Top 20 Best Cyberpunk Movies - A Countdown
Defining cyberpunk can be a complicated task.
Its "high tech, low life" motto makes it clear that a work of this genre includes technological advances that paradoxically haven't improved (or even have worsened) the quality of human life. Visually, it's easy to imagine the contrast. A neon megacity coexisting with a dirty and decadent underground, all filled with pistols, gadgets, characters with cybernetic implants, and a rough anti-hero rebelling against the system.
But cyberpunk goes beyond the valuable visual cue. Their works investigate the ethics of the use of technology, the concepts of identity and humanity in a world full of virtual scenarios. Above all, these films are all reimaginations of future power relations.
Many movies on this cyberpunk list contain a couple or more of the genre characteristics. Some are completely cyberpunk and some fall between genres and are considered more general science fiction.
Here is our countdown of the best cyberpunk movies that have graced our movie theaters.
20) Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Ignoring the sole William Gibson's screenplay on this list would be blasphemy.
Johnny Mnemonic was born as a modest, low-budget film, but the pressures of executives turned it into a failed blockbuster. Although flawed, the cult around it is understandable. We are talking about a film where Keanu Reeves is a portable hard disk, Ice-T looks like a Mad Max extra, Dolph Lundgren is a cybernetic false messiah with a cross-shaped knife and there is a killer yakuza with a laser whip.
Unfortunately, Johnny Mnemonic took its cartoonish aspects too seriously and didn’t go deep into its motifs.
19) Dredd (2012)
The second film adaptation of the famous Wagner-Ezquerra comic leaves behind the Hollywood star ego (Yes Stallone, we're talking about you) and concentrates in the subjects that made Dredd a character of worldwide fame.
With a Karl Urban and a Lena Headey both perfect in their archetypical roles, Dredd is an unrivaled film about the spiral of violence generated by a failed oppressor state and a civilization that hasn't been able to emerge from the decadence of its cold, technological surroundings.
Alex Garland writes and directs this wonderful action flick, where each and every one of his shots and narrative resources is justified.
18) The Fifth Element (1997)
Luc Besson's borderline-musical space opera is a multicolored and diverse ode to chaos and frenzy. The Fifth Element is a visual treat led by Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Bruce Willis, Chris Tucker and a gallery of alien creatures, with art design, characters and musicalization with hundreds of influences and different genres coexisting in perfect harmony.
Its visual aspects are outstanding, but what really expanded its legacy was its positive, not corny message about the human need to commit to love.
17) Elysium (2013)
The second film by Neill Blomkamp (District 9) deserves more love. It's an original dystopia, full of interesting gadgets and memorable characters.
Elysium extrapolates the current reality and imagines a 2154 Earth where the vast majority of the population is starving and without access to medical care. The privileged 1% live in Elysium, a technologically advanced space habitat that orbits the earth.
After being diagnosed with radiation poisoning, Max (Matt Damon) along with his friends Julio (Diego Luna) and Spider (Wagner Moura), decides to smuggle himself into Elysium. Of course, they will be hunted to death on that journey.
Elysium shows a no-sugarcoated class struggle tale. With Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley as antagonists, plus a lot of action scenes, this is a very entertaining film that will surely be vindicated in the near future.
16) Sleep Dealer (2008)
Cyberpunk is always associated with megacities, usually from developed countries. Sleep Dealer stays within the genre but offers a different view. Set on the Mexican side of the United States border, in this reality immigration is no longer allowed. But although borders are sealed, citizens have the possibility of exporting their cheap labor, using electronic implants that allow them to control robots from a distance.
It's a cruel but plausible projection of this present Trump era, where drones execute the wars, the migrations are more massive and the phobia to the newcomer continues to grow.
Although its budget and Sundance style prevents it to really compete with other cinematic titans, Sleep Dealer deserves its place in this list because of its originality and relevance of its script.
15) Existenz (1999)
Imagine that the console war between Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation continues for decades until each of them signifies an important sector of the world's economy. In this reality, the video game industry, fundamental to mass entertainment, is full of industrial espionage, sabotage, and conspiracies of anti-virtual reality purists.
Now imagine that in that future, technology has reached a point where the new consoles are organic and connect with bio-ports directly to the player's spine through biotechnological umbilical cords.
Now imagine all that, directed by body horror/psychological thriller master David Cronenberg, starring Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
An absolute classic.
14) 12 Monkeys (1995)
Inspired by the French short film La Jetée (1962), Terry Gilliam achieved the most entertaining work of his filmography.
In 12 Monkeys, the population has been practically wiped from the face of the earth thanks to a lethal virus. The survivors, forced to live underground, are able to develop an unstable technology to time-travel and prevent the disaster.
Paranoia, chaos, insanity, eco-terrorism and the recurring tension of the shots conceived by Gilliam frame a bunch of great performances, including award-winning Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Christopher Plummer.
13) The Terminator (1984)
Instead of pointing the obvious quality of The Terminator, let us just limit ourselves to remembering a simple scene to understand its deserved place in this list.
A group of 1984 punks, led by a spike-blue-haired Bill Paxton, threaten a nude Cyborg from the future (Schwarzenegger) with some old-school razors. The Terminator, predictably, ends up murdering them and wearing their punk garments to officially begin its mission: to assassinate Sarah Connor and ensure the triumph of machines over humans.
12) RoboCop (1987)
Much has been written about the political views of Paul Verhoeven's work. RoboCop has its place assured in the history of sci-fi thanks to its brutal entertainment, crude sense of humor and a cynical but effective vision on the future of the first world's most depressed cities.
RoboCop has a unique twist on the genre. A Reverse Cyberpunk, where the protagonist is not an underground rebel, but an ex-cop/Frankenstein monster created by a private multinational in control of social security policies. Neoliberalism has triumphed and this work makes the macabre exercise of imagining a future where the monopoly of violence is managed by companies designed to profit themselves. A mortal combo.
11) Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
Shinya Tsukamoto's 16mm-black-and-white low budget nightmare is the most extreme definition of Cyberpunk. Toying obsessively with the body horror where the metal repeatedly violates the fragility of the human body, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is undoubtedly the most industrial film of all time and a must-see experience.
10) Freejack (1992)
In Freejack's version of the future, humankind is plagued by diseases and body deficiencies caused by drugs and environmental pollution. The elite has the possibility of transmitting their consciousness to new bodies and extending their life in the process. These bodies are "snatched" from the past, from victims of violent accidents whose bodies are time-traveled into the future seconds before their final destination.
Now imagine that crazy and wonderful premise starring a cocky Emilio Estevez as an unjustly "snatched" F1 driver. Add a charismatic/cartoonish Mick Jagger as his hunter, Rene Russo as the romantic interest, Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Banks as enigmatic figures of power and Amanda Plummer as a deranged nun. All scored by Ministry and Scorpions.
The merits of Freejack are more visual than conceptual, without affecting its quality at all. This is a fun retro-capsule entertaining treat.
9) Hackers (1995)
This is Cyberpunk through the glass of the mid 90's rave culture and high school comedy. Scored by Leftfield, Prodigy, Orbital and Underworld, Hackers is the purest and most naive anti-system rebellion flick in recent memory.
Full of technological inaccuracies, wonderful hairstyles and costumes, PS1's Wipeout, 31/2 color diskettes and a diversity cast (even though its two protagonists are a white heterosexual couple), this is an instant cult classic.
8) Strange Days (1995)
The brief trend of fearing the arriving of the new millennium brought some gems that would end up surviving the test of time. Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days chronicles the last days of the 20th century in a Los Angeles devastated by the racial tension between the black community and the police brutality.
The Sci-fi element is given by the SQUID recordings, a technological device that allows anyone to experiment with the five senses the experiences of another human being. With this cinematic way of "putting yourself in others people's place" this film about the need to control impunity to avoid further violence is filled with snuff movies, a kick-ass soundtrack, a memorable heroine in Mace (Angela Basset) and perhaps the last leading character of a long-haired Ralph Fiennes.
7) Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
The Terminator had done it before, but Terminator 2 did it exponentially better. Put it simply, James Cameron crafted the pinnacle of what a blockbuster should be.
This is a legendary film that successfully mixes different genres and develops memorable characters. Everything, moreover, while trying to answer the question:
"Is technology destined to be the device of our own self-destruction"?
6) Dark City (1998)
Underestimated in its premiere--largely because the Blockbusters of those years looked more like Leonardo Di Caprio and meteorites destroying the planet rather than bald sinister humanoids floating around a gothic city manipulating objects with their minds--this work of Alex Proyas about a city where nothing is like it seems, has won a well-deserved cult following.
A visual cinema masterclass, Dark City is a study of urban areas and their influence on our identity as citizens.
5) Total Recall (1990)
Paul Verhoeven, without abandoning its social critique, takes the original work of Philip K. Dick and channels it into a successful Blockbuster with dozens of memorable moments. Whether it's the muscular presence of Schwarzenegger, the grotesque creatures or the recurring tension between the real and the virtual, Total Recall is an explosive movie with a corrosive and unforgettable sense of humor.
What is the Best Cyberpunk Movie?
4) Ghost in the Shell (1995)
The influence of this Mamoru Oshii's movie is invaluable and it's easy to understand why. This is an entertaining animated feature full of explosions and shots that at some point has an antagonist android claiming with total certainty that "he" has every right to be considered human by the simple argument of "the inability of science to determine exactly what life is." It's a simple line of dialogue, but it makes clear the philosophical complexity of the script in perfect communion with the crazy entertainment.
Ghost in the Shell is also a progressive manifesto about the need to discuss the existence of gender roles. The character of Motoko is one that can be debated for hours.
3) Akira (1988)
Katsuhiro Otomo's masterpiece is an adventure that uses Psionics (the study of the paranormal related to technology) for its grand narrative about the dichotomy between humans and machines.
Neo-Tokyo, the mega city where the action happens, is practically a character on its own. A marvel of technology that should be a monument to human persistence, but paradoxically also holds the worst of humanity: criminals, thugs, rapists and a corrupt elite who doesn't mind experimenting/torturing humans.
Also, Kaneda's bike is way too iconic.
2) Blade Runner (1982) and Blade Runner 2049
Visually, Ridley Scott's masterpiece defined Cyberpunk. The contrast between the neon and the sewer, the echoing shouts lost at night and the advancing technology that at the same time blinds and shows that social inequality continues to exist.
And then, of course, is its deeper layers of interpretations, full of symbolism, religious allegories, and dreamlike scenarios. Its rewatch value is eternal.
Blade Runner 2049 is a visually upgraded Blade Runner. Beautiful cinematography and an extended story through the Blade Runner universe with an excellent cast.
1) The Matrix (1999)
You all know The Matrix. This is the absolute cinematic peak of all that Cyberpunk spirit embodies, visually and conceptually. The Wachowski made the ultimate story about the rebellion of machines and the search for truth and freedom in different types of realities. All this, with a philosophical load delivered in perfect quotas, paying righteous homage to the prior works that with their influence also built this universe. It also has martial arts, explosions and a lot of guns.
All this without mentioning the gigantic amount of visual paradigms created from this film. The technological innovation developed to tell the story of Neo will continue influencing thousands of creators around the world.
Probably the nice Cyberpunk movie Upgrade should be in this list, but I finished writing the list way before I watched that movie. Definitely a recommended fun Cyberpunk film.
© 2019 Sam Shepards