My opinion on the stuck-in-development-hell Neuromancer movie

Kimberly Marvel in sunglasses and false color

A Neuromancer movie has been in development hell since the eighties. My opinion on how you’d do it has stayed fixed for quite a few years now, so I figured I’d write it out so that every time people make noises about it, I can dig up this post and be saved making the argument over and over again.

Neuromancer came out in 1984. A video game that loosely followed the book came out in 1988. Somewhere in the late eighties, my brother and I were given a copy of the game, which was fun. And I eventually saw the book in the bookstore and read it. In 1988, I was in early grade school. No way I could get it, even though I tended to read far above my grade level. It took me a number of years to really grasp the subtleties, the narrative, everything that was going on. It was eyeopening.

Now, the video game trumpeted the movie that was going to come out. The production company was “Cabana Boys,” and apparently that’s mostly who they were. They talked a good talk to Gibson and got the rights and were totally unable to do anything with it. Johnny Mnemonic came out in movie form in 1995 and it went over just as poorly as The Net. The Matrix came out in 1999. Meanwhile, the parts of the Cyberpunk movement that were going to happen have largely happened and the movement as a functioning group on the forefront of science fiction burned out.

I pretty much figured after seeing The Matrix in 1999 and Sneakers in 1992 that there wasn’t any room for a good Neuromancer film as-written.

The problem is, were the Wachowskis to have made Neuromancer instead of The Matrix, it would have worked just as well. But now that The Matrix has come out, a Neuromancer movie would feel almost like a cheap ripoff to people who hadn’t read the book.

I suspect that at some point in the future, we will see a Neuromancer movie. Think about how long it’s taken some books to turn into movies. Now, there’s a fairly good chance it’s going to be total crap.

However, I feel there is a way that a good Neuromancer movie would be created, and I’d like to tell you what my vision of this mythical platonic Neuromancer film would look like:

See, the future we live in is different from the future envisioned, much like the Jules Verne books are very different from today. Thus, the movie ought to be a period costume piece, with teased hair and leather leotards and leather jackets, with neon lights and video game arcades, and payphones that have carefully punk-proofed full QWERTY keyboards. It won’t have sleek sunglasses like in The Matrix, it’ll have mirrored aviators. The matrix will be polygonal forms and color strata, not an artificial reality. It won’t try to work around how many of the little predictions of the book went completely wrong, it’ll embrace them as one embraces alternative reality with steampunk. It might even be black and white, or maybe just heavily color-graded. It’ll avoid bullet time, but embrace Baz Lerhman’s time stretching and probably need to somehow pioneer some different and new ways to narrate and slice and dice.

If done right, it will very likely need to contend with going over like Blade Runner or Fight Club, only really finding it’s audience much later.

The thing is, it has tons of time to take shape. Whenever it does happen, the shape of the days of the shooting will effect how one adapts the film, providing ample room for thousands of essays about filmmaking and history and science fiction. The era for the retro-Neuromancer pretty much started around 2001 or so.

On the other hand, I suspect that we’re going to see the usual Hollywood treatment of it, where the Internet becomes the Matrix. The problem here is that you end up writing an entirely new cyberpunk story that just has the title and a few names in common… so why bother burdening it with the name Neuromancer?

(I had to go back and update this 13 years later. My argument has been the same for 13 years, it's just that genders are fluid and I couldn't bear to leave a sentence un-changed after a friend pointed it out.)