Cyberpunk emerged as one of the unique genres in the 1980s. The genre started to explore the dehumanizing effects of the technological advances made in the late 20th century. Many early cyberpunk films painted a dystopian world ruled by tech barons and their mega-corporations, with robotics and artificial intelligence threatening to eradicate humanity. Other epics explored going inside a computer or strapping on a VR headset to escape into a techno fantasyland. Audiences loved these wild, trippy ideas, but cyberpunk served as a warning that these bleak futures could become our reality.
Now, look at today’s newsfeed, where headlines read like they belong in a cyberpunk movie. The rumor mill that Apple wants to buy Disney (after Disney bought Fox Studios) would create a mega-corporation. Or the vast advances in generative AI like ChatGPT have most white-collar workers, writers, and artists fearing smart-bots will replace them. Mad tech baron Elon Musk purchased Twitter, destroying the innovative social media site, and rebranding it…X. One could argue that we live in a post-cyberpunk world comparable to the post-industrial age of the early 1900s.
So, please take a seat, jack in, and activate your VR headset as we revisit cyberpunk films that inform our current reality.
Blade Runner (1982)
The Citizen Kane of the cyberpunk genre, the adaption of the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, defined the look of the dark dystopian setting. Director Ridley Scott brought a visual grandeur to his Orwellian vision of future Los Angeles, where the creation of Replicants has blurred the line between man and machine. Harrison Ford stars as Deckard, a “blade runner,” hunting four rogue replicants attempting to infiltrate the Tyrell corporation. When Deckard falls in love with Rachael, an experimental replicant with implanted memories, the cynical investigator questions the nature of his humanity.
Director Scott frames Blade Runner like a classic film noir as Deckard navigates a Los Angeles filled with long shadows and rain-soaked streets. Ford sheds his roguish Han Solo persona, channeling Humphrey Bogart, complete with voice-over narration featured in the theatrical cut. And Blade Runner would influence many cyberpunk films to adopt the film noir aesthetic.
While the marketing made Blade Runner look like an action extravaganza, the film plays like a mystery exploring the Replicant characters. There’s a sympathetic plight to the Replicants as they search to extend their 4-year lifespan. Viewers can also reinterpret the movie with Deckard as the villain hunting down these robotic slaves who want more life. The finale ends the film perfectly, with the last replicant giving the poetic “tears in the rain” speech, one of the most famous lines in movie history.
Strange Days (1995)
Another visual dazzler is the criminally underrated Strange Days, directed by Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow. Produced and co-written by James Cameron, the big-budget feature became a standout in the virtual reality sub-genre of cyberpunk. Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett lead an eclectic cast set during the last few days before New Year’s Eve 1999. Much of the plot focuses on an illegal VR device called SQUID that records memories, complete with emotions and sensations, onto discs that sell on the black market.
Director Bigelow shows her chops here, especially in the thrilling “playback” sequences. Filmed using newly designed Steadicam cameras, viewers get immersive POV shots that effectively portray this unique VR experience. The scenes are enhanced by subtle digital effects, like reflections of users in mirrors and swirling 360-degree camera angles.
Despite the dated 1999 setting, Strange Days explores the dangers of VR technology when used in unhealthy ways. The idea to “playback” memories and revisit good times could be enticing for those who revel in nostalgia. During the film’s explosive climax, Angela Bassett gives the film’s thesis statement: Memories should fade; they’re designed that way for a reason.
Many film historians consider the silent masterpiece an early example of cyberpunk. Directed by Fritz Lang, Metropolis features stunning production design with vast stylized sets that would influence films like Blade Runner, Batman Returns, and Dark City. The themes of class warfare and the mechanization of the working class still resonate 97 years after the film’s release.
Modern audiences may find the era's melodramatic acting and stylized direction disconcerting. The pure visual tone of silent cinema is not for everyone, but Fritz Lang's warnings of wealth inequality and how it can lead to violence remain as relevant as ever.
