This article contains some spoilers
In 1995, we screamed, “Hack the planet!” Today, my mom can watch any movie on her phone. When we walk around with computers in our pockets, fantasies about jacking into cyberspace and accessing vast amounts of information seem quaint, if not outright laughable. But it’s that very mundane nature that makes cyberpunk such an important genre, even in 2023.
The cyberpunk genre began in literature, first in stories published in the UK magazine New Worlds and later in novels from writers such as William Gibson (Neuromancer), J.G. Ballard (High Rise), and Philip K. Dick. These writers took a darker look at the technology of the future, showing how new inventions did nothing to change inequality and corruption, only reinforcing the worst parts of humanity.
For most people, cinematic cyberpunk is synonymous with 1982’s Blade Runner, an adaption of the Dick book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. But Blade Runner is hardly the only movie in the cyberpunk genre. Several other filmmakers have created technological wastelands filled with gumshoes, con men, and femmes fatale, each with their own distinctive visual look and approach.
Let’s be honest, there’s nothing punk about Tron. When most people think of Tron, they imagine Bruce Boxleitner and Jeff Bridges decked in neon costumes. It looks and plays every bit like the Disney spectacular that it is; dazzling, tech-forward, but completely safe. And yet, by the definition of cyberpunk given above, Tron absolutely belongs on this list.
Even before the movie shifts to the computer world, engineer Kevin Flynn (Bridges) and partner Alan Bradey (Boxleitner) are wage laborers trying to protect their work from powerful executive Ed Dillinger (David Warner). Within the computer world, that struggle takes the form of a sci-fi adventure, where Tron (Boxleitner) and Clu (Bridges) do battle with Sark (Warner), minion of the totalitarian Master Control Program. Even if Tron doesn’t quite have the edge of other cyberpunk movies, it does have enough of the punk ethos to qualify.
Long live the new flesh! It’s hard to think of a movie more unlike the previous entry than Videodrome, the David Cronenberg exploration of humanity in the age of broadcasting. At first glance, tv channel president Max Renn (an unfortunately excellent James Woods) is an unlikely cyberpunk protagonist, as he seems to enjoy a level of privilege. But as he learns more about the mesmerizing show Videodrome, Renn realizes how small he actually is. What initially appeared to be a pirate video signal reveals itself to be part of a plan to rid the world of “undesirables.”
But the real thing that secures Videodrome’s place on this list is its vision of post-humanism. The first cyberpunk novels imagined the way humanity and technology melded, telling the stories of cyborgs and AI. Still very much in his body horror phase, Cronenberg makes literal the relationship between humanity and technology in the movie’s most infamous moment, in which an organic slit opens in Renn’s chest, into which Videodrome producer Barry Convex (Leslie Carson) inserts a VHS tape.
Like its predecessors in hard-boiled detective fiction and film noir, cyberpunk makes a virtue out of overpacked plots, which use their dense storylines to lose their audiences in outlandish worlds. What’s actually happening doesn’t matter as much as the feelings the story inspires — usually excitement, despair, and disgust. That’s certainly the case for groundbreaking anime Akira. Adapting his own manga, director Katsuhiro Otomo spares no detail, dumping viewers into the war-torn Neo Tokyo of 2019, filled with teenage biker gangs, military dictators, and mutant kids.
There’s something overwhelming in the excesses of Akira, in which the odd worldbuilding threatens to drown out the simple story of Kaneda trying to reach his friend Tetsuo, after the latter gains god-like powers. But it’s that very messiness that makes Akira such an important piece of cyberpunk art, the relentless reminder that technology doesn’t necessarily make our lives better. Instead, it just changes it, giving us new forms of oppression to rail against.
Total Recall (1990)
As demonstrated by Blade Runner’s continuing influence, Philip K. Dick remains the most important figure in cyberpunk, at least in film. So it’s no surprise that another adaptation of his work would appear on this list. But when We Can Remember It For You Wholesale made it to the big screen, it came through the decidedly skewed perspective of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. Even with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead as construction worker/superspy Quaid, Total Recall plays not just as a thrilling action movie, but also social satire.
In other hands (preferably not those of Len Wiseman), Total Recall could play like a straight-forward cyberpunk movie about a blue-collar guy caught up in an espionage plot involving corrupt forces on Mars. But with Arnold as the lead and Verhoeven behind the camera, the movie feels like an action movie parody. And yet, its portrayal of weird science keeps the film firmly in cyberpunk territory, with its images of a malfunctioning loud lady disguise, Arnold’s eyes bugging out on Mars, and, of course, mutant resistance leader Kuato.
Strange Days (1995)
Part of Blade Runner’s appeal comes not just from its futuristic setting, but also its noir structure. Replicant or not, Harrison Ford’s Deckard felt just like the latest in a long line of gumshoes that traced back to Mike Hammer and Sam Spade. No character on this list continues this tradition better than Strange Days’s protagonist, former cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), purveyor of black market SQUIDs — electronic devices that record a person’s experiences to be downloaded and experienced by another. When Lenny’s former girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis) records incriminating information on her SQUID, he and his bodyguard Mace (Angela Bassett) get drawn into a seedy world of crooked cops and desperate crooks.
