy 90’s virtual reality effects in the vein of something like The Lawnmower Man, but it has a certain viciousness and violent edge that I appreciated. Several murder scenes are pretty jaw dropping including one where the killer turns the entire interior living room of a dude’s house into an irradiated microwave zone and lets him literally fry to death, or an instance of electricity induced spontaneous combustion that is genuinely jarring in its sudden gruesomeness. Rachel Talalay the director also did the criminally underrated cult classic Tank Girl so she has a flair for the bizarre punk sensibilities that come across here. If you like retro SciFi goofiness, grisly slasher aesthetics and just a cheesy, lovably VHS feel, you’ll get a kick here.
Keanu Reeves can somehow make almost any story, no matter how ridiculous, seem sober and coherent, but Johnny Mnemonic kind of takes the cake. A weird, messy, hyperactive fusion of classical cyber punk elements and 90’s B movie sensibilities (Ice T cements that vibe early on) it’s not a good film but certainly an interesting one that makes a loony impression. Reeves is Johnny, a data courier in a world of trafficked information stored in people’s brains, wanted by all sorts of undesirables including the Yakuza, surrounded by a a throbbing underground rock soundtrack and more cacophonous screensaver special effects than The Lawnmower Man. Reeves looks slick as ever and treats the material with due diligence, but the best and most effective performance comes from Dolph Lundgren as an aggressive freak dubbed the Street Preacher, a platitude spouting baddie who is endlessly fun to watch and stands as one of the actor’s best and most idiosyncratic creations. Henry ‘scream my lines’ Rollins cements the rock vibe as a weirdo doctor who tinkers with Johnny’s brain some, Dina Meyer plays his sidekick and pseudo love interest, and watch for Udo Kier as a corrupt diva of a nightclub owner. This film is fun enough from some angles, but for a SciFi film revolving around intel stored in one’s brain, the whole thing is pretty fucking brainless. There’s cool exposition detailing how Johnny needs to wipe certain chunks of memory like his childhood to make room for more bytes of black market info, but it’s never really shown how this affects his character. The whole thing is a blast of arbitrary, technicolour sound and fury that doesn’t really sit still long enough to think much on what it’s about, which is fine I suppose if all you want is fireworks. I will give it props for some inventive production design and gorgeous costumes though, but too little too late. One scene in particular kind of sums it all up, with Johnny having a full on emotional meltdown temper tantrum in some back alley over the fact that he doesn’t get to spend nights in a five star hotel with top class hookers. One could almost see his exasperation mirroring Reeves at having to play part in something so silly as this. Chill out Keanu, only four more years to go until you headline one of the best, most influential science fiction films ever made.
It’s always fun to come across genuinely intelligent science fiction films, especially when you go into them expecting a half assed, clunky yawn, which happens frequently. Johnny 2.0 is an overlooked little cyber-punk gem in an unassuming release package, a thinking man’s sci-fi story that could have easily gone the other way, but contains enough inspired creativity to rise above the muck. Jeff Fahey plays Johnny Dalton, a genetic researcher whose facility is attacked by activists. Waking up from the disaster he is stunned to find that he’s not Johnny at all anymore, but a clone who has been in cryo for 25 years, awakened now for one purpose: set out across a post apocalyptic wasteland to retrieve the original Dalton and smoke out a web of conspiracies that have hatched over the years. There’s all sorts of really intriguing ideas at play here including MRI memory mapping, organic tracking suits, genetic reconfiguration and personalized holograms, a wealth of scientific world building that earns this film its stripes in the artistic departments. Fahey is excellent, as is a noble Michael Ironside, Tahnee Welch and John Neville. Super solid storytelling, ideas worth exploring, an impressive level of design and atmosphere achieved despite the limited funds, there’s not too much you can say about this one that is not the highest of praises.