Disney’s ambitious cyberpunk adventure proved an expensive flop during the summer of 1982. Yet 40 years later, TRON remains a fascinating experiment of blending Disney’s animation style with the language of 1980s arcade games. The film features early groundbreaking CGI effects that would influence later filmmakers. With conceptual artwork by Jean “Moebius” Girard and Syd Mead, the simple geometric shapes and neon coloring give the impression of being inside the core of a computer.
But while the visuals impress, the goofy story of Kevin Flynn transported inside a computer hasn’t aged very well. TRON does touch on the dangers of a wired world run by an all-powerful AI, even if it’s served with the requisite Disney cheese. The 2010 sequel TRON: Legacy handled the dated premise better with a slicker visual style and even brought back original star Jeff Bridges.
Minority Report (2002)
Based on a 1956 novella “The Minority Report,” the Steven Spielberg-directed cyberpunk entry finds the director in top form. Minority Report stars Tom Cruise as John Anderton, who leads an experimental police division called “pre-crime” in 2054. The plot focuses on three mutant precogs that can visualize future crimes, allowing police to intervene and stop criminal activity before it occurs. But things go haywire when the precogs predict that Anderton will kill a man he's never met, forcing Anderton to go on the run and clear his name.
The pairing of Spielberg and Cruise proved to be a potent mix, delivering a fun, twist-filled thriller. The slick production design and the monochromatic cinematography make 2054 look like a sterile Apple store. But Spielberg stages the action sequences with a sense of play, filling this future landscape with gravity guns, self-driving cars, and eye-scanning mech spiders that track your every move.
The Terminator (1984) & Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
All those programmers eagerly working on generative A.I. programs like Chat GPT need to see James Cameron’s classic time travel odyssey. The Terminator warns of a future where a military A.I. program called Skynet becomes self-aware and decides to exterminate humanity. As war breaks out between man and machine, Skynet sends a cyborg terminator back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor, the mother of the messiah-like resistance leader John Connor.
The film became a massive hit for star Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Cameron proved to be the maestro of hi-octane action spectacles. The 1991 follow-up was the rare sequel that exceeded the original. Yet Terminator 2 inverts the original, where an advanced liquid metal cyborg tires to kill John Connor as a child, and the human resistance sends a more kid-friendly Schwarzenegger back to protect him and his mother, Sarah.
And those ChatGPT programmers should pay extra attention to the sequel. One of the film’s most compelling characters is Miles Dyson, the creator of Skynet, who earnestly builds the superconducting A.I., not realizing that he is wiring humanity's destruction.
Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
If one author deserves credit for defining the cyberpunk genre, it’s William Gibson. The Canadian writer released his groundbreaking science fiction novel Neuromancer in 1984, a book that coined the term “cyberspace” and brought a noirish feel to his dystopia vision of the future. But Hollywood doesn't have the best track record of adapting Gibson’s innovative work to the screen.
In 1995 Tri-Star Pictures adapted Gibson’s short story Johnny Mnemonic into a feature film starring Keanu Reeves. Set in 2021, the film follows data courier Johnny, who transports highly classified files for the mega-corporations using a special brain implant. When Johnny accepts one last job, delivering 320 gigabytes of world-altering data from the Pharmacom corporation, he finds himself on the run from Yakuza agents and a crazed religious cyborg.
Over the years, Johnny Mnemonic developed a cult following even if its vision of a techno-drenched world now seems outdated. The release of The Matrix a few years later, also starring Reeves, played with similar concepts in a much more entertaining way. In fact, the film resembles a cyberpunk version of John Wick but without the inventive action sequences. It’s a shame that Johnny Mnemonic died at the box office, as it remains the rare film version of William Gibson’s work. The architect of cyberpunk deserved better.
Leave it to Spike Jonze to write and direct a romance set in a future hyper-connected Los Angeles. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore, a lonely writer who purchases an AI-powered operating system to help organize his life. Once he activates the OS, he finds himself drawn to the female AI who calls herself Samantha. As she manages his e-mails and proofreads his work, Theodore begins confiding in Samantha and soon falls in love. And who wouldn’t be attracted to Samantha when she sounds like Scarlett Johansson, who crafts a multi-layered performance using only her voice.
