What is Cyberpunk?
Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science-fiction that is set in the future which tends to focus on society as "high tech low life." Usually taking place within a dystopian metropolis where being high-class citizens with technology isn't necessarily the measure of wealth and featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as information technology and cybernetics. Within cyberpunk there is generally some combination of androids or cyborgs (technological body alteration and modification), a network or internet of significance, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. Capitalism, corruption, and conspiracies are dominant themes. Seemingly it is the low class struggling against mega-corporations, where illegalities are prevalent and the poor are suppressed.
Cyberpunk vs. Tech Noir
Tech noir can be an aspect of cyberpunk, but it's not necessarily the same thing. Essentially, tech noir can just be a science-fiction movie with film noir features such as low lighting and the 1940s or 50s gangster film tone. This means movies such as Minority Report, The Thirteenth Floor and Gattaca among others, will not be considered here. The best cyberpunk movies all include common themes but the quality that defines them are how well they are explored, We begin with some of the worse:
Not the Best Cyberpunk Movies
Johnny Mnemonic had the misfortune of casting Keanu Reeves when he was at his most "dudeness." The film seemed to embrace this, with Reeves playing the cool surfer version of a techie which caused this movie to be seen as dumbing down the subject matter. Based on William Gibson's story, he has no one to blame but himself as he penned the screenplay. The general concept is still an interesting one as Mnemonic is a courier who stores the information in a data storage component of his brain. The theme and exploration of memory as a commodity, both personally and commercially is a fascinating one, but the primary focus of cyberpunk with technology as a suppression to nature is not addressed much here. Of all of Gibson's cyberpunk works (of which he practically popularized) Johnny Mnemonic is perhaps the worst example to have been brought to the big screen.
There are two Judge Dredd movies on this list and of the two, this one is decidedly of poorer quality. However, the world that is built here, based on the comic, is a great example of the dystopian cyberpunk that defines the genre. Unfortunately most other aspects of the film are subpar. Rob Schneider's comic relief is hit or miss, Sylvester Stallone was in full Stallone mode and much of the tone misses the mark, going for goofy (maybe not intentionally) and not gritty like the source material intended. Rico, played by Armand Assante, even when hamming it up, stands out among the rest of the cast and is a joy to watch. Some of the action is fun, the plot is safe and the quirks of the world are interesting. Judge Dredd is somewhat of a guilty pleasure of the 90s action genre that is filled with them.
The Matrix Reloaded
Most agree that the second (and third for that matter) Matrix film of the trilogy did little to further the thought provoking and philosophical ideas so well established in the first film. What The Matrix Reloaded does do well is match and expand upon the ground breaking action sequences. The choreography remains at the top of the genre and Reloaded features one of the best car chases put to film. Unfortunately the characters, while even fairly one-dimensional in The Matrix, become caricatures of themselves and the philosophical musings go too far even insofar as to give detailed explanations of rather simple ideas. It doesn't ruin the experience because the action is so well done, but there are definitely some cringe-worthy lines in which you realize the once thought provoking ideas are actually quite shallow.
The second crack at a Dredd film nails the tone and grittiness of the comic and utilizes its "hard R" rating to great effect. Filmed with a unique style, best showcased during the usage of the drug "slo-mo," the colors among a dark and dirty backdrop of the megacity projects create a poetic mesh of high definition and every detail available to the senses. Dredd also keeps the formula simple. It uses what I like to call the "Die Hard formula," where the action is isolated to one area, in this case a giant apartment building. Dredd also borrows from The Raid which subsequently borrowed from Bruce Lee's Game of Death where the protagonist is working their way up each level encountering a different threat. It works well, nailing the derelict dystopia that is so prevalent in the cyberpunk genre.
Dark City is the epitome of noir, but with it comes both a dystopian setting and a kind of retro-tech look that stands in line with several other entries on this list (Terry Gilliam's entries especially). But Dark City is very dark (natch) in tone as well. It plays out like a mystery and if not for the keen visual style, you'd forget you were watching anything but a 50s style mystery. This is the most positive aspect of a film that has now garnered more attention for its artistic style rather than its storytelling. Nevertheless, the story does eventually succumb to its own weight by the end, with only a minor pay off, but the ride, the suspense it creates and of course the aforementioned visuals keep Dark City near the top of the genre.
