From Metropolis (1927) to Blade Runner (1982), here’s ranking the best cyberpunk movies.
In 1980, Bruce Bethke wrote a short story about a gang of unruly teenage hackers. The story was titled ‘Cyberpunk’. Bruce Bethke coined the term by combining the words ‘cybernetics’ and ‘punk’. The former is a scientific term indicating the study of control and communication mechanisms in humans and machines. The latter, a distinct youth culture that emerged in the mid-1970s which used ear-splitting music, lyrics, and iconography to comment on society and politics. Few years later, cyberpunk solidified itself as a genre with the publication of William Gibson’s seminal novel Neuromancer.
While cyberpunk established itself as a style, subculture, and sci-fi sub-genre in the mid-1980s, cyberpunk influences can be traced back to the American sci-fi literature of the 1960s and 1970s. The stories of Philip K. Dick, JG Ballard, and John Brunner have explored the fate of humanity in a technology-dominated futuristic world. The adaptation of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was made by Ridley Scott, under the title Blade Runner (1982). Though a box-office flop, the film’s visualisation of a techno-dystopian future captured the imagination of a generation of movie-goers, filmmakers, and writers.
Blade Runner and Neuromancer facilitated the entry of the word ‘cyberpunk’ into the mainstream. Cyberpunk stories often presented a future, where the highly advanced, technological society somehow makes human existence difficult. This led to the use of the term ‘High-Tech Low-Life’. Besides, cyberpunk’s world of advanced AI naturally makes humans question their self-identity, privacy, and purpose. The protagonists of these stories are anti-heroes who hail from the fringes of society.
Elsewhere, in Japan the growing popularity of manga and anime led to the making of cyberpunk-themed anime. Akira (1988) was one of the first widely distributed anime that set the tone for Japanese cyberpunk. While the trend in the West died by the late-1980s, only to briefly reawakened after the release of The Matrix, Japanese cyberpunk flourished beyond that due to its influential and innovative anime industry.
Here’s a look at some great cyberpunk movies that could create a long-term interest in the sub-genre:
21. The Running Man (1987)
Paul Michael Glaser’s quasi-cyberpunk dystopian fiction is set in the year 2019 — the same year as Blade Runner and Akira’s narratives. It’s set in the totalitarian California state that’s supposedly recovering from an economic collapse. Arnold plays a helicopter pilot Ben Richards, who is falsely accused of murdering innocent civilians during a food riot. Soon, Ben is parcelled out to participate in a popular reality TV Show The Running Man. The forcefully recruited contestants must fight the government-backed gladiators to death.
The Running Man was based on Stephen King’s 1982 novel which he wrote under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. It could be argued that the film foretells the modern television trends. Moreover, the film can be perceived as a satirical commentary on the corrupt society and its masses. However, The Running Man is simply an action cinema with passable sci-fi elements. The film isn’t interested in any ideological discourse; it’s rather a showcase of Arnold’s fierce heroism.
20. Tron (1982)
Steven Lisberger’s sci-fi adventure Tron doesn’t exactly belong to the cyberpunk sub-genre. But it has certain cyberpunk elements, like an intelligent cyber-world. The film revolves around coding genius Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) who runs his own video-game arcade and does a bit of hacking. Kevin’s hacking mission has a purpose: to discredit the CEO of ENCOM software company and prove that the company has stolen many of his video-game programs. Subsequently, Kevin hacks into the company’s Master Control Program (MCP), and soon finds that MCP is not a simple program.
During its initial release, Tron was advertised by Disney as a milestone in computer-generated imagery. Now the cyber-world of Tron not only looks dated and primitive, but the set-pieces too seemed crafted in an unimaginative manner. In terms of concept, the film was of course way ahead of its time. Besides, it introduced a lot of computer terms to the general public.
19. Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Robert Longo’s Johnny Mnemonic is an entertaining sci-fi trash, which was scripted by none other than William Gibson himself. Adapting his own short story, this was one of Gibson’s first screenplays (he wrote a screenplay treatment for Alien 3 that was never adapted). The narrative is set in a perfect cyberpunk dystopian world, where the corporate-run society relies on the human brain to store massive amounts of data. Keanu Reeves plays Johnny, who is wired with a neural implant that facilitates raw storage of data in his brain.
Johnny accepts a data upload that overloads his brain. Subsequently, he races against time to save himself while also fighting caricatured villains. Johnny Mnemonic has an interesting cast that includes Takeshi Kitano, Dolph Lundgren, and Udo Kier. However, there’s no real depth to the characters or the actions. It was a missed opportunity. There’s so much potential to craft a far more engaging film with this premise. At the same time, it’s an entertaining watch despite the underwhelming aspects.
