Call it the chicken and egg of the Digital Age. What with Street Fighter, Super Mario Bros., Demolition Man, and Jurassic Park, it’s getting hard to tell which came first: the videogame or the movie. The line has gotten so blurry that I’ve started paying for movie tickets with quarters. Now, confusing things further, Johnny Mnemonic the movie and Johnny Mnemonic the CD-ROM game — sorry, the ”cinematic experience” — are being unveiled virtually simultaneously. Of course, the tasty irony is that both high-tech extravaganzas are based on a 1980 story by William Gibson, written on — gasp! — a manual typewriter. Just think about how far things have come in 15 years: Gibson’s cyberpunk tale is fulfilling its own promise by coming out on CD-ROM.
Any EW reader should know by now that the multiplex version stars Keanu Reeves. Since Reeves was busy shooting the flick (and would he have wanted to appear in a computer game, anyhow?), Sony tapped Christopher Gartin, the Peeping Tom fix-it man from Melrose Place, for the game. Lookswise, the two actors could be twins, but the slightly less studly Gartin seems like a speed freak compared with Reeves and his strictly Venice Beach dude-speak. Get beyond Reeves’ absence, though, and you’re in for a technologically groundbreaking but mind-numbingly repetitious adventure, with a supporting cast so bizarre you almost have to be dazzled.
But first the setup: Gartin is your on-screen alter ego, the dapper, buzz-cut Johnny Mnemonic, a futuristic courier who carries his cargo in his noggin. Your objective is to find the missing code that enables you to download the info from your brain chip, all the while trying to elude a posse of deadly Yakuza. Sure, the situation smacks of standard Sherlock Holmesian sci-fi, but along the way you get to bump into Uzi-toting hood Kurt Rambis (formerly of the L.A. Lakers), gang leader Isaac Hayes (of ”Theme From Shaft” fame), futuristic TV host Doug Llewelyn (The People’s Court’s talking head), and gymnastic avenger Julie Strain (1993 Penthouse Pet of the Year). What distinguishes this game from, say, a ribbon-cutting at an L.A. car wash are its spectacular fight scenes. Since the game is presented like a film — incorporating smoothly flowing, though grainy, video footage — the fisticuffs get realistic and personal, to a degree that no previous interactive movie game can boast. You don’t just watch events unfold, you’re in them. Enter a room and you can rifle through documents, ”converse” with another character, or even punch him in the face and watch him reel in pain.
The game loses its adrenaline kick, however, whenever the brawling stops. Using such high-tech gadgets as a Jetsons-style videophone, you explore clichéd decayed cityscapes and a subway replete with dripping pipes and steaming grates. And it all looks super. But wouldn’t it be refreshing, just once, to encounter a future with good plumbing? It’s not that these scenes aren’t engaging. You just can’t avoid repeating most of them six or seven times, which makes it unlikely that you’ll want to replay Johnny Mnemonic over and over. After a while, you’ll hope that some goon will jump you, just to get back to the action sequences.
It would be unfair to single out Johnny Mnemonic for occasionally lapsing into tedium. Almost all of the best CD-ROM movie games (including The 7th Guest, Hell, and Under a Killing Moon) share that flaw. Here, at least, the less-than-thrilling story is backed by a budget big enough to keep it from looking as if it were shot in my grandmother’s basement. (In fact, if Mnemonic feels a little extra spooky, it may be because it was filmed at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel, where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.)
While it’s too early to tell whether Johnny Mnemonic the movie is a summer blockbuster, Johnny Mnemonic the game is a giant, albeit shaky, step forward for CD-ROM movie games — with or without a matinee idol on board for the ride. B