A cyberpunk film usually takes place in a not too distant future that most of the time has been ravaged by man. In these films, the future is not a pretty place, most of the time society is portrayed as post- industrial dystopias, where technology has changed humanity, and usually not for the best. Landscapes are huge cities, urbanized areas, fake landscapes filled with artificial lighting, plastic and metal.
Cyberpunk films focus on the mix between man and technology; in these films man is almost completely dependent of it, in fact, in most of these films man has become one with technology. Often times these films present us with the idea of invasive modification of the human body; with characters that have mechanical appendages or implants connected directly to their brain that allows them to connect directly to computer systems, this last point is a huge landmark of the genre.
Characters in these films are marginalized outcasts who prefer to spend a lot of their time connected to the internet, usually through a helmet or a cable that connects them directly into the virtual world. In these worlds, humanity has become so amalgamated that it’s all chaotic and crazy, filled with all sorts of social disorder; often times societies clash with one another in one huge smorgasbord of culture; usually on the brink of total breakdown. Society in cyberpunk films is the anti-thesis of the utopian futures sometimes depicted in science fiction films. The future depicted in cyberpunk films is dirty, messy and chaotic.
These films focus on loners, hackers that live on getting paid for performing all sorts of cyber crimes; crimes usually committed towards big mega corporations that have taken over the government. Many don’t understand where the ‘punk’ in cyberpunk comes from, but I’ll tell ya: the punk element comes from the outcasts of society that take center stage in these stories. Punk culture is usually associated with rebels, dissenters and misfits, this is why most of the characters in a cyberpunk film fall on this category. Cyberpunk films always comment on society and its many faults.
Many cyberpunk films use the film noir style of storytelling, which is why sometimes these futuristic films will have an old school vibe to them, kind of like how Blade Runner feels like an old detective film from the 50’s when looked at from a certain light. A lot of these films take place during the night, in the big bad city. So anyways here I offer you my list of essential cyberpunk films. Hope you find something worth watching on it, most of these films are the cream of the crop when it comes to cyberpunk cinema. I’ve left out some that I haven’t watched, so feel free to recommend anything that comes to mind!
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Comments: Ghost in the Shell is all about an artificial intelligence that becomes aware of its existence and then decides to live out its life in the body of a cyborg; problem is this artificial intelligence belongs to the government and they want it back! Ghost in the Shell is extremely existential (like many Mamoru Oshii films are) and has many scenes of characters philosophizing about the meaning of life. On top of the films exploration of existential themes, we also get these awesome visuals and action sequences, all beautifully hand drawn; there’s just something about traditional Japanese animation that I can’t get enough of. To me, this type of traditional animation is what watching these movies is all about. Ghost in the Shell certainly ranks amongst one of the best Japanese animated films and consequently, is also one of the best cyberpunk films out there. One thing to keep in mind while watching this film is how much it influenced The Matrix (1999); a keen observer will notice how entire sequences in The Matrix were taken straight out of Ghost in the Shell. Mamoru Oshii, this films director, released another version of this film called Ghost in the Shell 2.0, which I don’t recommend you see because Oshii decided to splice in new computer generated sequences that sometimes completely replace original scenes; a huge mistake in my book because these new CG scenes don’t gel well with the traditional animation and simply stand out like a sore thumb. Stick to the original version of the film which to me is the best. Highly recommend you guys check this one out, it’s a masterpiece of cyberpunk cinema.
Quote: “Incorrect, I am not A.I. My codename is ‘Project 2-5-0-1’, I am a living, thinking organism created in the sea of information”
Blade Runner (1982)
Director: Ridley Scott
Comments: Blade Runner is heralded as the crowning achievement in cyberpunk cinema and true, it does have many cyberpunk elements to it, but I’d say the novel is more cyberpunk than the film itself. Sure the film has to do with cyborgs, film noir and a decaying society, but the book dealt more with plugging yourself into cyberspace and drifting away into a new cyber religion called ‘Mercerism’; unfortunately, the film has none of that because Ridley Scott decided to do his own thing with the “adaptation” of the book, which is fine by me because while the film is not Philip K. Dicks book, it is still one amazing film with amazing production values, beautiful art direction and awesome performances. Oh, and let’s not forget Vangelis’s haunting musical score.
