Cyberpunk is science fiction, often set in a dystopian future, in which society is dominated, for better or worse, by computers and the internet. Rather than direct government overlords, society-at-large is usually controlled by mega-corporations who skew the balance of power away from the poor and needy, fueling tensions and inspiring revolution. The people are represented by radical groups using their soldiers — or hackers — to shock the system. The internet is used as a great equalizer, a weapon of the oppressed to even the playing field against their tormentors. Then again, the danger of computers taking over society and our daily lives is often a theme in the genre.
Aesthetically, Cyberpunk often borrows from the film-noir detective genre, but with vivid splashes of electronic neons and proliferation of wildly sci-fi technologies. Cybernetically-enhanced humans coexist with their unaugmented brethren, but a looming sense of foreboding hangs above everyone; a Cyberpunk world, if not already in full-scale urban warfare, is always on the brink of one revolution or another. Finally, Cyberpunk is empowering to outcasts, misfits, minorities, and other people who are so often characterized as “less than.” In Cyberpunk, anyone can be powerful, as long as their computer software is up to date.
The genre started out in literature, with stories by such visionary authors as William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson, among so many others. Eventually the movement made its way onto the big screen. For this list, we’re going to take a look at some films which not only co-opted Cyberpunk’s aesthetics, but also did justice to its most prominent themes and ideas. Here’s Screen Rant’s take on the 13 Best Cyberpunk Movies Of All Time.
Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie starred in Hackers, a gorgeous techno-pop Cyberpunk film directed by Iain Softley (K-Pax, Inkheart). The film came and went at the box office, but became a cult classic for its depiction of the image of computer hackers as akin to Wild West heroes, saving helpless people from evil corporations, as well as its striking visualization of hacking itself. The film’s depiction of hacking isn’t remotely scientifically accurate, by any stretch of the imagination, but it works excellently within the movie, which remains true to the spirit of the early hacker subculture.
The film is also notable for its techno soundtrack, which utterly dominated the club scene of the mid 1990s. In Hollywood, computer nerds are still depicted as homely and greasy losers who live in their parents’ basement and lack basic social skills. Hackers made computer nerds cool and trendy, and directly quoting The Hacker’s Manifesto, stated that a hacker “exists without skin color, without nationality, and without religious bias.” It also helped that they’re played by Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie, two of the hottest people on the planet.
The films of David Cronenberg almost always take great pride in their ability to disturb the audience by making them see the undeniable humanity within their absurd premises and graphic imagery. Videodrome is no different. Released in 1983, before the Cyberpunk craze really began to took off, it functions as something of a pre-Cyberpunk film. Instead of internet and computers, people’s lives revolve around and are dominated by trashy television.
James Woods plays an executive of a low-rent TV station who discovers a mysterious foreign program which consists of nothing but obscene torture-porn violence — like Saw, but without the soap opera storyline. The film goes wildly off the rails in surreal and imaginative ways, all leading up to an explosive and esoteric finale. Videodrome lays bare our cultural lust for sex and violence, and many would say that the film successfully predicted that real-life would essentially be replaced with TV screens.
Some aspects of the film are notably dated, such as the hilarious use of a Betamax tape in a crucial (and disgusting) scene, but Videodrome is so wildly audacious that the anachronisms to today’s world only enhance the film’s aesthetic, and hammer home the theme of the movie: that television, and by extension, all media, can be a dangerous tool, capable of being used to control people.
11. Strange Days
Strange Days came out in 1995, the same year as Hackers. Like Hackers, it bombed at the box office, only to become a cult hit as the years went by. Written by James Cameron and directed by Katheryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker), Strange Days tells the story of jaded ex-cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), who sells and is addicted to the drug, SQUID, which allows users to live through other peoples’ experiences down to the last vivid detail.
Set in the near future, 1999 (natch), Strange Days deals with traditional film noir themes through the filter of a slightly fantastical version of the real world. It’s very much a Cyberpunk film, but is set in a world not too far off from our own, compared to some of the other films on this list.
10. The Matrix
The Matrix is 1999’s most acclaimed action movie, and possibly its most influential. Matrix-Mania gripped Hollywood after the film became an unexpected breakout hit. In a career defining role, Keanu Reeves plays Thomas Anderson, who, as a hacker, identifies as Neo. He discovers that reality as we know it is a mere illusion, a simulation made to keep humanity docile while machine overlords grow and consume us, not unlike wheat or corn.
