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The Incomplete Onscreen History of Cyberpunk

The Incomplete Onscreen History of Cyberpunk

Space opera may be the current king of the science fiction filmic landscape, and post-apocalyptic mayhem tends to rule the darker parts of the genre. But nothing beats Cyberpunk when it comes to impact on and relevance to our current society. The term–coined by writer Bruce Bethke as the title for his 1980 short story “Cyberpunk” (first published in 1983)–immediately evokes images of grungy urban decay coupled with highly advanced, though often misused, technology. Stories in the cyberpunk genre are often referred to as “high tech low life,” and tend to make for some excellent films.

Writer William Gibson is often cited as the father of Cyberpunk thanks to his seminal 1984 novel Neuromancer. Cyberpunk has deep connections to hard-boiled detective fiction of the 1930s and 1940s; thus, the onscreen properties made in that style often employ the film noir aesthetic, but with a futuristic edge. One of the other major elements is the bleeding together of the organic and the synthetic, blurring the line between what is “real” and what isn’t–a debate that has only gotten more heated and nuanced as technology has advanced.

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Perhaps one of the earliest examples of Cyberpunk in a feature film is also arguably the most famous–1982’s Blade Runner. Made before either Bethke or Gibson had written their books that birthed the term, Blade Runner–based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?–was labeled with the genre term “Future Noir” to explain its mixture of post-World War II-style malaise and near-future techno-boredom.

Its plot concerns a lonely detective searching for escaped Replicants (advanced cybernetic lifeforms nearly indistinguishable from humans) who are deemed too dangerous to be given more than a brief lifespan. By the end of the film, we realize how inhuman and robotic the “hero” Deckard is (even if you don’t believe the theory that he IS a Replicant), and that the villain Roy Batty is simply trying to prolong himself.

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Other films made shortly thereafter continued the theme of rundown futurism and the blending of humans and machines. For example: David Cronenberg‘s 1983 film Videodrome, in which a pirate TV signal starts to turn a sleazy cable access producer into a warrior for the cybernetic revolution. His shouting of “Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!” continues to haunt long after seeing it.

In 1987, a slightly more tongue-in-cheek take on the subject came out with Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, in which a murdered police officer is fused with a CPU and cybernetic body parts to become the ultimate enforcer, even if it erases his humanity in the process. He fights against his programming and ultimately remembers his family. In many ways, RoboCop is the Frankenstein for the Cyberpunk set.

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It was in the 1990s when Cyberpunk as a film subgenre really took hold, beginning with Richard Stanley’s little-seen (but super awesome) Hardware. In  the film, a woman is terrorized in her dystopian-city apartment by both stalkers using hidden camera technology and a runaway defense robot. More Cyberpunk films followed in the early ’90s, such as Freejack, The Lawnmower Man, Johnny Mnemonic, and Judge Dredd… admittedly, none of those were very good.

However, Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 film Strange Days–about a VR-experience dealer on the eve of the new millennium getting caught up in a murder plot by ruthless politicians–is genius, and perhaps one of the best examples of the Gibson-esque view of Cyberpunk. Like the genre itself in many ways, Strange Days was ahead of its time and was a commercial failure, though it has since been recognized for the achievement it is.

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The big turning point for the Cyberpunk live-action movement is 1999’s The Matrix and its two sequels, which brought in elements of anime, Kung fu cinema, and Hong Kong action flicks. The world inside the Matrix itself was sickly green, grimy, but still slick and stylish. The notion of the machines having already taken over and humanity having to fight back from the inside is an extreme take on the idea of automated control, which the Cyberpunk movement discussed at great length. We’re such slaves to our devices and comforts that we eventually become physically trapped by them.

The usage of Asian cinema styles in The Matrix is no accident; Cyberpunk is deeply tied to Japan and Hong Kong in aesthetic and setting. Gibson is quoted as saying of Tokyo that “modern Japan simply was cyberpunk.” Ridley Scott, similarly, when discussing his visual style for Blade Runner called future Los Angeles “Hong Kong on a very bad day.” It’s maybe because of this that Japanese live-action film and anime has taken Cyberpunk almost as its own, and done more to explore both the visual capabilities and the impact of human-like machines and machine-like humans. Arguably the best Matrix-related material is The Animatrix, after all.

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While there were certainly films that came before, 1988’s Akira blew the doors wide open for Cyberpunk and anime to fuse seamlessly. That film depicts a thrice-rebuilt Japan in the major city of Neo-Tokyo, which is a cesspool of crime and fascistic militarization, and the strange and deadly telekinetic powers that awaken inside a young ruffian who quickly begins to use his abilities for evil before finally losing himself to psionic energy and metal. It’s an astounding film, one full of emotion and fear as is rarely seen in the oft-mechanically cold genre.

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In 1989, the direct-to-video Japanese film Tetsuo: The Iron Man, written and directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, was let loose on the world. Taking elements of Cronenbergian body horror and Akira-esque loss of humanity, Tetsuo is an incredibly visceral and disturbing film that depicts metal fetishism and people violently turning into machines in the most painful way possible. Two sequels followed in 1992 and 2009, and J-Horror would utilize its intensity and grotesquery for decades after.

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Cyberpunk has again returned to the height of the public eye because of successful movies like Ex Machina and Her, which now seem very prescient given how close AI is to becoming indistinguishable from organic intelligence. One of the biggest films in the genre’s history is the original Ghost in the Shell from 1995, which itself begat many sequels and spinoff series. GITS seems to be the perfect keystone bridging Blade Runner-era and current views on AI; the film follows a police officer in a cybernetic body, with her consciousness in a mainframe somewhere else, and her efforts to stop a hacker terrorist.

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As I’ve written about elsewhere (read my thoughts on Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Cyberpunk’s humanity HERE), Ghost in the Shell represents a society that’s already taken over by technology, wherein nobody thinks twice about the loss of humanity except the synthetic beings. It’s rare in that world for a police officer to be organic, for example, but if humanity is all consciousness, is everything that can think a human?

Scarlett Johansson plays The Major in Ghost in the Shell from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures in theaters March 31, 2017.

We’ll get to explore these elements more and more as the live-action Ghost in the Shell hits theaters on March 31, Blade Runner 2049 coming later this year, and the prospect of an Akira live-action movie becoming a reality growing. Though born from writings in the ’80s and films in the ’90s, Cyberpunk might become the most important sci-fi genre of the 21st Century as we near the singularity.

What’s your favorite film in the Cyberpunk genre? I clearly left out quite a bit of examples; which should people check out? Let me know in the comments below!

Images: Sony/Paramount/Warner Bros/Miramax//Orion/Japan Home Video/Tokyo Movie Shinsha/Kondansha


Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!


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