Start with a heaping spoonful of hard-boiled grit. Add a splash of neon lights. Then liberally sprinkle on some corruption and cybernetic enhancements — now you’ve got yourself a cyberpunk movie. This subgenre is thriving in the 21st century and we’re about to get into the top 10 best cyberpunk movies.
Cyberpunk, also known as neon-noir, sci-fi noir, and future-noir, is the industrialized spin-off of neo-noir infused with elements from other science fiction subgenres. Some of the most influential titles of all time are cyberpunk movies: The Terminator, The Matrix, and Blade Runner, to name a few.
What Is Cyberpunk?
It’s one of the most prolific science fiction sub-genres, even if you don’t recognize the name right away.
A typical setting in the cyberpunk genre is an impoverished city where an evil corporation reigns above all. Despite the decay, the city is lit up by a lush color palette, usually pinks, blues, or reds.
There’s a social unrest thanks to the wealth gap between the high and low class. But the lower class citizens still have access to scavenged technology. That could be anything from cybernetics to artificial intelligence or even synthetic super serums.
One bold individual, or a rag-tag group of them, are spurred into action by an intimate loss and rise up against their corporate oppressors. They soon find themselves wrapped up in a complex conspiracy that meditates on the very nature of humanity.
Sound familiar yet?
Common Motifs of Cyberpunk Genre
- Posthumanism / Dehumanization
- Industrialism / Corporatocracy
- Alienation / Isolation
- Rebellion / Revenge
- Philosophical / Psychological Allegories
Dir. Terry Gilliam
10. The Zero Theorem (2013)
Qohen (Christoph Waltz) is an existentially-unsettled programmer who is vying to be “The One” of some all-important story.
But he’s not.
He’s a hairless nutcase cooped up in a dilapidated church.
Terry Gilliam’s 2013 tech-noir film follows in the footsteps of his previous hits, Brazil and 12 Monkeys. Big footsteps considering those are two of the best cyberpunk movies out there. Though it never reaches the same heights, it deserves a spot in the pantheon thanks to its manic vision and twisted subversion of the cyberpunk genre.
The film plays with all the familiar tech-noir tropes: there’s an oppressive corporation, a femme fatale, and an urban sprawl overflowing with advertisements. The citizens are immersed in a vibrant cyberpunk style.
Every outfit and storefront is the color of candy and bubblegum.Though underperformed at the box office, it still represents the best of the best cyberpunk movies. This is no replicant — this is the real deal.
Unlike the chiaroscuro lighting of cyberpunk films like Blade Runner or Minority Report, this city is bathed in light. It proves that the sun actually can rise in these neon-noir wonderlands. Gilliam’s camera hovers and tilts through long sequences in a way that’s sometimes distracting, but frames his world as more unhinged than its contemplative peers.
Dir. Christian Volckman
9. Renaissance (2006)
One look at the art style of Renaissance will tell you everything you need to know about it. The animation is submerged in such high-contrast black and white that it makes Sin City shiver. It’s classic noir with a cyberpunk aesthetic.
Director Christian Volckman achieved this look by recording live actors with motion capture, then replacing them with digital models in post-production. It’s not unlike the approach taken by A Scanner Darkly, which instead rotoscoped over the actors’ performances.
A lot of cyberpunk movies have roots in Japanese anime, so the animated approach feels right at home here. This sci-fi genre lives and dies on the production design, so animation allows the film to flaunt a spectacular city and fantastical futurism without the risk of losing its actors in the sauce of cyberpunk style.
And there’s a lot of sauce here. The megacorporation Avalon has kidnapped one of its scientists and it’s up to police captain Barthélémy Karas (Daniel Craig in the English dub) to figure out why.
Plus, it’s French, so you know it’s gonna get weird.
Dir. Robert Rodriguez
8. Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
Speaking of Japanese roots, Alita: Battle Angel is a direct adaptation of a cyberpunk manga. The script doesn’t do anyone any favors, but Rosa Salazar shines as Alita, and the film succeeds in all the ways Ghost in the Shell failed — it’s a fully-realized dystopian utopia riddled with cyberpunk style and no whitewashing.
Though Alita doesn’t look like other cyberpunk films on the surface, it explores all the motifs of vengeance, identity, and corporate oppression. If you’re looking for the conventional tech-noir protagonist, turn your attention to Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). He’s a bounty hunter with a trenchcoat and a dark history who takes to the streets to avenge his late daughter. When he goes on the prowl, it oozes with cyberpunk aesthetic.
