Cyberpunk fiction combines the old and the new. Drawing from the conflicted worlds of film noir, cyberpunk films continue the blurred moral lines from that genre into the future, where enhanced technology does nothing to help audiences separate the good guys from the bad guys.
The genre started in the world of literature, with books such as Neuromancer by William Gibson and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. The term itself has its origins in the 1983 short story “Cyberpunk” by Bruce Bethke.
However, the genre has since become a mainstay in cinema, thanks to these best cyberpunk movies of all time.
1. The Matrix (1999)
Although the internet has existed since 1983, it became a growing concern for filmmakers in the 1990s, culminating with The Matrix by directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski. The siblings imagined the internet as a place of confinement and empowerment, a glossy world distinct from the dismal reality where machines have conquered the earth and made humans their living batteries.
The Wachowskis fill the movie with a whole host of influences, including anime, continental philosophy, and kung fu movies. Even within that mix of genres, The Matrix plays like a paradigmatic cyberpunk flick, the story of a rundown lot using machinery to change reality.
2. Blade Runner (1982)
No film cemented cyberpunk as a cinematic genre better than Blade Runner, the debut movie by Ridley Scott. The screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples keeps the bones of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? in which a detective hunts down rogue androids. But the film both amps up the noir references and adds the distinctive vocabulary of the world, including the term “blade runner” for the hunters of replicants.
Harrison Ford embodies those noir elements as Rick Deckard, who may or may not be a replicant, looking for rogue replicant Roy Blaty (Rutger Hauer). Scott’s vision of neon illuminating a rainy metropolis and the mix of English and Chinese culture continues to influence noir today.
3. Akira (1988)
If Blade Runner established the tone of cinematic cyberpunk, Akira took the genre to its furthest possibilities. Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, who wrote the manga that inspired the movie and co-wrote the screenplay with Izo Hashimoto, Akira takes place in the devastated Neo-Tokyo.
When insecure biker Tetsuo encounters a group of mutants, he becomes the next stage in human evolution and draws the ire of the military and cultists. Within its convoluted storyline, Akira captures the anti-authoritarian spirit of adventure that drives cyberpunk films.
4. Children of Men (2005)
Like film noir, cyberpunk works best when told through the perspective of a downtrodden protagonist. One of the best examples comes in the form of Clive Owen’s Theo Faron, a disillusioned activist living in a world where no child has been born for eighteen years.
At the behest of his ex-wife (Julianne Moore), Theo must protect a pregnant young immigrant (Clare-Hope Ashitey) from a totalitarian government so that a cure may be found. Director Alfonso Cuarón maintains a balance between futuristic despair and indefatigable hope, making Children of Men one of the most powerful movies on this list.
5. The Fifth Element (1997)
On the surface, The Fifth Element feels similar to Children of Men, following a beat-down hero who must protect an innocent but powerful young woman from militarized antagonists. But because The Fifth Element comes from director Luc Besson, it has a supercharged tone that sets it apart from the others.
Bruce Willis plays soldier turned cabbie Korben Dallas, drawn into a bizarre battle against arms dealer Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman) over the fate of the enigmatic Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), who contains the secret of the Fifth Element. More ridiculous than most cyberpunk movies, The Fifth Element shows that the genre need not be all doom and gloom.
6. Robocop (1987)
At first glance, Robocop doesn’t seem to belong on this list, as it focuses on a powerful policeman instead of the rundown protagonists common to the genre. However, writers Michael Miner and Edward Neumeier, as well as Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, take a cynical view of law enforcement.
After decent policeman Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) gets gunned down by Clarence Boddiker (Kurtwood Smith), he becomes the property of megacorporation OCP, who remakes him into a law-enforcement machine. Robocop plays like a satisfying piece of 80s action, but Verhoeven and his collaborators amp up the satire, retaining the subversive aspect of cyberpunk.
7. Videodrome (1983)
Long live the new flesh! If that tagline turns the stomach, the director David Cronenberg has done his job. From his earliest independent Canadian movies, Cronenberg has explored the relationship between the body and technology.
Videodrome looks at that tension through mass media, in which TV station president Max Renn (James Woods) investigates a pirate channel called Videodrome. Renn’s investigations lead him to new horizons of existence, all presented in icky detail by Cronenberg’s camera.
8. Minority Report (2002)
Given the names Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise over the movie’s title, it’s easy to see why people overlook the author of the source material, Philip K. Dick. The director and star of Minority Report add a glossy sheen to Dick’s story but retain the paranoia inherent in the premise about police prosecuting crimes in the future.
When supercop John Anderton (Cruise) gets accused of murder, he goes on the run and threatens to take down the whole system. Even when Spielberg and Cruise indulge their blockbuster instincts, Minority Report retains the anti-establishment bent of a great cyberpunk film.
9. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Few projects seem more foolhardy than Blade Runner 2049, in which Denis Villeneuve revisits the world of Ridley Scott’s original, this time following blade runner K (Ryan Gosling), who may have discovered evidence of reproduction among replicants.
