Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction that takes place in a dystopian future. It typically juxtaposes advanced, high-end technology with the breakdown of social structure. This genre was created in the 1960s and 1970s, during the New Wave science fiction movement. At this time, a new writing style with more realistic settings and themes were encouraged. Some notable writers of cyberpunk fiction include Harlan Ellison, John Brunner, and Philip K. Dick. In fact, Dick penned multiple short stories that inspired famous cyberpunk movies, such as Total Recall (1990), Blade Runner (1982), and Minority Report (2002).
Unlike other science fiction stories, which might take place on a spaceship or on another planet, most cyberpunk stories are set on a futuristic version of earth. They commonly feature characters sporting trench coats, high boots, and shiny black clothing. This aesthetic is sometimes referred to as futuristic gothic fashion. However, the settings of these movies can range from bleak wastelands with dark color palettes to richly colored urban jungles. Either way, a lot of cyberpunk stories overlap with crime fiction, both aesthetically and plot-wise. That is why these films tend to have a noir feel.
Cyberpunk movies deal with heavy themes about class uprising, governmental corruption, capitalism, environmentalism, and the economy. They also commonly touch upon ethical problems with artificial intelligence, blurring the lines between actual and virtual reality, and what defines humanity. These stories are not only entertaining, but they make a statement about where society might be headed if we continue along the same, self-destructive path. Although they take place in a fictional future, they are meant as commentary on our existing society. If you’re interested in watching some gritty, near future science fiction, here are some of the best cyberpunk movies ever created:
Tagline: A chilling, bold, mesmerizing, futuristic detective thriller.
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples
Summary: Harrison Ford plays a former police officer who is hired to terminate a group of fugitives. The producer, Ridley Scott, who has been involved in famous films like The Martian (2015) and Thelma & Louise (1991), has called this his most personal movie. Surprisingly, he never actually read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, which the movie is based on. However, before Philip died, he saw the first twenty minutes of footage and was impressed. He believed the world he wrote was caught perfectly in the film.
Tagline: How would you know if someone stole your mind?
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Writer: Ronald Shusett
Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a man who goes on a virtual vacation to Mars using implanted memories. However, when something goes wrong during the memory implantation, he ends up visiting the planet for real. The script is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick called We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. At the time of filming, Total Recall was the most expensive film to create, aside from Rambo III (1988). The crew, which consisted of 500 different people, built forty-five different sets overall.
Tagline: The government will kill for his invention. One woman will do anything for his love. Together they share an adventure that circles the globe – And invades the mind.
Director: Wim Wenders
Writers: Peter Carey and Wim Wenders
After a woman survives a car crash, she travels around the world with a man on the run from the law. At the time, this film was meant to be futuristic, because it was set in the year 1999. It was shot in fifteen different cities, in seven different countries, on four different continents. Overall, it took fourteen years for Wim Wenders to finish creating his vision. Although the original cut of the movie was twenty hours long, the version released is only two and a half hours.
Tagline: The Future isn’t user friendly…
Director/Writer: The Wachowskis
Keanu Reeves plays a computer hacker who discovers he is living in a simulated reality. When he awakens in the real world, he learns humanity is ruled by machines. Reeves lost fifteen pounds and shaved his entire body to look emaciated for this role. Although Neo is one of his most famous characters, Will Smith was originally offered the job. However, he turned it down to star in Wild Wild West (1999).
Tagline: The danger is all in his head
Director: Robert Longo
Writer: William Gibson
Keanu Reeves plays a data courier who carries an important package inside of his head. He must deliver it before he is killed by a crime organization who wants the information for themselves. The film, which was futuristic at the time, takes place in 2021. It is based on the script writer’s short story by the same name. However, it was also influenced by his novel Virtual Light.
Tagline: It found a voice… now it needs a body.
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Writer: Kazunori Itô
This animated film is about a cyborg policewoman who is searching for a powerful hacker. It takes place in 2029 when humans can connect their brains directly to the internet. The story is based on the Japanese manga of the same name, written by Masamune Shirow. It was also turned into a live action film in 2017. However, the latter was quite controversial due to the casting of Scarlett Johansson.