But that’s not why you should watch Alita.
Watch it for Alita. Watch it for her plucky, naively-optimistic point-of-view. And watch it for the way she actually dares to confront the corruption of her city rather than become a part of it.
It’s rare to see that much hopefulness in cyberpunk movies, and it shows that there’s more to look forward to in the future than drugs and sexual deviance. Like motorball!
Then take a look at this behind-the-scenes video to see how the VFX team pulled Alita from the pages of manga and dropped her into a photorealistic world.
Dir. Zack Snyder
7. Watchmen (2009)
While it’s understandably lumped in with superhero flicks, Watchmen also shares sensibilities with cyberpunk movies. This is thanks to its lead antihero, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley).
Like any hard-boiled detective’s story, his mission begins after an impossible murder. Who killed the Comedian? From there, the past and present collide in a caped crusader conspiracy.
Combine that with the otherworldly visuals of Dr. Manhattan and the retrofuturism of the other costumed heroes. You end up with a decidedly cyberpunk aesthetic.
Alan Moore’s original graphic was published in 1986, right around the time of groundbreaking cyber noir movies like Terminator and Blade Runner. It flaunts the same grit and cynicism, just minutes away from a similar dystopia, waiting with one beady smiley-face eye on the clock.
As is ought to happen with Zack Snyder, the narrative loses some of the nuance in the translation to film. He takes some creative liberties that don’t pay off and, at worst, contradict the themes of the source material.
That said, it’s still Watchmen.
Snyder pulls panels straight from the comic and realizes them in true pulp rock fashion. It bleeds sci-fi noir. And, if you’re not sold on his adaptation, you can always see how Damien Lindelof fares with the Watchmen television series on HBO.
Dir. Richard Linklater
6. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
The first of several Philip K. Dick-inspired adaptations on this list. A Scanner Darkly is remembered for its unique art style…
...and for being one of the last times Hollywood could cast Robert Downey Jr., Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, and Woody Harrelson without dropping $20 million minimum.
Rather than mirror the neon-noir/thriller approach that Minority Report took years earlier, director Richard Linklater decided to set the film “20 minutes in the future” and place the drug crisis at the forefront.
The result is an intimate character study that also happens to be surreally animated.
As The Zero Theorem made painfully clear at times, cyberpunk films that are unmuddled by smoke and shadow risk looking like YA fantasy cities. Scanner circumvents that by heightening every visual with computer-rotoscoped overlays.
Towing the line between real and imaginary, the animation lends itself to the fluctuating visuals of the sci-fi genre, particularly when Arctor (Keanu Reeves) wears his scramble suit.
Thanks to this almost-psychedelic effect, A Scanner Darkly is one of the most unusual cyberpunk films out there. It’s also one of the best.
Dir. Rian Johnson
5. Looper (2012)
Before Hollywood would let him direct Star Wars, Rian Johnson made a name for himself in the noir genre with Brick. He drew on the works of Dahisell Hammett, writer of the quintessential Maltese Falcon, to unravel a murder mystery about high schoolers.
By the time he made Looper, Johnson was fully versed in the language of tech-noir. His film is reminiscent of the best cyberpunk movies like Terminator, 12 Monkeys, and Akira while establishing lore of its own.
Back in pre-Gemini Man times, when actors couldn’t be (pretty much) seamlessly de-aged, it was up to Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis to depict the same character at different times in his life.
Where this could have been a trite rehashing of the tired tropes of old science fiction sub-genres, Johnson downplays its more outlandish elements. Time travel? Don’t worry about it. Telekinesis? Yeah, sometimes. Instead, he pulls his characters from their grand dystopia and brings them to quieter terrain where their inner-conflict can shine.
That’s Looper’s greatest achievement. It isn’t compelled to over-explain its cyberpunk style. Johnson lets is breathe by turning the high concept into a quiet, introspective piece. That’s a constant you’ll find in this list: cyber noir movies can be both exciting and understated.
Dir. Alex Garland
4. Dredd (2012)
In case that just made it sound like ALL cyberpunk movies have to sacrifice action for philosophy, turn your attention to Dredd.
Dredd is the return of the ultra-violent, metropolitan heroics of Robocop that helped define cyberpunk. And, actually, it’s a better Robocop than the 2014 remake. Instead of a messianic journey, Dredd follows its hero (Karl Urban) through just one judgment in a long line of judgments, like a police procedural bumped up to the nines.