Quote: “Nothing the God of Bio-mechanics wouldn’t let you into heaven for”
The Matrix Trilogy (1999-2003)
Director: The Wachowski Siblings
Comments: When it comes to updating a genre, most filmmakers will look at every film ever made in the genre and then proceed to attempt taking the genre to the next level; this is something that for example Quentin Tarantino is known for doing. The Wachowski’s watched Johnny Mnemonic (1995) and Ghost in the Shell (1995) and then went and did their own big budget version of those, with their own twist of course. But the borrowing of ideas and scenes from both of these films is pretty hard to ignore, like for example, such obvious things as using Johnny Mnemonic himself for their own film. But there’s no denying the sheer awesomeness of The Matrix. Sure you’ve already seen it a million times, but looking at the film objectively, there’s no denying its importance within the cyberpunk/sci-fi world. It has dudes connecting themselves to the matrix via cables that connect directly to their brains, an obvious cyberpunk staple. Neo is the outcast of society who can’t seem to fit in…he’s a hacker dying to escape his boring life through technology. Basically, the Wachowski’s took every element required in a cyberpunk film and put it in there; making The Matrix a quintessential cyberpunk film, not to mention the one with the biggest budget ever. In this sense, we could say that The Matrix is actually king of all cyberpunk films, simply because it meets all the requirements.
Quote: “He is trapped in a place between this world and the machine world”
Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Director: Robert Lungo
Comments: Out of all the movies on this list, I’d say that this is the one with the strongest cyberpunk visuals. I mean, this one is all about Keanu playing Johnny, a cyber carrier with a very important parcel; problem is the parcel is in his mind! He’s crammed so much data into his brain, that it just might kill him! The film has its visually impressive moments, I love those scenes where Johnny hooks himself to the system and drifts through cyberspace. The problem for me with this one is that sometimes it gets just a bit too silly (save the world but torture that poor dolphin!) and the performances aren’t the best. But putting all that aside, the film rocks for various reasons: it’s based on one of William Gibson first published works called ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ and even better, the screenplay was written by Gibson himself; which is why I can’t understand how some of the dialog comes off as cheesy and some of the situations as nonsensical. Also, the computer graphics are outdated as hell. But all in all, Johnny Mnemonic is still an enjoyable cyberpunk film, actually, even with all its flaws, a very influential one, just ask the Wachowski siblings!
Quote: “Information overload! All the electronics around you poisoning the airwaves, technological fucking civilization! But we still have all this shit because we can’t live without it.”
Tetsuo Franchise (1989, 1992, 2009)
Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Comments: Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a super nutso film, but trust me, you won’t be able to stop watching it. It’s all about this guy who gets hit by a car and then a piece of metal gets stuck to his thigh and for some reason he starts turning into a machine man? That’s the best I can come up with to try and explain this crazy ass movie. While watching it you’ll no doubt get Eraserhead (1977) flashbacks, because it’s in black and white and it’s about relationships. And it’s freaking weird. How weird, well, the dude is trying to have sex with his girl and suddenly grows a giant mechanical drill where his penis should be and well…just see it, you’ll know what I’m talking about once you see it. This film was followed up by Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992), but I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment on it. I’m going to try and get my hands on it soon because it looks even more cyberpunkish than this one. There was also a third film called Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2009); some people are not fond of it, but I liked it. The Bullet Man offers interesting visuals in the sense that it has a dude turning into a living machine gun thing that shoots bullets from every single part of his body, pretty cool concept if you ask me.
Quote: “Together we can turn this fucking world to rust!”
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Comments: Akira is a film that complies with all the qualities of a cyberpunk film, it’s got it’s misfits in the form of a motorcycle gang that drives through a city filled with political and religious chaos and it’s got characters turning into huge creatures made of technology and flesh. It’s a film about the abuse of power, after all, what is Tetsuo if not a young man abusing his newly discovered telekinetic powers? To me Akira’s story is an analogy for that moment in life when we are young and find we have the choice of using our youth and energy for good, or channeling it for evil. Tetsuo looses focus and turns to the dark side out of sheer frustration, but is that the answer? Bullying can be a bitch, but is the answer to kill everybody? Or do we have a choice? All these questions arise while the powers that be try to control and manipulate Tetsuo, the young boy with terrifying telekinetic abilities. In a way, this film is similar to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), because it talks about learning to control our violent impulses, or the government will eventually come in and force us to control them. Better us at the controls then them is what I always say. One of the best animated films ever made.
Quote: “Enough, open your eyes! You’re all puppets of politicians and capitalists!”