18. Burst City (1982)
In Western countries, the cyberpunk subgenre gradually developed from the 1960s via sci-fi literary works. But the Japanese cyberpunk emerged from the raw energy of the nation’s underground punk scene. Gakuryu Ishii who made films from his late teens (without any training) was one of the first Japanese filmmakers to capture punk attitudes, fashions, and beliefs. Ishii made the biker flick Crazy Thunder Road (1980), which later inspired Otomo’s Akira (1988). And in 1982, he made the punk-ish Burst City, which is set in a near-future Tokyo.
More punk and less cyber, this dystopian fiction’s slight narrative revolves around punk rockers fighting against yakuza thugs after learning that a crime boss is planning to sell the land to build a nuclear power plant. The cast is made up of punk band members. Hence, this film set on an industrial slum, unfolds like a concert film. The editing is chaotic and the acting amateur. Nevertheless, Burst City carried the indomitable anti-authoritarian spirit that was later reflected in several cyberpunk anime.
17. Hardware (1990)
Made on a shoe-string budget, this British cyberpunk horror/thriller by Richard Stanley was widely considered as a rip-off of Mad Max and The Terminator although that’s not entirely true. It’s based on the comic story Shok!, written by Steve McManus and Kevin O’Neill. Hardware is also influenced by Spaghetti Westerns, Giallo, and 80s exploitation cinema. This pulpy and entertaining sci-fi film is set in a futuristic radioactive wasteland. The surviving human society is caught in the cesspool of corruption, despair, and authoritarianism. A scavenger named Moses (Dylan McDermott) sells metallic junk of a cyborg carcass in the black market. The cyborg is a killing machine and is soon reactivated.
Director Stanley does a good job in capitalising his limited premise in order to create a thrill ride with plenty of gore. The industrial and metal music in the soundtrack is another remarkable quality of the film. Hardware’s visual cues and retro-futuristic set-design haven’t aged well. However, it showcases a simple yet engrossing conflict between a man and a killer android.
16. Upgrade (2018)
Leigh Whannell’s entertaining cyberpunk action flick plays up with our fears about technology’s intrusion in our day-to-day activities. Set in the near-future of self-driving cars, the narrative revolves around everyman mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) who enjoys the simplicity of a tech-free life. His beloved wife Asha, however, embraces all the advanced technology. Soon, Grey finds himself widowed and paralyzed from the waist down. His wife is tragically murdered by a mysterious group of people. Reluctantly, Grey accepts an AI chip called STEM which assures that he will regain his mobility.
But there’s a lot more to STEM as Grey goes on a quest to find his wife’s killers and reveal their motives. Grey’s interplay with STEM and the ensuing symbiotic relationship is fun to watch. Upgrade could be considered as an old-school action film with a quasi-cyberpunk setting. Don’t expect the distinct cyberpunk aesthetics of Blade Runner or The Matrix.
15. Dredd (2012)
Pete Travis’ Dredd is based on the British weekly sci-fi anthology comic 2000 AD. A commercially unsuccessful and critically panned adaptation was made in 1995 with Sylvester Stallone. The 2012 adaptation, written by Alex Garland, also didn’t do well at the box-office. But it brilliantly brought to life the cyberpunk, apocalyptic world of the renowned street judge, Dredd. Set in the scorched wastelands of 22nd century Mega-City One, Dredd and his young recruit make a routine homicide investigation in a tower block. Soon, the two are locked up in the tower and confront a drug-lord’s (Lena Headey) army of thugs.
Karl Urban of The Boys fame plays the titular character with an impeccably gloomy demeanour. Dredd is a thoroughly enjoyable cyberpunk action flick with magnificent set design and incredible electronic and industrial-tinged soundtrack by Paul Leonard Morgan. Travis’ adaptation doesn’t quite capture the moral dilemmas of the central character. Moreover, sequels or spin-offs are necessary to explore the unbroken concrete jungle of Mega City One.
14. Minority Report (2002)
Steven Spielberg’s cyberpunk action/mystery is loosely based on the Philip K. Dick’s 1956 novella of the same name. The film delivers a chilling message about personal identity and privacy in a technology-dominated society. And what’s interesting about the movie is the meticulous world-building of a futuristic police state. It’s a world of jetpacks, self-driving cars, customised billboard ads, where the citizens are constantly under surveillance via modern technology. Set in the year 2054, Tom Cruise plays John Anderton, an officer at the Precrime Police Division.