K’s search brings him to Deckard (Harrison Ford) and to revelations that throw the world of the film into greater confusion. Villeneuve’s impeccable visual sense allows him to create a movie contiguous with, but not derivative of, Scott’s original while updating the detective archetype from the first film.
10. Metropolis (1927)
Directed by Fritz Lang, the German expressionist film Metropolis arrived long before computers, let alone the internet existed. However, it contains many of the ideas that later filmmakers will build upon. Based on the novel by Thea von Harbou, who also wrote the movie screenplay, Metropolis takes place in a world in which the rich live in luxury skyscrapers, supported by legions of laborers below.
When Freder Fredersen (Gustav Fröhlich) sees the workers being devoured by a factory in the form of the ancient god Moloch, he starts a revival that pits him against his own father, the Master of Metropolis (Alfred Abel).
11. Strange Days (1995)
Strange Days came from director Kathryn Bigelow, fresh off the hit Point Break, and writer James Cameron, already a massive name in Hollywood, and yet bombed upon release in 1995. Upon review, one can easily see why audiences rejected Strange Days.
Set on New Year’s Eve 1999, the movie features a mystery involving a new technology called SQUIDs, which allows users to record and share their experiences on an existential level. When an unpleasant SQUID surfaces, which may incriminate a police officer, cop-turned-sleazy-squid dealer Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), his bodyguard Mace (Angela Bassett), and girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis) must band together against powerful authorities.
12. Upgrade (2018)
New Zealander Leigh Whannell made his name as a writer and actor with his pal James Wan, penning the first three Saw movies and the Insidious films. With Upgrade, Whannell stepped into the director's chair and created a brutal cyberpunk classic. Logan Marshall-Green plays technophobic auto mechanic Grey Trace, who gets paralyzed in an attack that leaves his wife dead.
A mysterious inventor takes an interest in Grey’s case and fits him with an experimental CHIP, promising to return his mobility. Not only does the chip allow Grey to walk, but it also turns him into a killing machine, setting him on a gory mission of vengeance. Whannell directs Upgrade with an exhilarating verve, never letting the fun of the visuals distract from its central skepticism toward technology. Well known? No. One of the greatest cyberpunk movies? Totally.
13. Brazil (1985)
The most memorable parts of Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil involve the dream life of government functionary Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who flies through the air as an armored angel doing battle with robot samurai.
Despite those fantasy trappings, Brazil has a cyberpunk heart, one that hates all things technological. Gilliam imagines futuristic machinery as an extension of inefficient bureaucracy, leading to apartments clogged with tubes, offices chocked by screens, and HVAC systems that never work.
Only the life of the mind can stand against ever-encroaching automation, and even that most often fails.
14. Escape From New York (1981)
Along with his co-writer Nick Castle, John Carpenter gives cinema one of its greatest heroes in Escape From New York, the eye-patch-wearing Snake Plissken. Played with John Wayne swagger by Kurt Russell, Plissken wants nothing more than to leave society, but he’s forced into Manhattan — transformed into a prison during a future war — to rescue the missing president (Donald Pleasance).
Snake has more swagger than most cyberpunk heroes, but Carpenter surrounds him with some of the best characters in the genre, including Harry Dean Staton as the Brain, Ernest Borgnine as the cackling Cabbie, and Western icon Lee Van Cleef as the ear ring-sporting Police Commissioner Hauk.
15. 12 Monkeys (1995)
The look of 12 Monkeys suggests that Terry Gilliam did not learn to love his computer in the decade following Brazil. Shooting scenes in the future with a fish-eye lens, Gilliam presents apocalyptic 2035 as a nauseating world filled with unnecessary doo-dads and a time machine that can never send prisoner James Cole (Bruce Willis) to the right place or time to prevent a catastrophic terror attack.
Screenwriters David Peoples and Janet Peoples wrap pathos into their take on the French short film La Jetée, but Gilliam’s disgust for machinery gives the film a cyberpunk edge.
16. eXistenZ (1999)
Like 12 Monkeys, eXistenZ also finds an idiosyncratic director revisiting the themes of an 80s classic with a 1990s update. As he did in Videodrome, David Cronenberg explores the technology’s effect on reality in eXistenZ, swapping television for video games. Although directors would blur lines between the real and video game worlds better in later films such as The Matrix or Inception, none of those filmmakers can match Cronenberg’s sheer audacity.
Players interface with the game via a controller shaped like a fetus that attaches to their bodies, and multiple characters present themselves as freedom fighters battling demonic overlords. eXistenZ doesn’t pack quite the same punch as Videodrome, but will not be so soon forgotten by anyone who watches it.
eXistenZ arrived in theatres just after The Matrix in 1999, and became a major bomb thanks to Matrix-mania. It's a shame: eXistenZ is one of the greatest cyberpunk movies of all time.
17. Total Recall (1990)
To be sure, the paranoia in the Philip K. Dick story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” still exists in the Paul Verhoeven adaptation of Total Recall. Screenwriters Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, and Gary Goldman let the viewers wonder if construction worker Quaid’s (Arnold Schwarzenegger) mission to overthrow kingpin Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) happened if it’s all a falsified memory from the Rekall company.
