Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction that’s been around for some time now; the grim dystopian futures that see advanced technological and scientific achievements set in a society at war with itself, with the oppressed breaking down the order and regimes of the super rich.
From films to comic books, from anime to television shows, the Cyberpunk setting has been explored from as early as the Judge Dredd comics in the 1970s, and solidified when author William Gibson released his debut novel Neuromancer in 1984. There is a lot of Cyberpunk media, ranging from the amazing to the truly awful, but instead of focusing on the well known films, such as Blade Runner or the Matrix Trilogy, we decided to look at five other cinematic offerings to the genre.
Burst City (1982)
First on our list is the unique Japanese punk-rock action musical (yes, you did read that right!), Burst City. It does not have a lot in terms of plot and is more a collection of musical set pieces, but they are framed around various punk rockers protesting the building of a nuclear power plant. It is very much a worthy addition to the Cyberpunk genre. For those familiar with the role-play game from R. Talsorian Games, or with the troubled video game from CD Projekt Red, you will know the music being used as a form of protest is very much a tried and true way to stick it to the man. The ultimate Rockerboy, Johnny Silverhand, would be very much at home within Burst City.
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Writer and director Sogo Ishii created the film at the height of the Japanese punk movement, and it showcases famous bands from the time: The Roosters, The Rockers, The Stalin and INU. When not putting us in the middle of the mosh pit we get to experience corrupt businessmen, and their Yakuza pals, and the biker gang that wants to end them. Try to imagine Mad Max the musical, only set in Tokyo rather than the Wasteland and then you’re most of the way to Burst City.
Despite starring big names such as Emilio Estevez (Young Guns, The Way), Anthony Hopkins (Remains of the Day, Silence of the Lambs), Rene Russo (Nightcrawler, The Thomas Crown Affair) and the Rolling Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger (Performance, Ned Kelly), Freejack did not do well. It is definitely a Cyberpunk film, but that does not change the fact that it is not great. It is, however, a good piece of cheesy action fun and still a (mostly) worthy addition to this list.
Set in the dystopian future of 2009 (yes, we know)… the super rich have found a way to avoid death by transplanting themselves into the bodies of people snatched from the past moments before their deaths. One of these elites is Ian McCandless (Hopkins) and his intended body donor is Alex Furlong (Estevez) who is about to suffer a fatal car crash in his Formula One car.
However, before he can get taken back to the McCandless Corporation, the squad sent to retrieve him, led by Mick Jagger’s Victor Vacendak, are attacked and the film turns into a cat and mouse chase scenario. It is a very gimmicky film and a bit of a mashup of various other sci-fi greats, such as Blade Runner and Robocop, but if you go into it with low expectations and just want to disengage your brain for its one hundred and ten minutes running time, it may still entertain you.
Dark City (1998)
Fast forward a few years and we come to Alex Proyas’ Dark City, in which Rufus Sewell (A Knight’s Tale, The Man in the High Castle) stars as John Murdoch, who is stuck in a similar situation to that of Keanu Reeves’s Neo. His world, his home, is not his own, but rather a grand experiment of someone else’s design and he has become a thorn in their side.
Despite high praise and a stellar cast joining Sewell, with the likes of Keifer Sutherland (24, The Lost Boys), Jennifer Connelly (Labyrinth, A Beautiful Mind), Richard O’Brien (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and William Hurt (A History of Violence, Lost in Space), the film did not do well commercially. It has gone on to become a rightly deserved cult classic.
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From its dark and rainy atmosphere, making everything feel more oppressive, to Murdoch’s encounters with the Strangers, the terrifying antagonists of the film, there is a lot to love about this film. You can see its influence in a number of media offerings, such as The Matrix, the Gentlemen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and even Christopher Nolan has said it influenced both Memento and also Inception. It is definitely well worth a watch.
Code 46 (2003)
In Michael Winterbottom’s (Welcome to Sarajevo, 24 Hour Party People) near future the world is run on codes, specifically genetic ID codes. These determine where people can travel, live, love and especially who they can reproduce with. These government-controlled DNA match-ups seem to have done away with ethnic distinctions, judging by the global language which is composed of English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Italian, Farsi and Mandarin.
The world is divided by those who can live inside the high density cities, and the poor underclass who live outside of them. Access to the cities is regulated via health documents known as ‘papeles’, which of course means there is a black market for those wanting to try and build themselves a better life.
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The Code 46 referred to in the title prohibits genetically incestuous reproduction. Enter William Geld (Tim Robbins – The Shawshank Redemption, The Hudsucker Proxy), an investigator looking into the faked papeles operation, utilising the fact he’s been injected with a genetically engineered ‘empathy virus’ to help him identify the forger. He is able to identify the forger as Maria Gonzales (Samantha Morton – The Walking Dead, Minority Report) and complications, of course, arise when Geld becomes smitten with her and they start an affair. Code 46 is not a happy film, but the cyberpunk themes run throughout it and is definitely worth investigating.
Last for this list is the 2020 film Possessor, which comes from Brandon Cronenberg (Antiviral), son of acclaimed director David Cronenberg, who has a number of films worthy of the Cyberpunk genre. At time of writing it is the most recent entry to the Cyberpunk genre and is set in an alternate 2008.
It revolves around Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough – Oblivion, Mandy), an assassin who carries out her hits via other people’s bodies when she inserts her consciousness into their minds via an implant. When the hit is carried out she then returns to her body by forcing the host to kill themselves.
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The fact that she’s doing all of this whilst also trying to balance it with a ‘normal life’ with her husband and son makes things more difficult for her. When the latest job, given to her by her handler (Jennifer Jason Leigh – Single White Female, The Hateful Eight), goes awry Vos is stuck battling her own identity and that of the body in which she gets stuck.