Cyberpunk Cinema: Where to Go After Blade Runner

October 11, 2017
Come with us on a virtual tour of the dark future of the 1980s.

Blade Runner 2049 is upon us, and although we liked it a hell of a lot, the box office numbers have been less than kind. Perhaps that’s not so surprising – the ’82 original was a less than stellar performer, only earning its critical plaudits – and commercial success via endless home release re-issues – way down the track. History is repeating, time is a flat circle.

But Blade Runners both old and new are not just movies, they’re key cyberpunk texts, Original Recipe in particular codifying the visual texture and emotional tone of the dystopic science fiction subgenre. William Gibson himself has noted that he “…reeled out of the theater in complete despair over its visual brilliance and its similarity to the “look” of Neuromancer, my [then] largely unwritten first novel. Not only had I been beaten to the semiotic punch, but this damned movie looked better than the images in my head!” – and let’s face it, he oughtta know.

Cyberpunk, however, is a broad church, encompassing a variety of dark futures that deal with body augmentation, ecological collapse, information technology, transhumanism, artificial intelligence, corporate oligarchy – you know, that sort of thing. The genre grew out of the SF New Wave of the late ’60s and early ’70s centered around writers like Phillip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny, and J.G. Ballard, peaking in the ’80s when authors like aforementioned Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Walter Jon Williams, and John Shirley were banging out novels focused on disaffected loners, criminals, and rebels living on the fringes of vast urban environments and struggling not to drown in the tidal pull of titanic economic and technological forces.

Cyberpunk’s cinematic footprint has lasted longer, but also been less pronounced – by the time The Matrix came around in 1999, the literary genre was all but defunct, having been outstripped by real world technological developments (Bill Gibson writes contemporary technothrillers now, as he doesn’t have to imagine what life with the internet might be like), and evolved into the more complex but clumsily-named “post-cyberpunk“, which can mean almost anything if you really want to stretch it, but largely springs from books like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon (both being adapted to the small screen as we speak).

In practical terms, cyberpunk is a lot like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of obscenity – you know it when you see it. Star Trek and Star Wars have bionics, but they’re not cyberpunk – James Cameron’s short-lived TV series Dark Angel largely does not, and it surely is (but falls short of being worth rewatching). With that in mind, here are some crucial cyberpunk movies that pass the test for us that you may want to track down if Blade Runner 2049 has left you with an itch you can’t scratch.

Escape From New York (1981)John Carpenter’s hugely influential actioner – it inspired a bit of business in Gibson’s Neuromancer, trivia fans – sees perennial bad-ass Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) sent into Manhattan Island, now a maximum security prison effectively controlled by the inmates, to rescue the president of the United States after his plane crashes inside its walls. If he fails, it’s World War III all over again –  and the tiny bombs implanted in his carotid arteries will kill him. Lacks a lot of the tech tropes that its genre-mates have, but its defiantly downbeat one and a killer cast Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef – make it indispensable. 1996’s Escape From L.A. is a much lesser work, but history has caught up with its satirical intent.

The Terminator (1984)Former technical functionary James Cameron – he actually worked on Escape From New York – made his bones with his second directorial effort, the sci-fi horror film The Terminator. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the remorseless cyborg sent back in time from a post-apocalyptic future to assassinate Linda Hamilton’s workaday waitress before she can give birth to a future resistance leader, and Michael Biehn is the soldier, struggling with crippling PTSD and utterly outgunned, who must fight to save her. A masterpiece of low-budget, high-tension filmmaking. Cameron preferred the term “tech noir” to “cyberpunk”, and uses the term as the name of the nightclub where hero and villain first trade shots. Terminator 2 is the same film, bigger and dumber. Every other entry in the franchise is a war crime.

Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future (1985)British TV movie that spawned a brief and fondly remembered American TV series that ran for two seasons in ’87 – ’88. In a near future ruled by warring (literally) TV channels where the law has been privatised and TV “off” switches are illegal, crusading TV journo Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) teams up with Max Headroom (also Frewer) a faulty, eccentric AI construct based on his own mind, who lives on what we would one day call the internet. Together, they fight crime. Max Headroom was really on the edge of what audiences would even accept, let alone watch, when it first aired, but it drew heavily from cyberpunk literature and language and remains a cheerfully anarchic gem.

Robocop (1987)Like The Terminator, another incredible film whose own franchise quickly and completely betrayed its own sensibilities. After Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is gunned down in the line of duty, he is resurrected as the titular tin-plated patrolman, and goes up against both the crime boss who killed him (Kurtwood Smith) and the corrupt executive (Ronny Cox) pulling the strings behind the scene. Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner’s script efficiently mashes up Judge Dredd and Frankenstein to good effect, but it’s director Paul Verhoeven’s very European and very OTT attitude to violence, sex and satire that make this a real all-timer. Sin City creator Frank Miller had a hand in Robocop 2 and Robocop 3; they’re all but unwatchable, but still a considerable step up from the 2014 remake and any of the various TV incarnations.

Akira (1988)Katsuhiro Otomo adapted his own sprawling manga saga to excellent effect, which was marketed in the West with the pull quote “A towering neon nightmare to rival Blade Runner.” In the post-apocalyptic megalopolis of Neo-Tokyo, gangs of disaffected youths war in the streets while the police state ruthlessly crushes political unrest. These two words collide when gang leader Kaneda and his childhood friend, Tetsuo, stumble across a secret military project involving hugely powerful psychic children. Countless other anime works have invoked cyberpunk, from Cyber City Oedo 808 to Bubblegum Crisis to the seemingly endless Ghost in the Shell franchise, but Akira still stands as the pinnacle.

Hardware (1990)Richard Stanley’s low-budget, incredibly atmospheric feature debut sees a space pilot (Dylan McDermott) gift a junked combat robot to his sculptor girlfriend (Stacey Travis), only for the implacable thing to come back to life and hunt her throughout their high-rise apartment. There are shades of The Terminator here, but the real inspiration is the 2000 AD comic story “Shok!” – a credit acknowledging the debt was legally enforced after the publisher brought suit. Iggy Pop, Lemmy, and Carl McCoy of Goth band Fields of the Nephilim all have cameos, which should give you some idea of the film’s cultural roots and overall aesthetic.

Strange Days (1995)Conceived of and co-written by James Cameron (there’s that name again), Strange Days sees Ralph Fiennes as Lenny Nero, vice cop turned illegal virtual reality dealer, who must ply cat and mouse with a sadistic serial killer on the last day of the centenary, the then-near-future December 31, 1999. It might be Cameron’s story but it is beyond the shadow of a doubt director Kathryn Bigelow’s (The Hurt Locker, Near Dark) movie. the future Oscar winner weaves together a taut tapestry of millennial angst, racial tension, voyeurism, narcissism, and a West Coast apocalyptic vibe that has never been matched. Angela Bassett is the film’s muscle and heart as chauffeur/security expert Mace, and support comes from Tom Sizemore,  Michael Wincott, Juliet Lewis, Vincent D’Onofrio, and William Fichtner. Sadly, it completely tanked at the box office, and still has yet to get the respect it deserves, but it’s well worth tracking down.

Johnny Mnemonic (1995)Now, here me out…

The single most ’90s mainstream cyberpunk film, this adaptation of William Gibson’s seminal short story of the same name stars a pre-cool Keanu Reeves as the titular “mnemonic courier”, stuck with  head full of valuable data and on the run from the Yakuza and Dolph Lundgren’s bionically enhanced street preacher. Derided be genre fans and critics alike on release and ignored by audiences, time has been kind to it – any movie that features Henry Rollins as a back alley surgeon, Ice-T as a street revolutionary, and Takeshi “Beat” Kitano as a Yakuza boss is worth a drive-by, and the cybernetically enhanced dolphin that crops up in the climax has to be seen to be believed. If you can, get your hands on the longer Japanese cut, if only for more Kitano.