Via the character of Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), we get a window into the explosive world of Mega-City. In true cyberpunk style, the streets are flooded with crime and psychoactive drugs, so the Judges are tasked with overthrowing the slum lord responsible (It’s Lena Heady as basically junkie Cersei Lannister).
The character development is sidelined as the movie unfolds in a succession of boss battles leading up to one final confrontation, so enjoy it for what it is. In a time when most action movies belong to Disney and Marvel, you deserve to enjoy some R-rated thrills.
Dir. Leigh Whannell
3. Upgrade (2018)
Leading man Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) not only looks like Tom Hardy, but he has the same offbeat, symbiotic partnership with his digital consciousness STEM (Simon Maiden). The movie elevates above its b-movie book cover in the same way Venom did: with heart and pulpy excess. Only, Upgrade isn’t just fun — it’s good.
Right out of the gate, director Leigh Whannell constructs a bleak and sleek metropolis with self-driving cars and a staunch wealth gap. Though it’s guilty of some genre sins like fridging Asha (Melanie Vallejo), it does lead to a revenge fantasy amped up with some of the best parts from its influences.
Check out one of the fight scenes from the film in the clip below. It’s set in a seedy bathroom, lit up with the cool hues used by neo-noir movies like Atomic Blonde, John Wick: Chapter 2, and Blade Runner 2049. It really makes for a perfect neon-noir set piece.
Dir. Steven Spielberg
2. Minority Report (2002)
One of the first blockbusters of the 21st century is also one of the best cyberpunk movies. Inspired by the Philip K. Dick short story and brought to life by Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise, how could it NOT be?
Like a classic noir tale, the film is about a person of integrity who is forced to go on the run to clear his name. John Anderton (Cruise) has been accused of a crime he didn’t commit — yet. But a precognitive vision says he will. That premise is enhanced with cyberpunk production design, but retains its philosophical core about the nature of free will: is Anderton destined to commit this crime, or can he change his fate?
Minority Report navigates the pitfalls of hard sci-fi by grounding itself in a naturally-evolved future. In crafting the tech-noir setting, Spielberg recruited a think tank of futurists to give the 2054 Washington D.C. a realistic look and feel.
The team wrote a “2054 bible” with all the architectural and economic trends of that era, and their efforts really bring the city to life. It’s no surprise that Minority Report remains the go-to example when we discuss personalized advertising trends in the modern-day.
It even got some of its predictions right. Check out the impact that Spielberg’s vision had on modern tech in the video below:
Despite Anderton’s bleak situation, and converse to Blade Runner’s vision, Minority Report is the “Good Timeline” of cyberpunk movies. Sure, it’s a late-stage capitalist nightmare… but at this point, that’s a best-case scenario! Here’s to the next thirty years!
Dir. Denis Villeneuve
1. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Yep, even when it’s not Blade Runner, it’s still Blade Runner.
This is the apex of cyberpunk movies. The original helped define cyberpunk, and Denis Villeneuve’s installment continues the canon while morphing it for a modern audience.
2049 is the only proper sequel on this list, a designation it comfortably owns. If some poor director had opted to reboot the franchise, it may have invited unnecessary comparisons or criticisms.
Instead, the franchise builds out. Villeneuve excels in contemplative sci-fi, as we’ve seen in Arrival and hopefully continue to see in Dune. He grants 2049 its quiet intensity and focuses it with practical settings, vehicles, and props.
But he also flexes his action muscles when the scene calls for it. This makes 2049 even more dynamic than its predecessor.
Present as ever is the obligatory rain, cascading down neon-noir billboards covered in electric sex, but things have changed in dystopic Los Angeles. The weather is toxic. The shores are junkyards. “K” (Ryan Gosling) even steps out of the shadows into a Mad Max-esque desert steeped in orange.
It’s a refreshing palette change and it’s stunning. The entire film is a visual marvel, thanks to DP Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner. Both of them scored Oscar noms for the film, with Deakins taking home the trophy in his category.
Though 2049 underperformed at the box office, it still stands as the best of the best cyberpunk movies. This is no replicant; this is the real deal.
What Is Film Noir?
Now you’re all caught up with the best modern cyber noir movies! While we wait for our mega-corporate overlords to seize control and plunge us into a tech-noir film of our own, let’s go back to the origins of film noir and see how we ended up here.