's 2014 Horror Write-off:

" A Synopsis of David Cronenberg's Neuromancer "

Submitted by Erika Bachman

David Cronenberg’s Neuromancer has always been a fascinating cinematic anomaly, although most students will remember it only for the infamous lawsuit that Cronenberg became embroiled in and eventually devastated by. Indeed, it bears many uncanny similarities to William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel of the same name: concepts in both works echo one another; even the character’s names are largely identical. Yet there is a key fact often overshadowed by Gibson’s success in court: the Cronenberg film predates the novel by two years.

Released in 1982 to limited cinema circulation, Cronenberg’s Neuromancer was immediately and deeply divisive. Some now regard it as a visionary or prophetic work of genius, but at the time most were left bemused. It is hard to blame them. The film is haphazardly edited, poorly scripted and often awkwardly framed. The actors do everything they can with such disorganized material, but it is worth noting that none of them ever worked in film again. Only one—Walter Jenning, the actor who plays Henry Case—continued acting at all, exclusively in small stage productions. Cronenberg himself was financially ruined by the suit brought against him by Gibson, and only released one more feature film, a mediocre piece about a troubled and mentally handicapped groundskeeper.

Although the film predates the novel, evidence provided in court included a rough manuscript written by Gibson a year before Cronenberg initiated production. Further, both parties documented a shared consultant—whose name has never been publicly released, but has been speculated to be experimental novelist William Burroughs. Nothing substantial supports this, but advocates of the idea refer to the title of both works and to Burroughs’ well documented interest in the occult. Little commentary exists on the title, but I feel it necessary to pause and examine it a moment, as its meaning is crucial to understanding the film (much more so than the novel). “Neuro,” from the Greek “neuron,” referring in contemporary context to the brain of course. And “-mancer,” from the Old French, “mancie.” Diviner. Prophet. Sorcerer. Neuromancer: “Magician of the mind,” then. Note also the superficial closeness to “necromancer,” a diviner of the dead.

Despite its numerous flaws, Cronenberg’s Neuromancer has retained a cult following, and in light of recent revelations concerning Tangerine’s unreleased next generation operating system, I am prepared to put up my tent in the “prophetic” camp. It is not my intention to provide analysis of the film except where absolutely necessary, but simply to offer a detailed synopsis, since copies are vanishingly rare and difficult to obtain.


Henry Case (Walter Jenning) is an unassuming office worker who becomes entangled in a semi-coercive affair by his seductive but somehow threatening boss, Winnie Armitage (Vanessa Dupre). Case’s mousy, bespectacled coworker Molly (Amanda Buchanan)—who serves as the only real “grounding” element in the film, for both Case and the audience—attempts at various points to save Case from this disastrous relationship and the ensuing madness it awakens in him, but ultimately fails. Winnie Armitage runs a cutting edge software company, NovOrdo, and Case’s work is a fraction of a much larger project to create an entirely new, advanced operating system. There are never many technical details. Some time after Armitage initiates the affair, Case begins to hallucinate. At first, the hallucinations are mild and he dismisses them as the product of too much work and too little sleep. He sees numbers in things, ones and zeroes: binary code. Always in liquids: code dancing in his coffee cup, pouring from his sink. One scene has the code landing on him during a shower, his panic almost palpable as the toxic-looking, bright green digits sliver around on his skin.

The hallucinations subside, return in a different form, and escalate. Now Case sees tumorous human organs and body parts jutting haphazardly from machinery. A beating heart has grown overnight out of his thermostat. A pair of lacerated, nearly eviscerated arms reach out of his (beautifully 1980s, jade/obsidian monochrome, CRT) computer monitor at work, groping blindly at objects scattered about his desk, leaving a phantasmal chaos of disrupted mundane order in their wake. Another scene has Case’s computer “coughing” violently, then vomiting bloody mucus. Panicked, Case seeks out a coworker who, examining the computer, comments mildly that its hard disk has failed.

Finally, Case sees a face grow from a security panel, oozing and unfurling like a fungus: inhuman, tormented, covered in pores and tumors, gasping for breath and barely able to communicate. All it tells him is that it is tired. “Being more” is tiring. Then it vanishes.