New Rose Hotel (1998)Another Gibson adaptation, this time by NYC sleaze veteran Abel Ferrara. New Rose Hotel eschews the more obvious design trappings of science fiction, presenting instead a low-key, oblique tale of two hustlers (Willem Dafoe and Christopher Walken) setting a honeypot to kidnap a cutting edge scientist, with Asia Argento’s prostitute as the bait. Almost forgotten now, it delivers more in terms of tone and atmosphere than the most spectacular sci-fi cityscape, and goes to extreme lengths to locate its drama in the characters, not the technology. Good luck finding it, though.

eXistenZ (1999)Perhaps more “biopunk” than cyberpunk, which is hardly surprising considering it comes to us courtesy of steely Canadian body-horror auteur, David Cronenerg. In a future where VR video game experiences are delivered by squishy biological technology and game designers are adored like rock stars, designer Jennifer Jason Leigh and her bodyguard, Jude Law, are on the run from Luddite extremists and trying to figure out of they’re in the real world or just playing out a game scenario. Cronenberg’s film explores similar territory to his earlier (and better) Videodrome, but there’s a gun made out of bones that shoots teeth instead of bullets, so your argument is invalid.

The Matrix (1999)Inevitably we come to the Wachowskis’ hugely popular sci fi action epic, in which Keanu Reeves, making his second of three appearances on our list, discovers the whole world is a virtual reality prison and promptly joins the resistance to fight our evil AI overlords with an appealing combination of kung-fu, gun-fu, and Goth-lite fashion. The Matrix took a lot of extant tropes from cyberpunk literature, Hong Kong action cinema, anime, and computer games and combined them into one easily digestible package, only to render that package indigestible with two overly convoluted and self-important sequels. For a hot minute there, though, The Matrix was the biggest film franchise on the planet, even eclipsing Star Wars (The Phantom Menace came out the same year). Now, years later, it still stands up, even if the dialogue clunks more than it rolls and the overarching saga never lives up to the promise of its opening episode.

A Scanner Darkly (2006)Shall we call this one “narcopunk”? Narcotics cop Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves, and that’s three) is undercover in the seamy drug culture of Orange County, California, tasked with stopped to distribution of Substance D, a hugely addictive high that eventually separates the user from reality and, indeed, their own sense of self. Problems arise because a) Bob is addicted to the stuff himself, and b) the dealer he’s assigned to take down, Fred, is actually his cover identity. Adapted from the 1972 Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, A Scanner Darkly is suburban sci-fi, its protagonists a loose collective of drug fiends (including Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr., and Winona Ryder) centered around a rundown bungalow rather the high tech criminals that populate most of the genre. Director Richard Linklater filters the proceedings through rotoscoped animation, adding to the surreal tone of the piece. Perhaps not the best film based on a PKD book, but certainly the closest adaptation.

Sleep Dealer (2008)Alex Rivera’s politically astute, low budget polemic lays its scene in the near future border states, where an underclass of low-paid Mexican labourers operate work drones across the border by remote control. More timely now under the current US administration than it was on release, Sleep Dealer synthesises anxieties about globalisation, poverty, immigration, racism, and automation into an urgent whole. Essentially, it’s a better and more thoughtful riff on the material covered by Elysium five years later, but without that film’s unfortunate “white saviour” implications.

Dredd (2012)A big screen translation of the long-running British strip was delayed by the success of Robocop (producers assumed they could realise Dredd’s world on a similar low budget – something that only became possible several years and technological innovations later) and when we did get one, it was the 1995 abomination starring Sylvester Stallone as the “maximum lawman of the future”. Almost 20 years on, Judge Dredd got another chance at bat, this time with Karl Urban essaying the laconic antihero, who must fight his way up a towering futuristic apartment block to take down Lena Headey’s ruthless drug lord. In eschewing the more outre elements of the comic series (time travel, aliens, undead evil counterparts, etc and so forth) director Pete Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Sunshine) deliver a bleak, brutal vision of the future that leans into the punk, even if it largely eschews the cyber.

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