cyberpunk movies

January 22, 2014

I picked yesterday to get my working life set up on a brand new computer, which may not have been the smartest thing to do after recovering from a trip, but it was definitely necessary.  It’s kind of like the dentist trip, better to get it over with and it’s usually not as bad as you expect.  In fact, I had the thing mostly up and running and was getting some work done within about 2 hours — this included transferring over my Word files and photos and music and whatnot.  Excellent!  I hit a couple of glitches that will take some time to smooth out, but I can work.  I actually look forward to playing around with the new system and seeing what bells and whistles I can use.

So, I have a lot of commentary I could spout off about cyberpunk tropes in general, which ones have made it into the movies, and the ways in which cyberpunk has evolved — and in some ways, died out.  In grad school I took an upper-level seminar on the topic of. . .come to think of it, I’m not even sure what the topic ultimately was, I think the professor may have just been mining us for her own paper topics.  But we read Snow Crash. This was the second seminar in which I had read Snow Crash, because the novel has passed over the barrier and become “okay” for academia.  As the only SF geek in the department, I got to then go up to the professors teaching it and ask if they’d read Neuromancer.  In one case, yes, “Because Frederic Jameson made it okay to read science fiction,” to which I thought, “What the actual holy hell are you talking about?”  The other said, “No, because I’ve heard it’s very problematic in its treatment of women.”  And I said, “Well, yeah, probably, but if you haven’t read it you’re missing a big chunk of Snow Crash.  Seriously.”  (Like Snow Crash is all that better in its treatment of women than Neuromancer, sheesh…)

There’s a reason I didn’t go on for a PhD.

Anyway, I’ll never forget this seminar because in the middle of the discussion of Snow Crash, one of the other students, clearly baffled, said, “The story here is really kind of conservative.  I thought cyberpunk was supposed to be all radical and subversive, but I don’t see that at all.”  To which I, the only person in the room who had any experience with cyberpunk beyond Snow Crash, said, “Um no — this entire sub-genre exists to make nerdy computer guys feel better about themselves.”

Cyberpunk is heroic, conservative, and messianic.  It’s about a powerful elite — the computer programers who know the code, who know how to manipulate the system — being the center of attention, the objects of desire and admiration.

I think one of the reasons cyberpunk kind of died out as anything other than a set of adventure tropes is that once the Internet opened up to a wider audience, it turns out you don’t need a hacker elite — anyone with a smart phone can surf the web.  And it turns out we don’t really care about the code underneath.  (Although even I can do basic HTML, right?)

This doesn’t mean cyberpunk isn’t still fun.  It’s just not the literature of the future people thought it was in 1985.  Anyway, here’s my list of movies I was thinking of as cyberpunk movies, which I’m throwing open to discussion.  In rough order importance — or maybe it’s in rough order of my own preference:


Tron/Tron Legacy (let’s just mash them up, even though they’re thematically quite different)

The Matrix (I have a confession:  I don’t think this holds up all that well.  It’s stylized and kind of overwrought, and that scene where Neo and Trinity walk into the building and blast away absolutely everyone — and everyone they shoot is wearing a law-enforcement uniform — was kind of deeply upsetting the last time I watched the movie a few months ago.  The post 9/11, post public shooting epidemic world has changed how this movie goes over.)


Strange Days

Electric Dreams (Anyone else remember this?  It’s a big reason I haven’t gone to see Her yet, because I saw the previews for Her and thought, wait, isn’t this like Electric Dreams?)




Ghost in the Shell

There are a couple of movies that I either haven’t watched or don’t remember well enough to comment on — someone want to help me out on Hackers and Swordfish?

Then there are a bunch of movies that are definitely cyberpunk, but just aren’t very good:  The Matrix sequels, Johnny Mnemonic, Elysium, Lawnmower Man, Nirvana.

Wikipedia has a much longer list of cyberpunk movies, but I don’t know that I’d class all these as cyberpunk.  They seem to be lumping a lot of post-apocalyptic in with cyberpunk, as well as anything with robots and cyborgs, but I’d say there needs to be a significant computer hacking element to really be cyberpunk.  Like Blade Runner — it has every cyberpunk trope but computer hacking, so how do you classify that?  Is it the AI that makes it cyberpunk, not the robots?  Then is 2001 also cyberpunk? Isn’t genre fun?