Tagline: Time is not important, only life is important.
Director: Luc Besson
Writers: Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen
When the universe is threatened, a random cab driver plays an important role in the search for a legendary cosmic weapon. There are a lot of recognizable faces in this film, from Bruce Willis to Gary Oldman to Luke Perry. Vin Diesel also provides a voice, although he doesn’t receive any on-screen credit. Interestingly, the original screenplay for The Fifth Element was written when Luc Besson was a sixteen-year-old in high school. However, it wasn’t released until he turned thirty-eight.
Tagline: It’s like the holocaust in the 20th century. Everybody knows about it, and nobody says anything about it
Director/Writer: Abel Ferrara
Both Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe star in this cyberpunk erotic drama. It’s about two businessmen in a futuristic world who fight to gain control over the best minds in the world. The script is based on a short story by William Gibson with absolutely no dialogue. Although the film is slow paced, the atmosphere is moody and the soundtrack is beautifully eerie. Overall, it provides an interesting take on the power and corruption in the world.
Tagline: The system is perfect until it comes after you.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Scott Frank
In the future, a special police unit arrests murderers before they commit their crimes. Tom Cruise plays an officer who is accused of committing murder in the next thirty-six hours, but he hasn’t even met the victim yet. This script, like many cyberpunk films, is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick. While filming, Cruise and Spielberg agreed to accept a lower salary than usual in order to keep the budget below $100 million. Instead, they took fifteen percent of the film’s eventual earnings.
Tagline: For humans only. Non-humans banned!
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Writers: Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
After aliens land on earth, they are confined to an area where they live in slum-like conditions. The film was inspired by the director’s childhood in South Africa during apartheid. The title is a reference to a real neighborhood called district 6 in Cape Town, which the apartheid government demolished. However, the film is banned in Nigeria. The government was apparently not pleased with the way it portrayed Nigerians.
Tagline: Face your future. Fight your past.
Director/Writer: Rian Johnson
This film takes place in both 2044 and 2074. It revolves around a man named Joe who is a looper. This means, when mobs use time travel to send their victims to the past to be killed, he disposes of their bodies. However, he knows one day his future self will be sent back for him to kill. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the young version of Joe. Meanwhile, Bruce Willis plays the older version. In preparation for the role, Gordon-Levitt actually studied Willis’ movies in order to copy his mannerisms and make their characters seem as similar as possible.
Tagline: Fight your way to the front.
Director/Writer: Bong Joon Ho
After the world becomes frozen and uninhabitable, the remnants of humanity ride a train that continually circles the globe. This movie is about class warfare, climate change, and social injustice. It stars several famous actors, such as Chris Evans, Ed Harris, Tilda Swinton, and Octavia Spencer. Overall, it is a genre-blending social commentary with action, drama, science fiction, and horror. The story will stay with you long after you finish watching.
Tagline: Rebel Against…
Director/Writer: Neill Blomkamp
In 2154, the wealthy live on a space station while the rest of the population are struggling to survive on a ruined earth. The script deals with heavy subjects, such as the environment, pollution, wars, and immigration. Overall, it is a visually gorgeous film with excellent cinematography. The CGI effects are futuristic, gritty, and believable. Plus, the acting is top-notch, considering it stars Matt Damon and Jodie Foster.
Tagline: To erase the line between man and machine is to obscure the line between men and gods.
Director/Writer: Alex Garland
A programmer wins a trip to a reclusive mountain retreat where he is given the chance to interact with a robot girl. The film deals with deep themes, like the advancement of artificial intelligence, what it means to be human, and modern religion. In fact, all of the main characters have biblical names. Ava, which is similar to Eve, represents the first woman. Nathan was a prophet. And Caleb was a spy sent by Moses.