Within The Matrix, Neo and other members of The Resistance can defy the laws of physics and hack skillsets and abilities into their repertoire. Thomas Anderson was just an office drone, but upon his awakening, after peeling back the curtain on the facade of reality, he becomes The One, who works tirelessly to liberate mankind from their ignorant sleep.
The Matrix spawned two sequels which arguably pushed the first film’s themes too far into the realm of esoteric nonsense, which is a matter of great debate among film geeks. Without choosing sides regarding Reloaded and Revolutions, we can all agree that The Matrix is a Cyberpunk masterpiece of style, action, and storytelling.
9. Total Recall
Before there was a name for Cyberpunk, there were lots of science fiction authors whose work would be retroactively recognized as forerunners to the movement. Philip K. Dick is the most well-known of these writers, and many of his novels and short stories have been adapted for the screen: Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, and a great many others have been interpreted by Hollywood, to varying degrees of success. But one which we particularly adore, for so many different reasons, is Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi odyssey, Total Recall, which was based on Dick’s short story, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.
Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in this 1990 film, which some people view as little more than a brainless actioner because of its copious amounts of blood, bullets, and Sharon Stone fistfights. However, for those willing to take a closer look, there’s a looming fear that all is not as it seems; at the film’s outset, hardworking everyman Douglas Quaid (Arnold) pays for an “Ego Trip,” false implanted memories to let people remember experiences they’ve never had. Almost immediately, all hell breaks loose, and the viewer has to decide if Quaid is really on the adventure of a lifetime, of if he’s just vegetating like anyone else on an Ego Trip.
Back to the deeply disturbing and unsettling works of David Cronenberg, we arrive at eXistenZ, which is regarded by many to be the spiritual successor to this list’s other Cronenberg film, Videodrome, but somehow even weirder and more discomforting. Instead of television, eXistenZ tackles virtual reality videogames; like television, they can consume people and overtake their lives, but, when it comes to virtual reality, it can become nearly impossible to determine what is real and what is fake, with layers upon layers of non-reality stacking up to the point where, in true Cyberpunk fashion, there’s no difference between reality and illusion if nobody can actually tell them apart.
Of course, the virtual reality gaming scene is only in its infancy today, and it remains to be seen if projects like Oculus Rift and Playstation VR will be able to truly break through into the mainstream. If they do, however, Cronenberg just might have the last laugh, even if we suppose he’ll be none too happy about foretelling the end of society as we know it.
7. The Zero Theorem
Terry Gilliam is one of the most beloved, yet commercially under-appreciated, directors of all time. Very few of his films ever managed to break out at the box office, and his productions have often been undermined by factors outside of his control, like the death of Heath Ledger during the shoot for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and the myriad of factors which have kept his Don Quixote film from making any meaningful progress for the better part of two decades, though that may be changing if his current plan to start shooting before the end of 2016 comes to fruition…
Gilliam’s most overt science fiction trilogy started with Brazil and 12 Monkeys, two excellent films (but only the Director’s Cut of Brazil), and concluded with The Zero Theorem, a movie which heightens the themes of his previous films (especially Brazil), and ratchets up the incomprehensibility to confusing, but still highly-enjoyable levels. The Zero Theorem tells the story of a man (Christoph Waltz) tasked with solving the titular math problem, while trying, in vain, to retain his sanity as his life becomes increasingly dominated by digital technology. It’s weird, even by Gilliam’s standards, but it’s also a striking and thought-provoking film which everybody should see. Right now. Go!
For director Paul Verhoeven’s second appearance on this list, we look to 1987’s Robocop, which, like Total Recall, is another intelligent film which is ostensibly about a killing machine with a big gun. In the case of Robocop, he literally is a machine, a good cop, Murphy, resurrected as a cyborg crime-fighter with nigh-indestructible armor plating. Set in a satirical black comedy version of the United States, Robocop made clever use of in-universe news broadcasts to relay the state of the awful-yet-familiar world of the film. Robocop’s version of Detroit, the main setting of the movie, is practically run by OCP, Omni Consumer Products, and Murphy’s predicament, of having a degree of consciousness within a robot body and being unable to control his actions as a corporate product, are among the film’s more overtly Cyberpunk themes.
Robocop’s dire setting became even more indicting when the actual city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013, leading to the increasing privatization of its police force and other departments, much like OCP’s plans in Robocop’s sequels. Awkward.
