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The edge of a hand-lettered sign in an abandoned subway station.

Historical Futurism

A Typophile's Surprise

In Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Keanu Reeves plays an information courier who needs to bring a whopping 320 gigabytes from Beijing to the Free State of Newark. The first problem? His memory implant can hold only 160 GB safely, meaning he has limited time before the cognitive seepage threatens to kill him.

The second problem? It seems everyone wants to get their hands on the data, which means seizing Johnny’s head. Over the course of the film, Johnny battles against a big-pharma boss, a Yakuza assassin, a mobster, and one robo-Jesus.

The twist—which comes as a surprise to the characters more than the audience: Johnny is storing the secret cure to a deadly disease afflicting 50 percent of the planet’s population, which they contracted through the technology around them. It’s as silly as it is riveting.

Google Translate is predicted with Gill Sans and the frequent sci-fi choice, Eurostile. All Caps. Then, Johnny's wakeup call comes in Helvetica and Times.

Most filmmakers select a small collection of fonts and use them for everything. While Johnny Mnemonic might have the worst reviews of all seven films included here, it features the strongest and most realistic typographic cast.

The ensemble consists of Frutiger, Helvetica, Eurostile Extended, Futura, Gill Sans, Orbit-B, Arial Monospace Regular, Times New Roman Bold Italic, and a Garamond (possibly Adobe Garamond). These are all well-drawn classics. In addition, there is a host of well-designed hand-lettering for signs and posters.

Though much of Mnemonic’s world looks unfamiliar—like a half-demolished Manhattan Bridge—the quiet, good use of well-established typefaces lends a degree of authenticity, and familiarity drives the story home.

Screen type for PharmaKom (bad guy) is set in Gill Sans and Eurostile. Meanwhile, US Customs agents use Orbit-B.

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