Great Cyberpunk Movies
City of Lost Children
Bordering on fantasy and science-fiction, City of Lost Children is nothing if not original. The fantastical nature and retro-cyberpunk (which essentially could be categorized as steampunk) expands on current technology with a 1920s style. Centering on an evil creation who wishes to dream and prevent his rapid aging, he uses one of these steampunkish machines to steal dreams from children. If it sounds like a teen drama plot, your not far off, but it definitely wouldn't hold the attention of said demographic because of its slow and uncanny nature. City of Lost Children feels similarly to a later entry on the list, Brazil in that, while there are very serious themes at play it isn't always presented as such.
Strange Days, directed by Kathryn Bigelow of more recent fame from The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, is a thriller masked as a tech noir piece. Exploring the seedy world of virtual reality, but only of other people's experiences, a VR snuff film triggers our anti-hero into action. Strange Days takes place preceding the last night of the millennium, 1999, so the future technology is limited, with VR being the primary difference to what existed during the debut of the film in 1995. Instead the film focuses on the society and politics of the time, which obviously come into play regarding the VR experience stumbled upon. The SQUID, which is the device used to present the virtual reality experience, is pure cyberpunk device among an otherwise tame film in terms of science-fiction.
Brazil is perhaps the only movie on this list that in addition to being cyberpunk could also be considered a comedy. It's hardly a laugh out loud film, but its use of dark comedy sets it apart from most science-fiction. Its wacky depiction of society in which the "big brother" government hardly is intimidating, yet controls everything, and the commercial and consumer driven populous are the primary differentiators here. The comedy in Brazil mostly stems from its satirization of modern society, which holds up today (as we are constantly consuming) and the practical special effects have aged well much moreso than computer generated images have, lending an authenticity to the cybertech used in the film.
Akira proved to the uninformed American audiences that Anime was a legitimate medium for film. This was especially true to showcase the technology seen in a movie like Akira which would have been impossible to do with special effects. Akira's story takes place 30 years after a nuclear bomb has been dropped which started (World War III) and experiments have been done on people by the government. One these experiments results in the acquisition of special abilities and this combines with the threat of rebellion causing the militaristic government to fall. All of this is set to the backdrop of a beautifully realized and animated Neo-Tokyo invoking many viewers of the cityscape images of Blade Runner. Whether this was an intentional homage or a just influenced by it, the look is an important aspect of Akira's cyberpunk style.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Ghost in the Shell is the first cyberpunk movie on the list to address whether organic life has a soul. It's a recurring theme among science-fiction in general and Ghost in the Shell approaches it from the perspective of consciousness. Major Kusanagi has an entirely cybernetic body, she is not certain if her "ghost" retains any humanity but speculates that she's entirely synthetic, with artificially generated memories designed to make her believe she were once human. The balance between body modifications or upgrades and retaining or finding your humanity plays a big role with Major struggling with it on a personal level. If Akira was the first anime film to popularize itself in the west, Ghost in the Shell legitimized it. The action scenes are wonderfully realized, and the ending, ambigous.
Sometimes described as "biopunk," Existenz is as strange as you'd expect from Director David Cronenberg. Many of Cronenberg's films have at least some facet of cyberpunk but Existenz is decidedly the most so. It's almost an anti-matrix, taking the coolness factor of "jacking-in" to a disgusting level where the organic device is connected not through a port in your head but through one on your spine. The gamepod in this instance has a secret game that effectively distorts the player's reality and the film explores the relationship between humans and their interactions with technology (a common theme with Cronenberg). The effects are great, the confusion is pleasantly unsettling and it's a cyberpunk movie not seen more of, taking chances in how the genre can be perceived.
While the future aesthetic is somewhat reminiscent of Brazil, albeit a derelict version, the comparisons between the two Gilliam films ends there. 12 Monkeys is much more hard sci-fi where the biggest component is time travel. There are so many themes and several brilliant twists in 12 Monkeys that the futuristic elements are an afterthought. There's the mystery itself, trying to stop the 12 Monkeys which led to a virus obliterating the human race and there's the fish out of water experience through time travel with its effect on memories. The performances are excellent with Brad Pitt especially, early in his career legitimizing his prowess. All of these things 12 Monkeys has going for it, with the cyberpunk aspect all but a few scenes that drive the rest of the film, but it's that set up that allows the rest of the picture to grow.