The world of Akira is one of the most fully realized Cyberpunk settings out there, with biker gangs, a gritty and perpetually overcast urban center, and openly anti-government terrorist groups juxtaposed with wildly science-fiction elements like human experiments into psychic powers, along with copious amounts of R-rated sci-fi violence. Many children of the early ’90s were scarred when an unwitting parent picked this up at Blockbuster thinking it just another cartoon. After all, if it’s animated, then it’s for kids, right?
First released as a manga in 1982, the story was loosely adapted into the anime classic which totally eclipsed the popularity of its source material. For decades, a live-action version of the story has languished in development hell; depending on how the Ghost in the Shell film turns out (more on that in a bit), we are bracing ourselves for its inevitable resurgence.
4. Tron: Legacy
Tron is definitely a Cyberpunk film, with its stunning (for the time) special effects which conveyed the idea of a computer as a world inhabited by programs. However, the distant sequel, 2010’s Tron: Legacy, really runs with the Cyberpunk themes, to excellent effect.
Jeff Bridges returns as Kevin Flynn, the rock star programmer who is locked away within his computer world for twenty years before being discovered by his son, Sam. Flynn’s major discovery is computer life. Despite literally being God of The Grid, Kevin Flynn hadn’t anticipated the development of the ISOs. Not merely programs, or even artificial intelligence, these unforeseen entities are legitimate digital life.
Then, of course, there’s the aesthetic, which takes the original film’s legendary blue lines, mixes in a little bit of Blade Runner’s techno-city, and includes Michael Sheen as a Ziggy Stardust-esque nightclub owner. Tron: Legacy is often dismissed as not having a story, but we disagree; it’s all there, multi-layered and rich in themes, but, like Total Recall, it never spells things out, demanding that the viewer seek out the film’s messages for themselves.
3. Ghost in the Shell
Before The Matrix, there was Ghost in the Shell. This 1995 anime film (based on the manga series, which debuted in 1989) is often called post-Cyberpunk, in that artificial cyborg bodies are so commonplace, they are considered the norm. Their faint remnant of humanity, the soul within them, is referred to as their “ghost.” In the future, humans are out, and nearly 100% synthetics are in. Major Motoko Kusanagi is the leader of an elite squad tasked to fight techno-crime, which leads her down a rabbit hole of existentialism and mind control.
Ghost in the Shell is iconic for being (after Akira) another huge step for anime into the mainstream culture of the West. The film was highly influenced by Blade Runner, and in turn, served as a key inspiration for The Matrix. For better or worse, GitS is getting a big-budget Hollywood adaptation, to be directed by Rubert Sanders and starring Scarlett Johansson, who is decidedly lacking in Japanese heritage.
2. The Lawnmower Man
Pierce Brosnan plays a gifted scientist working on a project to enhance intelligence when he comes across Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey), a mentally challenged young man who lives under the watchful eye of a seriously creepy sadistic priest. Despite the dubious ethics, Professor 007 conducts his Virtual Reality experiments on young Jobe and quickly enhances his intelligence. However, the project was initially intended to create weapons, and Jobe’s newfound power quickly leads to disaster.
The Lawnmower Man is notable for its then-impressive CGI effects, which impressed 1992 audiences, but are painfully dated by 2016 standards. Still, the film’s numerous scenes set within Virtual Reality, rendered entirely using computer graphics, still hold up due to their dramatic impact, if not for their visual fidelity.
1. Blade Runner
Of course, there was no other choice for the top spot; of course Blade Runner is the number one pick on this list. Ridley Scott’s 1982 magnum opus is a science-fiction masterpiece about what makes us human or artificial, and whether or not there’s any difference between the two to begin with. Harrison Ford plays the neo-noir detective, a Blade Runner, tasked with hunting down Replicants, artificial humans. Drama ensues.
Based on the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner is credited for establishing the Cyberpunk aesthetic on film, a dark and sun-deprived cityscape with entire buildings co-opted by animated consumer billboards.
The film’s theatrical release was followed by a Director’s Cut in 1992, but the definitive version of the film came in 2007, with The Final Cut, which is readily available on Blu Ray. A long-awaited sequel, produced by Ridley Scott and directed by Denis Villenueve (Sicario, Prisoners), is in development. Blade Runner 2 will star Ryan Gosling alongside Harrison Ford, and is currently on target for an October 2017 release date.
What are your favorite Cyberpunk films? Are you excited for the upcoming Ghost in the Shell remake, or should they just have left well enough alone? Sound off in the comments below!