The term “cyberpunk” was originally coined by Bruce Bethke as a title for his 1983 short story. He invented the word to describe future children who would become so technologically inclined that older generations would have difficulty dealing with them (sound familiar?). That term would later be utilized to describe an entire subgenre of fiction, and later, film that focused heavily on mankind’s technological advancement. From a fiction perspective, cyberpunk was born out of the new wave movement in the 1960’s. During that time period, the trend away from traditional writing styles and methods allowed for more experimentation and investigation into topics such as psychology, biology, and abstract thinking. Science fiction was one genre in particular which allowed further exploration into these areas, but at the time it was too fantastical to have the impact that these authors desired. So new wave authors wrote in a new style of science fiction, one that relied on more on realism to discuss contemporary social and philosophical issues.
Phillip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, is widely considered the first “cyberpunk” novel. The sub genre flourished in the 80’s thanks to the advent (and our fascination with) of technology and the influence of writers such as William Gibson.
Below is my ranking of the ten best cyberpunk movies. A movie that qualifies as cyberpunk isn’t as easy to define as with other genres. Cyberpunk is definitely a subgenre of science fiction, but beyond that base categorization the definition is somewhat open to interpretation. The most consistent term used to describe cyberpunk is “high tech, low life”. That is, stories that revolve heavily around technology, yet this technology doesn’t make life easier. In fact, most of the time, the technology makes life for man more difficult or complicated. Another term that is helpful is “future shock”, which is used to describe distress as a result of a sudden change in society caused by a technological development. Future shock films can often be depicted as dystopias. These films can take place in the future, or in the past, or in both. Finally, I find it interesting that cyberpunk films often push the boundaries of technological achievements in film. To create the often futuristic worlds needed to tell their stories, cyberpunk filmmakers have often invented or showcased new technologies for the first time that would later see use in all sorts of film
Without further delay, here are my picks for the ten best films that I consider
10. Tron (1982)
Tron is not a great movie, but it also is not a bad one. This is Disney experimenting with special effects and CGI long before Pixar. That’s what really earns this film its spot on the list. It takes computers, a usually dull topic, and finds something interesting to do with them. Tron previewed our fascination with virtual reality and technological immersion, both of which would become common topics for cyberpunk stories and films. The fact that the film took boring computers and made them interesting is an accomplishment enough, but that it did so while also showcasing some groundbreaking special effects, which is what has made the film relevant to this day. Yes, it looks dated now, but the accomplishment can’t be downplayed and the film itself is fun enough. The combination of CGI and live action was a game changer.
9. Dredd (2012)
Let’s not talk about that other Dredd movie. I’m talking about the low-budget 2012 edition. How did a film on a limited budget make it on this list? Easy, it stuck to its strengths. Here is a film that took the world of the comic book and translated it to the big screen in a way that would be accessible and attainable given the limitations of the media. Rather than getting carried away, the film is smartly focused and restrained. But that’s not to say it is bland. In fact, it’s nearly non-stop action. And the fun doesn’t stop there. Despite being a B-movie, this film has an A-movie cast. It also has some great visuals, mixing the bleak with bright neon colors for something that really pops. The limited budget ends up working to the films advantage here too as the rundown residential tower fits in so well with the story and the film’s vision.
8. Robocop (1987)
Robocop is the fusion of man and machine, to kick-ass results. It’s the first of two Verhoeven films on this list, which means equal helpings of cheese and violence, but both of those aspects make the end product that much more entertaining. What’s great about Verhoeven’s action films including Robocop, is that the result is not just mindless meathead antics like so many action films that came out in the 80’s. In the vein of the most appreciated cyberpunk stories, it tackles contemporary issues using a high-tech proposition. Robocop uses its gritty premise as a satire of American culture, blending dark comedy and excess to create a truly unique experience. Although the film is dated today, it remains an interesting and exciting watch.
7. Total Recall (1990)
With its claymation special effects, cast of mutant Martians, and classic lines such as “Get Your Ass to Mars!”, Total Recall is a bit silly. But as a piece of entertainment, it works spectacularly well. Arnold may be the glue that holds it all together, but the film is more than just an Arnie vehicle. The Phillip K. Dick-based story makes for a film that is much smarter than you average action flick. This is a film that is actually mind-bending. The fact that it takes such a high-concept premise and turns it into an entertaining action blockbuster without dumbing anything down is an accomplishment to be applauded. The production design is also very unique, as in weird (I mean that in a good way). That weirdness plays along with the film’s sillier elements, making Total Recall one of the most fun films on this list.