Director: David Cronnenberg
Comments: This movie was exploring cyberpunk elements at an early stage, even before cyberpunk was defined as cyberpunk! There’s these awesome scenes in which James Wood’s ‘Max Renn’ plugs himself into this giant helmet that’s supposed to connect him to some sort of information superhighway, even before there was such a thing as the internet; which makes the film prophetic! It’s one of those films in which science fiction becomes fact. Cronnenberg has always explored themes of flesh and machine becoming one, he went on to explore the same themes again in The Fly (1986), where Cronenberg squeezed in a scene in which the fly creature melds with the very machine that teleported it. In Cronnenberg’s Videodrome, a company is looking to create these glasses that will connect you to the internet, again, predating modern technology which is just now starting to take off. The main theme in this film is man vs. machine, which is why one of the films most famous lines is:
Quote: “Long live the new flesh! Death to Videodrome!”
Director: Richard Stanley
Comments: This is a low budget cyberpunk film, but still turns out to be quite a cool little sci-fi film from Richard Stanley, the anti-hollywood misfit director. This was Richard Stanley’s first film ever and it has the energy and creativity that can be found in first time productions, when director and a crew want to prove to the world that they can make a kick ass movie with little money. The film had the collaboration of a couple of filmmakers who went on to become big time directors like Chris Cunningham and Stephen Norrington. Hardware is a monster flick, not unlike The Terminator (1984). It also has a few elements from Blade Runner (1984), especially when it comes to the color palette. Hardware is very much a Richard Stanley film, weird and filled with social commentary. In a nutshell, Hardware is an anti-war film depicting a military robot gone awry. The film feels very claustrophobic (due to the small sets) which kind of adds to the end of the world atmosphere, which is extremely palpable. Cyberpunk elements are very strong on this one, this is a film filled with humanity in chaos, misfit characters with robotic hands, and a prevailing sense of nihilism. In the midst of it all…art thrives! A small film that achieved a lot with very little.
Quote: “Machines don’t understand sacrifice, neither do morons”
The Terminator Franchise (1984-2015)
Director: James Cameron, McG, Jonathan Mostow
Comments: Cyberpunk elements are all over these films, but of course, the most blaringly obvious cyberpunk element is that the films are about killer robots that look human but are really cybernetic organisms with flesh over a mechanical exo-skeleton. It’s all about the melding of the human and the robotic. Also, these films are very post-apocalyptic, in these films; technology has grown sentient and has taken over the worlds military weapons! Computers destroy humanity with nuclear weapons and human survivors have to avoid deadly robots whose mission is to eliminate what’s left of humanity, squashing us like cockroaches. It’s also about misfits and outcasts, because John Connor starts out as a little misfit himself, stealing money from cash machines and hating his step parents. James Cameron directed the first two Terminator films, which are the best in a series that has tried to survive, but suffers from a constant change in actors, producers and directors; as a result the franchise feels disjointed. Not that Rise of the Machines and Salvation are bad, it’s just that they don’t reach the levels of intensity and awesomeness that Cameron’s first two films did. I’m looking forward to the reboot that is on the horizon.
Quote: “The future has not been written, there is no fate but what we make for ourselves”
Robocop Franchise (1987-2014)
Directors: Paul Verhoeven, Irving Kershner, Fred Dekker
Comments: Robocop is the ultimate example of man and machine melding into one being, which of course is extremely cyberpunk . What I like about the Robocop films is how they are about someone trying to break with the programming that’s jammed into them by society. Robocop has many directives inserted into his system, but decides to reboot himself and clear his mind from all the bull crap, from there on in he becomes master of his own destiny, something I highly recommend! Another cyberpunk element the films have (well, at least the old ones) is that they are very much about a society that’s been overtaken by violence and crime, it’s a society in decay, society in chaos; an element that was sadly missing from the 2014 remake. On these films we get tons of cyberpunk imagery, like when the bad guys break Robocop apart and we get to see just how much of a machine Robocop actually is. Aside from all that, the first two films are awesome over the top action films, nothing like the watered down 2014 remake or the childish Robocop 3 (1993).
Quote: “Well, we got him on minimum life support, small electrical jolts to keep his brain alive. But there’s no telling how long it’ll last, he can go at any time”
Class of 1999 (1990)
Director: Mark Lester
Comments: On Class of 1999 society has become ultra violent and that violence translates to a hellish high school experience both for students and teachers. Fortunately the department of education has the solution to student violence: cyborg teachers! And these teachers aren’t just any old cyborgs, they got missiles for breasts and machine guns for hands! Slowly but surely the troublemakers in school learn their lesson, unfortunately, the robots are also part of a military operation and so when the robots detect problematic behavior from students, they take deadly action to make these students learn a lesson! An awesome bonus: Pamela Grier and Malcolm McDowell play two of the deadly cyborg teachers. This film is a spiritual sequel to Class of 1984 (1982), which by the way was made by the same director, Mark L. Lester.
