Tall buildings, smoke filled rooms, femme fatales, people on the margins of society, late nights, bright signs….and cybernetic implants? No, it’s not film noir, it’s Cyberpunk. It’s a sub-genre that has slowly but surely integrated itself into popular media from the 1970s all the way to the 2020s. Taking inspiration from hard boiled fiction and rejecting utopian sci-fi, Cyberpunk has made a name for itself in all forms of media. But what is Cyberpunk, what’s its history, and how has it evolved?
Answering “What is Cyberpunk?”
As a sub-genre of science-fiction, Cyberpunk has managed to branch out and be so much more than its origins. That said, there is still a basic concrete definition from which many authors and artists start with when making something in this field. This is, essentially, what Cyberpunk meant and still means from the outset.
What is Cyberpunk?
Cyberpunk is a science-fiction sub-genre dealing with the integration of society and technology in dystopian settings. Often referred to as “low-life and high tech,” Cyberpunk stories deal with outsiders (punks) who fight against the oppressors in society (usually mega corporations that control everything) via technological means (cyber). If the punks aren’t actively fighting against a megacorp, they’re still dealing with living in a world completely dependent on high technology.
The name “Cyberpunk” was coined by author Bruce Bethke, who used it as the title for one of his short stories. The author has said he didn’t intend the name to represent this new category, and that the name itself came about “through synthesis” as he tried to combine different words together. The idea of the name — a punk or troublemaker with insane computer skills — remains.
Cyberpunk characteristics include:
- Dystopian city setting where mega-corporations rule
- Full integration of technology into society, featuring cybernetic implants
- Outsider protagonists (punks) who often are very familiar with the technology around them
- Hard boiled detective and film noir vibes and influence
- Themes dabbling in trans-humanism, existentialism, and what it means to be human.
The history of Cyberpunk origins, and what it consists of, is surprisingly extensive. So for the sake of all you readers at home, we’ll condense it a bit here. But for those who have the time, take a look at the first part of Indigo Gaming’s documentary on Cyberpunk below.
The exact date from which this sub-genre emerged is not set in stone. However, certain books can point to its creation. In particular, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is seen as one of the first examples of this type of fiction (proto-Cyberpunk). It was part of the New Wave science fiction literature scene, which included many well-known authors, such as Dick, John Brunner, J.G. Ballard, and Bruce Sterling.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, these authors and others created science fiction worlds that rejected optimistic utopias. Instead, they opted for dystopian near-futures, where technology had advanced too far and nations as we knew them ceased to exist. These were also topics of popular sci-fi cinema of the ‘70s, but as far as Cyberpunk goes, it was still in the zygote phase of its creation.
It would not be until the 1980s that the sub-genre would truly make itself known to the world with the iconic film Blade Runner (1982). Based on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner is not 100% Cyberpunk by definition, but its look, feel, and setting means it qualifies.
It introduced the world to a dystopian near future of constant rain, overpopulation, electric billboards, and humanoid androids. What’s more, it influenced William Gibson, a man frequently referred to as the godfather of Cyberpunk. Additionally, Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga series AKIRA began serialization in Japan the same year Blade Runner released.
But let’s not digress from Gibson, for in 1984 he released Neuromancer, which is known as the Cyberpunk novel. Featuring a “console cowboy,” clear divisions between the rich and poor, a pre-internet internet (the matrix, aka cyberspace), and artificial intelligence, this novel more or less announced the arrival of Cyberpunk as we know it.
Later history and evolution
By the mid to late ‘80s, Cyberpunk already had its own anthology book and a tabletop game. Which later became the basis for CD Projekt Red’s video game adaption Cyberpunk 2077.
Additionally, Neuromancer had two sequels (and a video game) and Otomo’s AKIRA was made into a groundbreaking animated film, further influencing how the genre would look in the world of anime.
By the 1990s, Cyberpunk had seriously hit the mainstream, to extremely questionable success. Some of William Gibson’s short stories were even made into movies, with Johnny Mnemonic (1995) and New Rose Hotel (1998) (they were box office failures). And in-between those movies, filmmakers took influence from the genre and made movies like RoboCop (1987), The Running Man (1987), The Lawnmower Man (1992), Judge Dredd (1995), Strange Days (1995), and Ghost in the Shell (1995).
The Matrix (1999) eventually wound up being the most mainstream Cyberpunk influenced movie of its era. And by the time the Wachowskis — they themselves influenced by Japanese Cyberpunk anime like Ghost in the Shell — made The Matrix, the sub-genre of Cyberpunk had evolved in dramatic ways.
Not getting into the overwhelming number of derivatives that exist, Cyberpunk was no longer just “punks against the system” (though that was certainly still a part of it). More than anything, films, television, and other mediums had taken elements from it to create stories that evoked Cyberpunk imagery and themes. Even if they themselves were not overly Cyberpunk in nature.
At the same time, Cyberpunk was moving away from literature, soon finding a home with movies, television, and above all else, video games. Seminal games like Shadowrun, Snatcher, Perfect Dark, the Metal Gear series, and the Deus Ex series have been among the most prominent and acclaimed examples of Cyberpunk fiction anywhere.
Even with Cyberpunk making a name for itself in video games, movies have continued to tackle its themes in different ways. Philip K. Dick keeps getting adapted with Minority Report (2002), Paycheck (2003), and A Scanner Darkly (2006).
Meanwhile, other filmmakers either keep adapting Japanese Cyberpunk anime/manga — Ghost in the Shell (2017), Alita: Battle Angel (2019) — or make their own stories with Cyberpunk themes, like Ex Machina (2015), Upgrade (2018), and Possessor (2020).
And of course, there is Blade Runner 2049 (2017), the ultimate example of just how much the original film and the sub-genre it helped create has influenced science-fiction as a whole.
As the future seen in older Cyberpunk works has become both paradoxically outdated and real, the genre has found new life in new forms of media. It has spawned too many other sub-sub-genres to count, with post-Cyberpunk, dieselpunk, and steampunk being among them.
There’s even an entire Japanese film genre called “Cyberpunk” that takes the body modification element to unnerving (and horrific) extremes.
It’s a sub-genre that exists as an attitude, a fashion trend, a political call to arms, and as a form of entertainment. Cyberpunk is no longer just one type of thing, but rather a greater and ever changing life form, one which never stops being relevant or cool to old and new fans alike.
Best Cyberpunk Movies
Now that your crash course on Cyberpunk is complete, it’s time to look at what some of the best movies in the sub-genre have to offer. Our list ranks 10 of the best movies for filmmakers, ranging from under-seen gems to bonafide classics, all of which interpret cyberpunk in their own unique ways.