Some of the Best Cyberpunk Movies
The Terminator barely qualifies due to primarily taking place in present day (in this case 1984), but the reason it's so effective is because of the artificial intelligence that rules the "future" with not only the obvious killer robots but cyborgs built to look like humans. In this, The Terminator is essentially one long chase with a cyborg that "...can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead." It's pure noir, all while the stakes have never been higher. There are several scenes set in the future, but like most cyberpunk, the technology while advanced is also a bit retro. While retro tech makes sense considering the actual real world at the time, it also helps explain the disadvantage that the humans have in the future where their progress was hindered as the machines prospered.
Robocop is known for its violence and satire, but the technology in Robocop is pure cyberpunk. Robocop is the best American cyberpunk film exploring the relationship between machines and the soul (which is better explored in Ghost in the Shell), Robocop is surprisingly poignant when examining this relationship, showing both the conflicting natures of each and the synergy as well. At its core it's this relationship that makes the violent action sequences more meaningful and combine that with the satire of modern corporatism and at the time (late 80s) its setting in Detroit make for an important piece of work that is also a lot of fun.
Total Recall provides a terrific glimpse at the industrial future with several interesting ideas. Total Recall is one of the few movies on this list that doesn't take place within a dystopia (the remake does, however). Instead, it's the perception of reality, memories and perception of self that are most important. It's also based on a Philip K. Dick short story (as are several other entries), "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale" sharing the primary theme of personal identity. Similar to Director Paul Verhooven's previous film, Robocop, Total Recall has elements of satire and extreme violence, but there is also a beauty to it, all done with natural humor and practical effects.
The Best Cyberpunk Movies
The Matrix was a film that defined the burgeoning hacker generation and took it to new, "cool" heights. The Matrix invented and had the first instance of "bullet time" which may now have been parodied beyond repair, but was groundbreaking at the time. Unlike CGI from that era, the "bullet time" effect still looks beautiful. The Matrix aske many philosophical questions (which were later answered in the sequels, unfortunately) combined it with highly stylized visuals, the best fight choreography found in a western film and the ultimate marketing headline. "what is the Matrix?" While the setup involving artificial intelligence is not original, they way in which they are represented is, and the fashion and tech used, from the techno thumping clubs, the leather-clad, sunglasses wearing personas and the multiple monitor set up was every hackers wet dream and made hacking cool to those unfamiliar.
There are several versions of Blade Runner, with the Final Cut being widely considered the best version. But whichever version you watch (do yourself a favor and watch it on Blu Ray) it will look absolutely stunning, especially considering its 1982 release date. Even if there was no dialog Blade Runner would still be worth a watch for the visual design and music alone. Luckily there is a decent detective story here and a study of which truly constitutes a life. Blade Runner deals with slavery, artificial intelligence, cloning, genetic engineering, the relationship between humans and their android counterparts all among a film noir backdrop. There is the moral ambiguity of the hero as he discovers secrets about the case all while revealing beliefs about himself. It can be a little slow at times, but it allows for more time to look for the detail in the wonderfully constructed world.
Blade Runner 2049
Blade Runner 2049 was in the predicament of not having obviously opened ended questions to answer from the first film, at least not one that didn't concern a specific character. Yet the film works in that question, creates new ones and posits even more than the original film did. Besides the "soul" searching of the replicants from the human perspective, it goes deeper with an android and machine relationship which manifests itself through even deeper sentiment of self identification. Blade Runner 2049 is also beautiful to behold, one-upping the previous film once again while creating a bigger world more than just the Los Angeles setting. What is most impressive is that the film builds on such an already great world, story and the themes that define all the great cyberpunk movies. It's rare when a sequel can build upon, and surpass such a beloved release, and the original Blade Runner is already at the top of every science-fiction list. Blade Runner 2049 might have just replaced it.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Terminator 2 is universally loved but somehow it still doesn't get the credit it deserves, especially in terms of the themes it so subtlety invokes. Yes, T2 is an action film first, with several sequences among the greatest of all-time but it is the little moments about the recurring themes that defines cyberpunk. But T2 goes further, exploring fate and destiny and even feminism in the protagonist Sarah Connor. Perhaps the film's most important facet is the understanding of how a relationship can be the component that humanizes anything. The T-800 spends the an entire film trying to better understand humans and their emotions, while the new model T-1000 has been built with more of a personality to better relate to, and in-turn, terminate them. But it's the innocence of John Connor, a boy, who can tap into the genuine and protective nature of his "father figure" that really sells the story. It's not the entity itself that decides if it's "alive" or not, but how they are interpreted. T2 has it all.