Quote: “These things are like a bad, fucked up, George Jetson nightmare!”
Director: David Cronenberg
Comments: eXistenZ is what we movie buffs like to call a “spiritual sequel”. It’s not a direct sequel to Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), but it certainly feels like it exists within the same universe. Videodrome deals with societies addiction to television, sex and violence, three themes that Cronenberg just loves to play with in his films; eXistenZ is like that, but instead of filtering the themes through the age of television, it filters its themes through the age of video games. And so, this is a film about Allegra Geller, a video game designer who is about to release her new game called ‘eXistenZ’, which is a truly immersive virtual reality experience; you plug yourself in (through your spinal cord of all places!) and you zone out into the game, kind of like The Matrix (1999). But before releasing the game to the world, she has to try it out on a test group. Unfortunately, it all goes bat shit insane from there on in! People are killing for this new game! But why? The film addresses the issues of the flesh versus the virtual world. What is real and what is not? This is a characteristic of cyberpunk films, when the cybernetic world and the real world get confused and we don’t know which is which. Highly recommend this one if you loved Cronenberg’s Videodrome.
Quote: “it’s worse than that, I’m not sure here, where we are, is real at all. This feels like a game to me. And you, you’re beginning to feel like a game character!”
Strange Days (1995)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Comments: Strange Days feels like an update on the ideas presented in Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (1983) because same as Brainstorm, Strange Days is all about hooking yourself up to a system that allows you to relive other people’s experiences. The problem comes when an important person gets murdered and the evidence is recorded by someone, then the whole recording becomes evidence to the murder, so in that sense, Strange Days is different to Brainstorm because it turns into a whodunit type of film. At the same time, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is a character who is trying to cope with the loss of the love of his life. Will he continue to live in the past, or will learn to let go? At the same time everything happens with the turn of the century as a back drop. Staying true to its cyberpunk roots, the films main character is a misfit, a hacker who hustles recordings dealing with illegal activities; he’s also a junky of old memories and just can’t seem to live in the real world. Kathryn Bigelow will amaze you with her direction here, there’s this truly amazing opening sequence where Bigelow never cuts that will just blow you away. Here she was already displaying amazing vision as a director, demonstrating that she’s a powerful force behind the camera.
Quote: “You can trust me cause I’m your priest, I’m your shrink, I am your main connection to the switchboard of the soul”
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Comments: Mamoru Oshii loves cyberpunk, he’s made many films in this sub-genre including Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innoncence (2004), but while those are amazing animated films, Avalon is live action, and it’s still very much a cyberpunk film. In this world, there’s this virtual reality game called Avalon and basically, you plug into it and zone out, same as many movies on this list. The film explores many of the themes explored in Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), but from a more futuristic angle. In this world you can go into the game and pass and make money, but if you die in the game, you can also die in real life. The films main character is a woman known as Ash, she’s the hottest player, no one can mess with her. Supposedly there’s a secret level that no one has ever reached and so she sets her gamer sights on it. She has to win! But is it attainable? Is that next level even real? Ash must know! As is expected of a Mamoru Oshii film, its existential and explores themes about life and the lies that exist within our society. On the other hand, if you’ve seen Mamoru Oshii films, then you already known this film is extremely slow, and meant to be enjoyed on a more psychological level. Interesting visuals and mood abound. Not for everybody, but if you love films with these themes, you’ll love it.
Quote: “What do you think is best? A game you think you can finish but never do? Or a game that seems impossible to win, but isn’t?”
Director: Douglas Trumbull
Comments: Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (1983) is all about a device that can record all your experiences (even your dreams) so that others can re-live them. When you re-watch someone’s experiences, you actually feel them and experience them exactly as the original person did. It goes without saying that it’s an incredible invention and of course, the government wants to get its paws all over it so they can start working on military applications for it. But of course, the scientists behind it want nothing to do with war and so a struggle ensues. The film plays with some truly interesting ideas and visuals, amongst them the idea of recording what happens after we die! Wouldn’t that be freaking cool? To have a machine that can record what we experience after we die? In deed many ancient questions would be answered. In that sense, this film might also remind you of Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners (1990). The film offers us cool visuals that might feel out dated, but at the same time might entertain just the same, the film deals with themes of marriage and rekindling of old passions. Can we remember why we fell in love with someone in the first place? Performances are good, we get Christopher Walken as the protagonist of the film which comes to us from Douglas Trumbull, the special effects artist who worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969).
Quote: “You’ve abused your privilege as a scientist and you’ve endangered your life. The thought of you playing that tape makes my skin crawl”