Tagline: Live, Die, Repeat
Director: Doug Liman
Writer: Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth
Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt star in this action-packed cyberpunk adventure. It’s about a soldier fighting against aliens who relives the same day over and over every time he dies. It is based on a novel called All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. The author drew inspiration from video games where you have to keep restarting and coming up with new strategies until you win. Meanwhile, the filmmakers referred to the movie as a cross between the time loop movie Groundhog Day (1993) and the alien invasion film Starship Troopers (1997).
Tagline: Accept your reality… or fight for a better one.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Zak Penn
When the creator of a virtual reality dies, he challenges users to find Easter Eggs. The winner will receive his fortune. This film is based on the bestselling book by the same name, written by Ernest Cline. There are a lot of references to pop culture littered throughout the movie. Some of the most notable ones are nods to Back to the Future (1985), Knight Rider (1982-1986), and Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009).
Tagline: Not Man. Not Machine. More.
Director/Writer: Leigh Whannell
This film, which is considered both science fiction and horror, takes place in the near future. It is about a man who receives an experimental computer chip implant after a suicide attempt. The director, Leigh Whannel, also wrote Saw (2004). There is a nod to her famous film franchise during a hacker sequence in Upgrade. The doll, Billy the Puppet, can be seen painted on one of the walls.
More cyberpunk movies
The titles listed above are some of the most well-known cyberpunk movies ever created. They were chosen based on their aesthetics, entertainment value, and deep, meaningful themes. They define their genre. Of course, there are plenty more movies you can watch when you’re in the mood for science fiction. Here are a few additional cyberpunk movies that deserve your attention:
- Metropolis (1927) is about a futuristic city divided between the working class and the city planners. Hitler was actually a big fan of the film, which upset the director, Fritz Lang.
- Cyborg 2087 (1966) is science fiction movie from the 60s that has early hints of the upcoming cyberpunk movement.
- Soylent Green (1973) is about a detective investigating a murder. It is heavily based around the greenhouse effect and overpopulation.
- Logan’s Run (1976) is about a future where life ends at age thirty. A year after the film was released, a series of Marvel comic books were created based on the story.
- Escape From New York (1981) is about a future where Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison. It stars Kurt Russell who has admitted this was his favorite of all his films.
- Brazil (1985) is about a man who wants to escape bureaucracy and technology to be with the woman he loves. Both Jonathan Pryce and Robert De Niro have starring roles.
- Robocop (1987) is about a police officer who returns to the force as a cyborg.
- Akira (1988) is about a man who develops telekinetic powers. It takes place in 2019.
- Hardware (1990) is about a cyborg who reactivates and rebuilds itself, only to go on a violent rampage. The film, which is rated R, was originally given an X rating because of its extreme violence.
- Demolition Man (1993) is about a police officer who is cryogenically frozen in 1996. Then, in 2032, he is brought back to capture a criminal who has broken free.
- Tank Girl (1995) is about a survivor in a dystopian Earth who rides a war tank. Courtney Love was originally offered the main role, but it ended up being played by Lori Petty.
- Dark City (1998) is about a man who is wanted for a series of brutal murders. However, things take a turn when he meets a group of people who possess the ability to put humans to sleep and alter the city.
- The Thirteenth Floor (1999) is about a computer scientist running a virtual reality simulation. The main theme of the movie is wanting something that you cannot have.
- Metropolis (2001) is an animated movie about a robot girl. It was in production for a total of five years.
- The Animatrix (2003) is a collection of short films about the Matrix universe. It only runs 101 minutes, making it the shortest Matrix film in the series.
- Repo Men (2010) is about a man trying to make payments on a heart he has purchased. It stars Jude Law and Forest Whitaker.
- Dredd (2012) is about a group of police officers trying to take down a gang that deals a reality-altering drug. The slow-motion sound effect used was based on a Justin Bieber song that had been slowed down 800 times.
- Blade Runner 2049 (2017) takes place thirty years after the original film. Ryan Gosling plays a blade runner who searches for another blade runner played by Harrison Ford.
- Blame! (2017) is an animated film about a distant future where humans are hunted by robots. It is based on a manga of the same name.
- Alita: Battle Angel (2019) is about a deactivated cyborg who gets revived but cannot remember her past life. The film has 1,500 visual effects shots.