Her has an offbeat premise for a cyberpunk film, but the story explores the isolation that results from an overly connected society. Ironically, Theodore feels cut off from the world around him, but his interactions with Samantha feel authentic and emotional. Director Spike Jonze brings his eccentric sensibilities and genuine humanity to this quirky love story.
The Matrix Trilogy (1999-2003)
Filmmakers seldom change the course of action cinema, but the Wachowski sisters did just that with The Matrix. The stylish techno-thriller follows Neo, a hacker who discovers that the world around him is an artificial reality program controlled by an omniscient A.I. that’s enslaved humanity. While fellow hackers Trinity and Morpheus believe Neo is the “one” destined to lead the humans to freedom, Neo harbors doubts as he charts his own path to become humanity’s savior.
The Matrix reshaped the action spectacle by blending kung fu choreography with high-flying wire work, giving the fight scenes a kinetic kick. The bullet time sequence, where Neo dodges bullets during the climax, became the film’s signature moment. Much like Blade Runner, The Wachowski sisters interwove religious and philosophical themes into their cyberpunk masterpiece, adding an extra layer of complexity.
The story of The Matrix spans four films, and the sequels The Matrix: Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions received a mixed reception when released back-to-back in 2003. Both sequels lacked the original's tight plotting and laser focus, and Revolutions goes off the rails during its final act. An epilogue of sorts, The Matrix Resurrections, arrived in 2021.
Ex Machina (2015)
Acclaimed science fiction author Alex Garland made an impressive directorial debut with his sleek Ex Machina. The film follows Caleb, a programmer at a huge internet company, who wins a contest to spend the week at the mountain retreat of Nathan, the company’s Elon Musk-style CEO. Once Caleb arrives at the reclusive site, he finds he was chosen to participate in an experiment with Nathan’s advanced A.I. robot housed in the body of a young girl he calls Ava. But things turn sinister when Ava warns Caleb that Nathan has gone insane and his life is in danger.
With only three principal characters, Ex Machina has the intimacy of a one-act play. The film starts as a sly commentary on the tech bro culture of Silicon Valley through Nathan’s unhinged antics. But the tension ramps up when Ava turns the movie upside down with her warning about Nathan and his plans for Caleb. Is Ava telling the truth or manipulating the young Caleb into releasing her from her wired prison? It’s a plot twist worthy of Alfred Hitchcock.
The Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven courted controversy by filling his films with heavy doses of violence and social satire. Verhoeven’s second American picture, RoboCop, features many violent sequences that are almost cartoonish, with his original cut earning an X rating. Set in a dystopian crime-ridden Detroit, corrupt corporation Omni Consumer Products secures a contract to privatize the city’s police force, promising to clean up the streets. The OCP steals the body of slain police officer Alex Murphy, transforming him into a drone-like cyborg called RoboCop. But problems arise when Murphy’s human memories remerge, breaking his robotic programming.
RoboCop remixes the tenets of cyberpunk with broad characters, brightly lit sets, and an animated style to the blood-soaked set pieces. Verhoeven's gonzo storyline parodies an over-commercialized future desensitized to violence. But the performance of Peter Weller, who brings real humanity to a man trapped inside a machine body, elevates the picture.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Steven Spielberg’s first cyberpunk picture finds the director channeling Stanley Kubrick. The legendary Kubrick first developed the somber science fiction fantasy but handed it off to Spielberg, feeling his sensibilities better fit the project. At its most basic, A.I. Artificial Intelligence resembles a cyberpunk version of Pinocchio. The story follows a robotic child named David who goes on a quest to become a “real” boy so he can regain the love of his human family that abandoned him. Along the way, he meets an eclectic cast of robotic characters, including Gigolo Joe, a cyborg prostitute.
Due to Kubrick’s tragic death in 1999, Spielberg leans into many of Kubrick’s eccentricities to honor his friend and mentor. This gives A.I. Artificial Intelligence a weird tone, with Spielberg’s sentimentality clashing with Kubrick’s nihilistic storytelling. One could argue that David is a stand-in for Spielberg, guided by Kubrick’s Gigolo Joe. Yet the film remains a transfixing vision of a classic fairytale drenched in a technological wonderland.