6. Akira (1988)
Like many of the entries on this list, Akira was a groundbreaking accomplishment that was perhaps ahead of its time. Although its setting may feel familiar to the cyberpunk initiated, its style is what sets it apart. This was a film that would help to define the approach of anime films for the next decade and beyond, as well as expand the popularity of the style to western audiences. It combined colorful artistry with a frenetic, crazy story to create a film that looked as interesting as its premise was mind-bending. Add in a heavy dose of the always-thrilling ultraviolence. along with a groundbreaking score, and you have a film that is quite literally unforgettable.
5. Blade Runner: 2049 (2017)
The sequel to Blade Runner does not transcend the original film, but it does more than enough to justify the effort of its filmmakers. This is a movie that builds on the original, providing more exploration of the world of Blade Runner. It isn’t ground-breaking in the way that the original Blade Runner was, but it offers up enough new ideas and spellbinding visuals to keep you engaged. What Blade Runner: 2049 does different than any other film on this list is become more of an inquisitive adventure than a cautionary tale. It trades in the neo-noir aspects of its predecessor for something more expansive, but unfortunately less thought-provoking.
4. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Many people may not consider the Terminator films to be cyberpunk, but I would disagree. To me, the Terminator films are definitely cyberpunk because their plots revolve around some of the staples of the genre. High tech, low life? The story revolves around a scrappy post-apocalyptic human society fighting against a sophisticated artificial intelligence with killer machinery at its command. Future shock? Skynet is the definition of “future shock”. – its development nearly destroys the human race. That’s quite a shock. Terminator 2 is the best film in the franchise, which is why I chose it to represent the series. It’s full of relentless action, great visuals, and the script is surprisingly smart for this type action flick. Few other films have been as easily entertaining and brilliant as this one.
3. The Matrix (1999)
What can I say about The Matrix that hasn’t already been said? Here is a movie that was groundbreaking in nearly every regard. It may have been influenced by some of the other films on this list, but ultimately it gave us an action movie unlike anything we had seen before. The film’s most memorable traits are its jaw dropping special effects and energetic action sequences. To this day modern action movies are still using the blueprints from The Matrix. But if this movie was only good because of its visuals, it wouldn’t have made it this far. No, The Matrix is the full package when it comes to a masterpiece of cinema. The story pulled cyberpunk into the mainstream, and the risk of making a big-budget film that is also R-rated allowed the filmmakers to accomplish their vision without compromise. Matrix’s legacy has only diminished slightly over time due to two lackluster (and unnecessary) sequels.
2. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Ghost in the Shell is an artistic accomplishment, in more ways than one. For starters, you have the amazing visuals. While Akira may have been a source of inspiration, the animators took it to an entirely different level. They combine soft beauty with the harsh realities of a technological future, to create something that is both thought provoking and inspirational. From a story perspective, this one marries philosophy with crazy violent action. It brings up so many interesting ideas and questions without becoming dull and preachy. Instead, it’s invigorating and captivating the whole way through. In many ways, Ghost in Shell is the purest film recreation of William Gibsons’ genre-defining style of cyberpunk, and yes, I’m aware that there have been movie adaptations of his writings…
1. Blade Runner (1982)
The movie that started the genre also happens to be the best one so far. Of course, it wasn’t always so well received. It took time for it to be recognized for what it was meant to be, and today it is rewarded as consideration for a masterpiece in science fiction. One reason for this is that Blade Runner pushed so many boundaries. It continued the “dirty science fiction” type of asthetic made popular by Star Wars, but found something more immediate to do with it. The film’s special effects and worldbuilding gave us something to keep our eyes occuplied while our minds contemplated its thought-provoking plot. Most importantly, it told a type of story that hadn’t been told before. It combined new and old filmmaking concepts to create a truely unique and interesting piece. Because of everything that Blade Runner accomplished, it is no surprise that it heavily influenced both other films and writers who continued the cyberpunk genre after its release. Blade Runner is not the origin of the genre, but it certainly is responsible for its continued existance and growth in popularity over the years.