However, those existential questions go by the wayside in favor of Verhoeven’s twisted take on 80s action, which asks us to believe Schwarzenegger as a regular blue-collar American.
18. Judge Dredd (1995)
Yes, that’s right. The infamous Sylvester Stallone bomb Judge Dredd belongs on this list. While the demands of Stallone and the studio led to concessions very much out of place with the 2000 AD comics that introduced Judge Dredd, including “witty” sidekick Rob Schneider or Dredd’s refusal to wear his helmet, director Danny Cannon does manage to create a technological nightmare patrolled by authoritarian policemen called Judges.
The script by William Wisher Jr and Steven de Souza matches the cynical spirit of the comic books, which carries audiences through the film’s final moments, in which Stallone’s Dredd becomes a bland and typical Hollywood hero.
19. Tokyo Gore Police (2008)
As its off-putting title promises, Tokyo Gore Police will not appeal to the faint of heart. A fixture of the Japanese splatter sub-genre, Tokyo Gore Police exists not to provide a compelling plot or thought-provoking theme, but to show off disgusting special effects.
However, it belongs on this list for the way director Yoshihiro Nishimura, who co-wrote the film with Kengo Kaji and Sayako Nakoshi, ties the bizarre transformations of the film to technological experimentation. Like true cyberpunk heroes, the characters in Tokyo Gore Police use machinery to modify their bodies, creating upsetting variations of the human form.
20. TRON (1982)
Few people will say they have fun sitting down to watch TRON, the Disney live-action movie written and directed by Steven Lisberger. Outside of the novelty of a video game designer (Jeff Bridges) who gets sucked into his own program, TRON follows a familiar uprising plot, as freedom fighter TRON (Bruce Boxleitner) fights to overthrow the tyrannical MCP and its henchman Sark (David Warner).
These plot mechanics come slathered with lingo that combines religious speech with programmer jargon, slowing the action and confusing the audience. Despite these shortcomings, TRON earns its place on this list for its outstanding visuals, the neon-lit costumes worn inside the program, and cool-looking light cycles.
21. Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Some may be tempted to dismiss Johnny Mnemonic as Keanu Reeves’s forgettable trial run for The Matrix. Director Robert Longo lacks the visual acuity of the Wachowskis and Reeves, while enjoyable, doesn’t fit the title character as well as he will Neo.
That said, Johnny Mnemonic still boasts a screenplay from William Gibson, who fills the tale of an information smuggler with unique elements, including a dolphin-wearing VR and Johnny’s dreams of room service. Johnny Mnemonic falls short as a precursor to The Matrix but stands on its own as a fun bit of sci-fi noir.
22. Dredd (2012)
Almost every part of 2012’s Dredd improves upon 1995’s Judge Dredd. The script by Alex Garland and the direction by Pete Travis takes full advantage of the futuristic slum setting, locking the titular Judge in a scuzzy high rise filled with criminals.
Unlike Stallone, Karl Urban gives a committed performance as Dredd, removing neither the helmet from his head nor the scowl from his lips. And Lena Heady makes for a delightful baddie as the imperious drug kingpin Ma-Ma. And yet, despite all those qualities, Dredd too easily falls into conventional Hollywood action, stripping the character of his subversive qualities, something the 1995 movie managed to retain.
23. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
Even the most hardened cyberpunk fan may struggle with Tetsuo: The Iron Man, written and directed by Shinya Tsukamoto. Unlike most cyberpunk protagonists, the nondescript Salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi) at the center of Tetsuo doesn’t willingly modify his body with machinery.
His body melds with metal after a car accident, transforming into a mechanical beast. Working in the surreal style of David Lynch, Tsukamoto fills the screen with disturbing images of the Salaryman’s body changes. However, the director also gives the movie a punk rock energy that keeps things from getting too upsetting.
24. Dark City (1998)
While all cyberpunk films carry aspects of their film noir forerunners, few embrace it like Dark City, directed by Alex Proyas. Framed for a murder he does not believe he committed, amnesiac John Murdock (Rufus Sewell) runs from dark-coated beasties called Strangers.
With the police inspector (William Hurt) on his trail, Murdock must navigate a city right out of a German Expressionist film, with only the mysterious Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) as his aid. The script that Proyas wrote with Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer might be hard to follow, especially when the involvement of aliens gets revealed, but that’s in keeping with classic noir.
25. Aeon Flux (2005)
90s kids know Aeon Flux as a key part of MTV’s Liquid Television show, which debuted the experimental action story from cartoonist Peter Chung. The 2005 live-action movie may have Karyn Kusama onboard as director, but her limited budget prevented the film from matching the mind-bending visuals of the cartoon original.
That shortcoming aside, Aeon Flux does benefit from a strong lead performance by Charlize Theron as the title character, a leather-clad rebel fighting in a post-apocalyptic future state. The screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi loses the surreal confusion of the Chung cartoons, without replacing it with a coherent narrative, but Kusama provides enough action set pieces for Theron to execute.