20 Responses to “cyberpunk movies”

  1. Fade Manley Says:

    You know, this is interesting to me because I remember when I finally went and read Snow Crash–having heard all about how subversive and Fight The Power cyberpunk was supposed to be–and had a similar reaction. It was fun, but it was mostly about Geek Dudes Save The World, and…I had rather hoped for more.

    I love the trappings of cyberpunk, sometimes. But it’s all the visuals that I’m into, not the hacker aspects. I want the dystopian urban high-tech class war with neon and smog and sexy-cool flying motorcycles, but I’m just not all that interested in the ‘cyber’ part in the computer-based sense.

  2. Phenix Nash Says:

    That shoot-em-up scene in the Matrix IS problematic as all hell. If I remember right, the “good guys” pretty explicitly say since the “law-enforcement” type humans are complicit in the System, it’s okay to kill them. Really?

  3. Fade Manley Says:

    It’s not even the law enforcement types. It’s ANYONE. The agents can infest absolutely anyone, or subvert them, and so you just…kill everyone who opposes you! Ignorant people who have no idea what they’re fighting against! But it’s okay, because it’s for a Greater Cause.

    Hard Men Making Hard Choices, all over again.

  4. Jim Says:

    Hi Carrie I just watched a film called Your Next that I think you will really enjoy. Though it isn’t cyberpunk by any means, it is properly the best treatment of a female action star I have seen. This remarkable considering it is in such a B movie. At first you will think it is just another horror porn slasher movie, but stick with it I think you will be happily surprised.

  5. Phenix Nash Says:

    On a related note to The Matrix, I remember feeling weird about Swordfish when it came out for similar reasons… Kind of edgy and glorifying of terrorism… features a main character forced to take morally-ambiguous action to get the job done. I’m noticing a pattern here. I hadn’t thought of cyberpunk as “conservative” or “messianic” before… but yeah.

  6. Ray Dean Says:

    what about “the Net”…

  7. Joseph Charpak Says:

    Carrie, I’d separate hacker movies from Cyberpunk. To me Cyberpunk is man interfacing with computers through some method other than with the usual HIDs (Human Interface Device)s. A hacker movie would be about people interface computers with the usual methods (keyboard, touchscreen, mouse, voice). A cyborg movie would not need to invovle hacking or interfacing with the computer at all…or is the $6M Man cyberpunk? I don’t consider physically “jacking in” to be needed for cyberpunk, but I do need some virtual representation of code or data and manipulation of same in some format other than on a screen or screen like device (so no, I don’t consider google glasses as ‘cyberpunk’ish).

    Also under hacker moviews I’d throw in ‘Disclosure’.

  8. Griggk the goblin Says:

    “Electric Dreams” is my favorite from your list…it had a soundtrack by E.L.O. Dunno if I would classify it as cyberpunk, though. What tropes are necessary and sufficient to qualify a story as cyberpunk, anyway? I don’t recall Miles (or “Moles”, as the computer read his typo) being a hacker per se; just a dude who spilled a soft drink on his new computer.

  9. urdith Says:

    Odd this came up – just reread “Neuromancer” for my book club and this may fit “Snow Crash” but not it’s predecessors. Case is anything but a messiah – he’s a junkie and a tool in a bigger game. If anyone is the messiah, it’s Wintermute and Neuromancer, the twin AI’s.

    Also having trouble finding messiahs in Pat Cadigan or Bruce Sterling’s work from the time, either. It’s often the people who picked up on the style rather than anything underneath it who promoted the “Mohawks and keyboards” drudgery.

    As for movies – not many these days, honestly. TV’s actually been better for cyberpunk than film. “Person of Interest” is modern cyberpunk defined in my view. It also illustrated why cyberpunk went quiet so quickly – reality overtook it. They had to up the SF content in PoI thanks the Snowden leaks…

    And I think the “Ghost in the Shell” series is an especially interesting take on cyberpunk tropes. The two series act as a feedback loop in to Jameson’s work, and the films bring up a lot of questions regarding identity, and computer intelligence. All existent in cyberpunk, but generally ignored by most in favor of guys with Duran Duran hair and chrome body parts.

