Insidious corporations, bleak dystopian futures dominated by technology and greed, and grungy, neon-tinted cities all presented through the prism of hard-boiled neo-noir – these are the hallmarks of cyberpunk.
The idea of “high tech, low life” has become the guiding mantra for a genre that owes a debt of gratitude to the pioneering work of brilliant sci-fi minds like Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison.
While writers like Ellison, Dick, and William Gibson have held down the literary fort, filmmakers like Ridley Scott, Paul Verhoeven, and Katsuhiro Ôtomo have pushed the envelope on what cinematic sci-fi can be both in terms of visual storytelling and what we think of as the science fiction genre.
While there are a host of film that fall under the genre's umbrella, here are ten picks for the best cyberpunk films ever made.
Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic is, for all intents and purposes, the father of cyberpunk film. It created the visual language that continues to define cyberpunk to this day.
The grungy and neon-hued cityscape, Harrison Ford’s hard-boiled detective, the oppressive mega-corporations, and the dichotomy of extraordinary technological advancement set against brutal poverty – it’s all there in Blade Runner.
Based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner tells the story of Rick Decker, a bounty hunter assigned to track down and eliminate four replicants – androids virtually indistinguishable from humans – who have illegally returned to earth from a work colony on Mars.
Total Recall (1990)
This somewhat-underrated thriller from Paul Verhoeven was based on the Philip K. Dick story, "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale." Total Recall centers around a construction worker named Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who dreams of traveling to Mars.
Unable to make the actual trip, he settles for being implanted with fake “memories” of his dream vacation from a company company called Rekall. However, when the implantation process goes awry, Quaid’s life is turned upside down and he’s set on a dangerous adventure that upends everything he thought he knew about himself.
It’s classic Verhoeven, juggling over-the-top action with a surprisingly nuanced story all anchored – seriously, it is – by a quality performance from Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Based on the eponymous 1982 manga, this 1988 anime stands alongside Blade Runner as a pillar of cyberpunk film. Set against the oppressive backdrop of Neo-Tokyo, a sprawling dystopian megacity, Akira is a true masterpiece and paved the way for the popularity of anime in the U.S. and outside of Japan more broadly.
With its dystopian backdrop, warring gangs, and kinetic animation, Akira set a standard in both anime and cyberpunk that has never quite been matched.
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The Matrix was essentially an instant classic when it landed in theaters in 1999. It was a masterful blend of high-concept sci-fi storytelling and cutting-edge special effects.
In a bleak dystopian future, a programmer and hacker who goes by the handle Neo (Keanu Reeves) is pulled into an underground rebellion and begins to question the very nature of his reality.
The film was a heady mix of fantastical action and fascinating philosophical underpinnings. Like Blade Runner before it, The Matrix fundamentally altered the language of sci-fi cinema.
The Fifth Element
In this far future epic from director Luc Besson, a flying taxi driver (Bruce Willis) and former special forces operative finds himself as the unwilling protector of a mysterious young woman named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), who may be the key to saving humanity.
It’s a bombastic, chaotic, and oft-wry take on a genre that is generally better known for its cynical portrayal of the future and the fate of mankind.
Robocop is a distillation of Paul Verhoeven at his best – an ultra-violent, brutally satirical critique of some facet of society. The vision of a near-future, dystopian Detroit largely controlled by a shady megacorporation is classic cyberpunk.
When you add in a cybernetically enhanced cop on an eventual mission of vengeance, all the elements fall into place.
Robocop is the sort of film where everything just simply works, from the top notch special effects to the hilarious commercial parodies to the surprisingly layered look at what precisely it means to be human.
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Ghost in the Shell (1996)
If any anime can rival the influence of Akira on the cyberpunk genre, it’s Ghost in the Shell. It is a haunting, visceral masterpiece that holds up remarkably well and features some of the most kinetic and volatile action sequences ever put to film.
The film centers around a cyborg police officer and her partner as they hunt for a deadly hacker known as the Puppet Master. Like the best of cyberpunk, Ghost in the Shell is an unrelenting examination of what it truly means to be human.
It’s best if we all just ignore the ill-fated 1995 Sylvester Stallone adaptation of the classic British comic book. Fortunately, we can do that in large part because Dredd (2012) came along to remind us precisely what made Judge Dredd such a cult favorite.
Between Karl Urban’s spartan portrayal of the titular Judge to Alex Garland’s deceptively simple screenplay and brilliantly choreographed action, Dredd is a pitch-perfect adaptation of an iconic cyberpunk property.
Strange Days was a box office flop when it premiered in 1995. Interestingly, that’s not an unusual occurrence for a number of great cyberpunk films. Regardless, time – and the video rental market – proved a great equalizer and Strange Days grew a large cult following.
The near-future story, which was penned by James Cameron, centers around illicit drug called SQUID that allows users to vividly experience the memories of others. It’s a fascinating exploration of perception, memory, and the cynical nature of humanity.
Dark City hit theaters about a year before The Matrix. Once the latter movie premiered, it made Dark City – arguably the better film – somewhat forgotten in the annals of cinematic history.
Taking cues from Metropolis (the 1927 classic that is, in many ways, a kind of proto-cyberpunk) Dark City is a decidedly dark and stylish dystopian thriller that examines the relationship between memory and the self and just precisely how devastating the control of memory can be.
Featured still from "Blade Runner" via Warner Bros.