Directed by Academy Award-winner Kathryn Bigelow, Strange Days sets its sights not 50 or 100 years in the future, but only four, taking place on New Year’s Eve, 1999. By narrowing the gap between the movie’s setting and release, Bigelow can make a clearer connection between her world and ours, and not just in terms of technology. Its vision of regular people crushed by the police and those in power continues to ring true today.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
First of all, we’re talking about the 1995 anime film Ghost in the Shell, not the 2017 live-action movie in which American-Danish actor Scarlett Johansson played Japanese woman Motoko Kusanagi. Directed by Mamoru Oshii and written by Kazunori Itō, Ghost in the Shell initially seems to take a top-down approach to its cyberpunk world of 2029, following Major Kusanagi of the police force Public Security Section 9 as she looks for a hacker called the Puppet Master. But as the plot unfolds, the Major learns that neither she nor the law she fights to uphold are what they seemed to be.
While the technologically-messy world of Ghost in the Shell certainly fits the “cyber” part of the genre’s name, the punk aspect isn’t immediately apparent. After all, the movie is about a supercop, which is about as far away from punk as you can get. But by exposing the corruption inherent in even these well-orchestrated worlds, Ghost in the Shell makes a call for anarchy, which certainly earns it punk credentials.
1995 was one of the most important years of cyberpunk cinema, and there was only one thing on our mind: hacking. By this point, the internet was increasingly accessible, thanks to the America Online discs that once ruled brick-and-mortar store countertops. But cyberspace still had an air of mystery about it, which sent imaginations running wild, captured perhaps most infamously in fellow 1995 release, The Net, which saw Sandra Bullock getting her life destroyed through the arcane power of dial-up. This combination of unlimited imagination and very limited understanding made internet hackers like unto gods in the popular consciousness, and no movie better encapsulated the 90s response to the internet like Hackers.
Directed by Iain Softley, Hackers presents a group of misfits as potentially the most powerful people on the planet, led by Jonny Lee Miller’s Zero Cool aka Dade Murphy. Cool and his gang — which includes Angelina Jolie as Acid Burn and Matthew Lillard as Cereal Killer — go up against legendary hacker-turned-skateboarding corporate security officer The Plague (Fisher Stevens). The movie tries to frame the contest as something with larger moral stakes, but it really doesn’t work. This battle is between those who hack for money (boo!) and those who hack for pure anarchy (yay!).
The Matrix (1999)
As we’ve seen, the 90s were a hay day for cyberpunk cinema. But the genre hit its zenith right as the decade ended, with Lana and Lily Wachowski’s defining movie The Matrix. Like most cyberpunk movies, The Matrix features a group of tech-savvy rebels fighting against an oppressive regime. But the Wachowskis use that generic (in the best possible way) setup to explore larger themes about reality and agency. Over the course of the movie, Neo learns that he isn’t the One, a hero foretold in prophecy, but someone who can write his own story, thanks to his ability to see ghastly green code.
That tension between freedom and enslavement through technology makes The Matrix a quintessential cyberpunk film. Morpheus, Trinity, and the Nebuchadnezzar crew recognize the power they get from the virtual world, but they also know that the power comes with risks, represented by the machines themselves. Their world is one of constant struggle, trying to use the internet to find freedom while also knowing that every time they log in, they put themselves into a world run by machines. You can probably relate to that feeling even if you don’t walk around in wraparound shades and a leather duster.
Unsurprisingly, cyberpunk has a long history in comics as well as literature and film, especially from UK creators working in the series 2000 AD. So it’s no surprise that a film adaptation of 2000 AD’s breakout character would embrace the cyberpunk aesthetic. Well, eventually. While the grime and grit of Mega-City One couldn’t overcome Sylvester Stallone’s ego in 1995’s Judge Dredd, the 2012 movie Dredd finally delivered the city in all of its gross glory. Written by Alex Garland and directed by Pete Travis (and reportedly co-directed by Garland), Dredd stars a snarling, be-helmeted Karl Urban in the title role, with Olivia Thirlby as new partner Judge Anderson and an imperious Lena Heady as drug kingpin Ma-Ma.
Unlike most movies on this list, Dredd focuses not on the downtrodden by the oppressor, in the form of the deeply fascist Judges. In keeping with the comic character created by editor Pat Mills, writer John Wagner, and artist Carlos Ezquerra, Dredd himself shows little humanity, acting instead as a remorseless fist of fascism. But even as Garland’s script tones down the overt critique of policing in Wagner and Ezquerra’s comics, it’s impossible to miss the depiction of the marginalized struggling to live between warring gangs of criminals and police.
At the heart of most cyberpunk movies is an ambiguity regarding technology. Yes, tech can be melded into flesh to create new forms of humanity, which comes with some enhancements. But those enhancements can make the user subservient to their gadgets. Few modern movies have captured that tension better than Upgrade, the directorial debut of Saw screenwriter Leigh Whannell. Upgrade stars Logan Marshall-Green as auto mechanic/technophobe Grey Trace, who regains mobility through an experimental microchip after being paralyzed in the same mugging that killed his wife.
Using the same dynamic style that would make his follow-up The Invisible Man such a hit, Whannell whips the camera around and doesn’t spare the gore when showing Trace’s brutal attacks. Not only does this visual approach make for an exciting movie to watch, but it also captures the movie’s themes. Awesome as it may look, Grey’s upgrade in fact leaves him unable to control his body, driven by the technology created by others.