Precrime is a policing system that predicts crime before it happens. It’s made possible by an algorithm-based system that’s combined with psychic abilities of gifted individuals, known as ‘Precogs’. While the story looks simple and straightforward, Spielberg excels in evoking the fear and paranoia of living in a repressed, surveillance state. The sequence that shows how personal ads would be done in the future now looks prophetic as well as eerie.
13. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
Shinya Tsukamoto’s landmark cyberpunk body horror is nothing like the Marvel Superhero cinema. Running for 67 minutes, it’s full of weird, depraved behaviour, and presented through hyperkinetic editing style. Tsukamoto himself plays the central character, just known as ‘metal fetishist’. He’s obsessed with sticking iron rods or rusty metals into himself. He is accidentally hit by the car of a simple salaryman and his girlfriend. The couple dump the body of the metal fetishist in the woods. Soon, a chain of strange events unfold and the salaryman’s grotesque metamorphosis begins.
Tsukamoto’s unpleasant works have much in common with David Cronenberg and David Lynch’s works. Cyberpunk fascinatingly explores the relation between man and machine in a dystopian futuristic setting. Tetsuo’s DIY filmmaking style with furious aesthetic portrays the genesis of a man who becomes a monstrous metal hybrid. The terrifying industrial score by Chu Ishikawa was part of the Japanese punk music scene of the time. Furthermore, the score matches the delirious on-screen imagery.
12. Dark City (1998)
Cyberpunk movies and anime often provide a pertinent critique on the social and political institutions through its architecture. From Metropolis, Blade Runner to Upgrade, the city’s landscape would be marked by its lurching skyscrapers and the absence of green space. The strong, unnatural exterior of concrete jungle emphasises on the controlled existence that’s prevalent in the dystopian futuristic society. Alex Proyas’ Dark City, in particular, perfectly evokes such cyberpunk urban atmosphere and mixes it with a potent film noir narrative.
The film’s protagonist John Murdoch wakes up in a strange place and has no memory of his past. He also learns that he has telekinetic powers and is a chief suspect in the series of gruesome murders. We journey with him through the alleys of the nocturnal metropolis while soaking in the strange reality of a totalitarian society. Dark City’s influences range from German Expressionism, noir cinema to The Twilight Zone and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985).
11. Strange Days (1995)
Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days employs the themes and aesthetics of cyberpunk to examine class and racial tensions at the end of 20th century America. The movie unfolds in the last two days of 1999 and follows a former L.A. vice cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes). He sells illegal ‘SQUID’ tapes, i.e., VR recordings of other people’s lives. Lenny’s street-smart ways are upended when he come across a SQUID recording of a brutal rape and murder. He gets himself tangled in a larger conspiracy involving the murder of a political activist and rapper.
Although the original story was conceived by James Cameron in 1986, Bigelow’s militarised near-future L.A. was primarily influenced by the 1992 Los Angeles uprising that ensued after the videotaped beating and arrest of Rodney King. The virtual reality technology was inspired by Neuromancer, whereas the tough guy Lenny’s journey through the grimy and crime-ridden L.A. meticulously realises the techno-noir feel.
10. RoboCop (1987)
Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop doesn’t have much of the cyberpunk splendour that’s prevalent in Blade Runner or Akira. There are no neon lights, rain-soaked streets or luminescent sky-rises. Yet it’s set in an unmistakably cyberpunk near-future, where a cybernetically-enhanced cop patrols the crime-ridden Detroit. Verhoeven’s narrative also satirises corporate malfeasance in a harsh, capitalist world. The co-existence of low-life and high-tech leads to the near-death of the protagonist Alex Murphy (Peter Weller).
During the pursuit of a notorious gang, Alex is critically wounded. His broken body is given a second chance when he becomes the prototype of a cyborg cop. Unlike Ghost in the Shell or other anime, RoboCop doesn’t try to contemplate where the human-side of Alex ends and that of the cyborg’s begins. However, Verhoeven keeps the central character ambiguous enough to raise important questions about free will and self-control. In fact, the RoboCop comes across as a sad victim of the corrupted, cold-blooded institution.
9. Alphaville (1965)
Jean-Luc Godard’s proto-cyberpunk cinema is set in a faraway planet ruled by a technocratic dictatorship. It follows the mission of secret agent Lemmy Caution, a fictional character created by British author Peter Cheyney. While Lemmy Caution books and movies were set in the contemporary era, Godard transplanted the trenchcoat-wearing private-eye to a futuristic city. Caution searches for a missing scientist in the planet’s city, whose residents are ruled by a mind-controlling computer known as ‘Alpha 60’.