  10. Griggk the goblin Says:

    Hmm…I’ll chime in on my own question. Just my opinion, but for a work to be considered cyberpunk, there needs to be some form of cyber and some level of punk. Cyber might range from prosthetics, bionics, embedded circuitry…some form of interface between man and machine. Punk puts the main characters on the outskirts of society, whether she’s a criminal or a cop chasing those criminals. One might also say that the punk issue requires a non-utopian view of the technologically advanced society. As always, that’s merely how this blind man sees the elephant; your mileage may vary.

  11. carriev Says:

    Great comments guys, thank you.

    I don’t think there are hard and fast rules, just different interpretations, which is part of why I like conversations like this. The “real-life” hacker v. more fantastic “jacking in” differences are interesting, especially.

    Glad I’m not the only one totally squicked out by The Matrix these days…

    Weirdly, B movies often do a better job with female characters than A-list movies, because they aren’t beholden to the corporate machine. See also Haywire, with Gina Carano.

  12. carriev Says:

    Oh, and with Case and the more “punkish” of the cyberpunk novels. They’re certainly not heroic, but they’re definitely elite (i.e. in their knowledge and access to “the net,” not in their status in society), and they’re anti-heroes. I know people who donned trenchcoats and mirrorshades because they very much wanted to be part of that world.

  13. Griggk the goblin Says:

    Re: The Matrix. The refrigerator logic in the original movie was so bad, I chose to boycott the sequels. In the time it took me to walk from the theater to my car, I was feeling gypped.

  14. C.J. Peter Says:

    Blade Runner is misplaced if wiki calls it “cyberpunk”. Blade Runner is Science Fiction. Being set in the slums of a fictional universe doesn’t make something “cyber”. Focusing on AI creations who do not function anywhere but the “real” isn’t cyber. In fact the only thing you could remotely class as “cyber” would be the replicant testing equipment or the Polaroid photo enhancement gear….and that is used “real world” as well.

    If it were to be classed at all, I suppose it would be the goofily mislabeled “dystopian” genre.

  15. LupLun Says:

    Hackers is highly underrated, in my opinion. People blast it for its technical inaccuracies, which is a fair criticism but not the filmmakers’ fault. They hired a technical consultant who knew his stuff, and said consultant proceeded to feed them a bunch of bogus information for cheap laughs.

    Regardless of that, it’s a very well made film; the VFX-laden hacking sequences are a source of derision, but this same panache gives the film a distinctive visual style, which is supplemented with good scriptwriting, and a real enthusiasm for it’s source material. Plus really good acting from a cast full of then-unknowns who have since gone on to bigger things. It’s also one of those works that you could call radical; it’s about the youth of the world being empowered by knowledge of a system past generations don’t understand, and using it to mess with and eventually attack a corrupt world ruled by force and money.

  16. Yes, Hackers has lots of Punk, but no Cyber per se – but it is one of my favorites. (And it has Penn Gillette saying “Mr. The Plague, we have a hacker in the Gibson…”)

    If Blade Runner had opened up one of the replicants to reveal internal cybernetics under the syntheflesh, then it would have been the ultimate Cyberpunk film. As it is, it is simply exceptional Sci-Fi.

    Sneakers nails the whole thing to the wall though. Every character in the team fills one of the classic roles, and then they go up against the evil corporate bad guy, who also happens to be the fallen angel best friend… truly a classic.

  17. wiredwizard Says:

    No matter how much people rave about Snow Crash, his book The Diamond Age was far better.

  18. carriev Says:


  19. Varza Says:

    I was recently talking to a professor about the department at MSUD starting a Development of Sci-Fi and or Fantasy class. She was explaining to me they have a hard time getting classes thru because some of the professors consider them “low literature” and unworthy of study. They don’t believe that students would be interested either. BTW, this includes Tolkien – of whom I was upset is not included in our survey of Brit Lit from 1785 to present. They have 1 class that comes up every few years.

    I am just starting on the cyberpunk books – I never read them before and am attempting to increase my sci-fi reading. Read Neuromancer a few months back and the next two are in my pile of to read books.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.