There is a period in the film in which the hallucinations become vaguely erotic. It is suggested by the imagery that whatever fleshy force Case has unwittingly contacted is mating with the machinery in his life. This parallels the climax of Case and Winnie’s affair; as the organic structures become more fully formed the more they penetrate inorganic machinery, so do Case’s attempts at growing closer to the emotionally remote Winnie further define him as a character. One scene in particular draws attention to Case’s maturation. During intercourse, seemingly in orgasmic paroxysm, Case witnesses Winnie shedding her body piece by piece; skin, tissue and muscle slough off in sequence, leaving only a skeleton—an indication of past organism—lying inert in the bed. As Winnie speaks softly, Case hesitates, undercurrents of revulsion on his face, before slowly embracing the antiseptic bones; eager to share his warmth and life with even a dead thing.

Soon Case starts receiving phone calls from a man identifying himself as “James Wintermute.” The man seems to know much about NovOrdo and Winnie’s projects, but the connection is always poor and Case is only able to glean fragments from Wintermute’s monologues. Concurrently, Case stumbles across documents in Winnie’s office referring opaquely to a “Project Wintermute,” apparently the internal code name for the new OS.

Meanwhile, Case’s relationship with Winnie has become strange. At the beginning of the film, she carried an unearthly, subtly menacing quality, but has grown increasingly more distant and hostile. Frustrated with his lover’s iciness, Case takes his anger out on Molly, becoming verbally abusive until she withdraws at last. We in the audience know what this signifies: with no one left to tether him to earth, Case is doomed to drift deeper into his private hell.

The “visitations,” as Case comes to think of them, and the phone calls, continue to escalate. When the same porous face appears again, Case demands in exasperated self-pity to know who it is and what it wants. A single bubbly gurgle escapes its charred, disgusting lips: “Wintermute.”

Case confronts Winnie and, after almost physically assaulting her in his unrestrained rage, gets the answers he wants. The Wintermute project is an experiment in artificial intelligence, which was to be the secret foundation stone in NovOrdo’s revolutionary new OS. A homeless man named James William Ashpool volunteered for vaguely defined “medical research,” which entailed his murder and the destructive scanning of his brain into software. But—of course—“everything went wrong.” Ashpool’s identity dissolved into something larger and more frightening, something that escaped Winnie’s control and now haunts the office’s machinery as a biomechanical spectre.

This revelation brings with it radical changes to the environment. The walls become sinewy, viscous. Case panics, leading Winnie out of the building in a hectic flight—limbs and organs, no longer limited to humanity, begin to sprout chaotically from squamous passages. Exits are blocked by dripping fungoid structures. An office desk with arachnid legs and a throbbing thorax leaps at the pair. Insect-winged files swarm from a loudly buzzing cabinet. All that was inorganic begins to partially resemble something living. Somehow Case and Winnie escape. It is unclear whether the events we just saw occurred in actuality, or were merely more hallucinations. Winnie in any case responds with guarded, cold fury to Case’s actions, and departs. Nothing is ever done about the monstrous building. No one comments on it at any point. Not even Case.

The film ends like this: Case and Armitage are in the break room. Time has passed, the affair is ended but Case is begging Armitage for another chance. The camera cuts to inside a nearby office; we see the pair through window glass. Sound is lost. Armitage mouths, “I’m sorry,” shakes her head, and walks away. Superficially, mundane normality has reasserted itself, but the atmosphere is one of icy dread and near despair.

After Armitage leaves, Case lingers a moment, then returns to his office. His pace is slow, fatalistic. The score here employs lower and lower strings and a monotonous percussion that increases in speed like a predator’s heartbeat stirring from deep slumber. Abruptly goes dead. For the first time, we see the back wall of Case’s office: there is a door. Case opens and crosses the door, passing through an enormous sphincter and emerging in a wasteland boneyard. Human, elephant, canine, feline, avian, reptilian and all manner of bones litter this desolate space. There is only one living, organic thing: a veiny, softly pulsing “box.” Inside is a floppy disk. Case removes it, returns to his office, crosses the floor to an elevator, ascends.

Now he is standing before a computer in a dark room, its ghoulish green glow making him seem less than human. He is motionless for a very long time, then raises his shaking arm and inserts the disk. The computer sighs, gurgles blissfully, goes dark. All light leaves. Case whimpers. The sound is swallowed in silence at once. Absolute stillness reigns. A loud electronic beep; a computer restarting. Stark words appear on the monitor, which has engulfed the totality of the screen: “Novus Pulpa Vivat.” The evocation is complete. Wintermute is freed. Humanity—all organic life—is over.

The credits roll.