Alpha 60 is an omnipresent AI with whom the citizens are connected to in some way. There are plenty of bleak social realities in Alphaville. For instance, the women being reduced into sexual objects and casual killings of individuals who exhibit free thought. Alphaville is arguably one of the earliest dystopian sci-fi movies to showcase the dehumanising effects of technology-dominated society. Godard didn’t create a studio city for his portrayal of a futuristic city. He filmed on the streets of Paris, visualising the city in a compelling manner to give off the dystopian feel.
8. Videodrome (1983)
If cyberpunk is all about aesthetics, Cronenberg’s Videodrome can’t be classified in that category. At the same time, Cronenberg’s feature contains a lot of cyberpunk themes and ideas that have gained a prescient quality over the years. It deals with melding of human bodies with technology, reckless corporations causing social decline, and technology’s dehumanising effects. Videodrome revolves around the sleazy owner of a trashy Toronto-based TV channel named Max (James Woods).
He’s always on the lookout for controversial content and zeroes-in on the satellite signal of a show called ‘Videodrome’. As Max attempts to discover the dark secrets behind the show, he begins to suffer from vivid hallucinations, and increasingly loses himself in the virtual reality. Cronenberg offers one of the earliest and disturbing depictions of virtual reality. It was made a year before the publication of Gibson’s Neuromancer. Furthermore, Videodrome was a body horror film with some extreme scenes of body manipulation and mutilation.
7. World on a Wire (1973)
The prolific German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire was based on the Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 novel Simulacrum-3. An American adaptation of the novel was made in 1999, titled The Thirteenth Floor. The novel and the film adaptation were deemed as one of the earlier explorations of virtual reality or simulated reality. Widely considered to be a precursor to The Matrix, World on a Wire is set in a world overshadowed by a hyper-intelligent computer, whose simulation program has the power to deceive the human mind.
The narrative revolves around the mysterious suicide of Professor Henry Vollmer, the project leader behind the creation of Super Computer. Dr. Fred Stiller takes Vollmer’s place and things get increasingly weird as people vanish right in front of Fred’s eyes. He discovers some harsh truths after briefly visiting the simulated virtual world. Similar to Metropolis & Alphaville, World on a Wire doesn’t entirely belong to cyberpunk. But some of its themes and tropes were further developed by the sub-genre.
6. Akira (1988)
In the same year of Blade Runner’s release, manga artist and filmmaker Katsuhiro Otomo illustrated and penned his popular manga series Akira. The concept and grandeur of the manga demanded a high-budget anime adaptation. Otomo himself was behind the adaptation. And the inimitable style with which Otomo presented the dystopian and lawless Neo-Tokyo cleared the way for mainstream success of cyberpunk anime, a niche medium at the time. Akira (1988) brought global attention to anime and went on to inspire and develop many cyberpunk visual tropes.
It revolves around disillusioned adolescents, who are part of reckless biker crews. Two young offenders become human guinea pigs as the government blackops conduct a top secret research. Otomo’s anime questions the cost humans pay in exchange for the tech-centric world. Otomo’s manga was inspired by the cultural and political spirit of the time. Student demonstrations, homeless youths, biker gangs, punk rock music scene, and radical political movements were part of the 1960s and 1970s Japan.
5. Metropolis (1927)
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was one of the earliest and most expansive sci-fi films of the silent-era cinema. However, classifying it as ‘cyberpunk’ will inspire endless debate on the topic. It predates the cyberpunk scene by at least five decades. Of course, the influences of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece are different from what influenced the cyberpunk subgenre. Yet Metropolis shares some of the themes and aesthetics that would later be a contributing factor in cyberpunk. And so, the silent sci-fi classic is part of this list.
Metropolis is set in a dystopian futuristic city, where the social stratification is realised through the city’s architecture. The elites live above the ground with gardens and flying automobiles, whereas the working class live in the underground cities. The workers work round-the-clock to run the machinery that powers the metropolis. A mad scientist and his android doll play an important role in this technology-driven society. It’s one of the first movies to depict how our reliance on technology undermines our basic humanity. Fritz Lang’s film inspired Osamu Tekuza’s 1949 manga and countless sci-fi works in the following decades.
4. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Mamoru Oshii’s anime is one of the touchstones of the cyberpunk subgenre. Its cerebral narrative about AI and the spellbinding animation expanded the scope of cyberpunk. The anime provokes a medley of questions regarding transhumanism, self-identity, and human evolution. Ghost in the Shell is set in the year 2029, and follows an elite team of security agents. The team is led by Major Motoko Kusanagi, a female cyborg who is tasked with the tough job of tracking down a mysterious hacker known as ‘Puppet Master’.
Oshii chiefly contemplates on the nature of existence where machine and human consciousness merge together. The ‘Ghost’ represents our consciousness that’s essentially trapped inside a cybernetic body or ‘Shell’. Oshii also did a brilliant job in conceiving the futuristic megalopolis with its endless maze of lurching skyscrapers. Since this is an adaptation of a multi-volume manga series, there are plenty of loose ends. But the sequels and anime series expand on the futuristic world of Ghost in the Shell.
3. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
In his brief yet illuminating directorial career, Denis Villeneuve has tackled some of the challenging works of the sci-fi genre. This includes the sequel to original Blade Runner, the refreshing alien-invasion story Arrival, and the phenomenal space-opera Dune. Blade Runner 2049 is my most favourite among the three, as Villeneuve mesmerizingly expanded the themes and narrative scope of Ridley Scott’s endlessly influential cyberpunk classic. Unfortunately yet unsurprisingly, the film became a box-office failure like its predecessor.
Blade Runner 2049 focuses on Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a detective who investigates the death of a pregnant woman in dystopian Los Angeles. K’s quest eventually leads him to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the former LAPD bounty hunter who’s been missing for three decades. Like any stylish cyberpunk cinema, Villeneuve’s narrative embraces ambiguity and takes us on a meandering as well as a pessimistic journey. One could say that the filmmaker did a better job in establishing the philosophical metaphors of the source material; even more than the 1982 movie.
Overall, Villeneuve’s futuristic vision comes across as beautiful yet immensely tragic.
2. The Matrix (1999)
Wachowskis’ genre-bending blockbuster was basically influenced by machine-generated simulacrum, familiarised by William Gibson in his classic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. Hong Kong action cinema, cyberpunk anime, and Philip K Dick’s stories are other influences of Matrix. The narrative revolves around Neo (Keanu Reeves), who unplugs from the simulated reality known as ‘Matrix’ and joins a ragtag group of militant rebels. Their mission is to overthrow the Artificial Intelligence that has confined humans for its own devious purpose.
Like Blade Runner & Akira, Matrix introduced the cyberpunk tropes to a new generation of sci-fi fans. It also carried a profound philosophical subtext that helped its enduring popularity. Of course, there’s the argument that Matrix deviates from cyberpunk cinema in a lot of ways. Particularly, the narrative’s belief in the prophecy of ‘The One’ remains antithetical to cyberpunk works’ realistic takes on human condition. In fact, the underwhelming sequels to The Matrix are completely estranged from the cyberpunk framework.
1. Blade Runner (1982)
Made on a $28 million-budget, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner bombed at the box office and was drubbed by critics. Now, four decades later, Blade Runner is hailed as an iconic sci-fi that brought a niche sub-genre into the mainstream. The film is based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, one of the sci-fi literary fictions that laid the path for cyberpunk cinema. One of the important components of cyberpunk is the fusion of sci-fi and film noir, or in other words, the coming together of ‘high tech’ and ‘low life’. The adaptation (by David Peoples & Hampton Fancher) strongly emphasised on the noir elements.
Blade Runner is set in a dystopian post-industrial metropolis — where social and environmental conditions have deteriorated, and technological innovation has accelerated. In such a cynical society, a disgruntled bounty hunter goes after a group of bioengineered artificial humans known as ‘Replicants’. Compared to Star Wars or E.T., Blade Runner might have been the least-watched sci-fi movie of its era. But its influential aesthetics have defined the vision of a cyberpunk world.
Like the characters in a cyberpunk story, the cyberpunk subgenre itself is going through an identity crisis. In a way, we already live in a cyberpunk world. We live in a society, overwhelmed by advanced technologies and domineering corporate presence. Hence, cyberpunk stories need to expand the scope of its perception. Finding a new outlook can reawaken the sub-genre and sustain it for a long time. Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, anime of the last decade, and video games like Cyberpunk 2077 are all part of the efforts to inspire a new-wave cyberpunk.
Cyberpunk, in general, is a hard-to-define sub-genre. Which is why, some films might have failed to make the list. What are your favorite cyberpunk movies? Let’s talk in the comments below.
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’