ByElle McFarlane, writer at
'There's always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you.'
Elle McFarlane

At the intersections of film noir, cybernetics, floor-length trench coats, neon lights and moody weather lies the phenomena of "cyberpunk," a movement born in literature but made into synthetic flesh in the movies of the '80s and '90s.

Beginning with the iconic aesthetics of Blade Runner and hacking its way through the likes of Akira, Total Recall, Existenz, Cowboy Bepop, Tron, The Matrix and The Lawnmower Man, cyberpunk is responsible for spawning some of the best movies of the last few decades — and with the releases of , and confirmation of a reboot, it looks like we're heading for a cyberpunk revival. But why now?

Let's plug in to our grizzly dial-up mainframe to download some answers.

'Blade Runner' & The Origins Of The Cyberpunk Movie

Finding its origins in the literary works of science fiction authors William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker and Phillip K. Dick, cyberpunk was transformed from a literary movement into a cultural phenomena when K. Dick's novel 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' was modified for the big screen by way of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.

By bringing this niche, subcultural curiosity to a larger audience, the zeitgeist of cyberpunk infected a new wave of fans and made it possible for a legion of neon-noir, cyber-tech movies to find funding and find their way on to our screens.

But What Are The Characteristics Cyberpunk?

'Total Recall' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]
'Total Recall' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]
  • 'High tech, low life' - Coined by author David Ketterer, this definition essentially states that as significant technological advancements have been made in cyberpunk societies, so too has the breakdown of social order leading to gaping chasms, often between the rich and the poor.
  • 20 minutes into the future - Like TV Shows such as Black Mirror or movies such as Looper or X-Men, cyberpunk movies while set in the future, are not set in a future that feels too distant from our own. This means that the reality of a cyberpunk universe feels simultaneously fantastical, but startlingly familiar.
  • Film Noir to Neo(n) Noir - Cyberpunk incorporates many traits of the film noir genre, including bleak weather, cultural nihilism and universes which tend to be seething hotbeds of crime. This particularly cynical view of society is largely viewed as the repost to the popular utopic visions of the future which dominated science fiction in the '40s and '50s.

The Philosophy Of Cyberpunk As Epitomized By 'Ghost In The Shell'

Synthesizing ideas of advanced technology by way of artificial intelligence and artificial realities, cyberpunk essentially asks us what it is that makes us human as opposed to non-human, and what the nature of reality is.

These questions are artfully explored in Ghost in the Shell, a Japanese manga series created by Masamune Shirow in 1989 and recently given the Hollywood treatment starring Scarlett Johansson in the lead role as "The Major," whose body is comprised entirely of high-tech robotics, but who has retained her biological human brain. As she struggles to incorporate her biological and synthetic identities, we are asked to question the limits of transhumanism as well as the limits of society and the potential for economic abuse of both.

Putting The 'Punk' In Cyberpunk With 'Ghost In The Shell's' The Major

Cyberpunk movies are also defined by their protagonists. Often placed in situations which have robbed them of their autonomy, often treading the line between hero and anti-hero, cyberpunk's leading characters are generally defined by their anarchistic tendencies, dissenting beliefs and their inability to fully fit the mould that society has made for them.

'The Major' from Ghost in the Shell is a perfect example of a cyberpunk, punk. While to all intents and purposes she appears to be working for the Japanese government, underneath the facade she is working by her own moral compass and if she needs to, will defy orders to implement her own. These character traits can be seen in Neo from The Matrix, Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, Douglas Quaid in Total Recall and Kaneda in Akira to name but a few.

'Blade Runner 2049', 'Ghost In The Shell' And The Influence Of 'The East'

'Blade Runner 2049' [Credit: Columbia Pictures]
'Blade Runner 2049' [Credit: Columbia Pictures]

During the '80s, Japan was at the forefront of technological advancement, comprised of artificial, neon landscapes, hypnotic billboards and the vague remnants of its ancient culture, all of which were at the time, completely unique. Seemingly embodying the cyberpunk aesthetic, Japan as well as Hong Kong and Shanghai were consequently all incredibly influential in creating urban cyberpunk movie landscapes.

While Blade Runner and its sequel Blade Runner 2049 have absorbed the murky neon lights and crowded hyper-tech streets of modern day Japan, the streetscapes of Ghost in the Shell were actually based on the streets of Hong Kong. Ghost in the Shell director Mamoru Oshii choose Hong Kong as the basis for the movie due to its fusion of hyper-urbanization and its traditional way of life which really emphasize the cyberpunk trait of colossal technological advancement paving the way for a huge gap between different stratas of society.

Why Is Cyberpunk Getting A Resurgence Now?

Both impressively and worryingly, many of the things that the cyberpunk movement predicted have now come to pass. From mobile phones acting as tracking devices for government agencies, corporations and hackers alike, to the advancement of bionic body parts, the "Internet of Things" meaning that all of our appliances are now inter-connected and the rapidly developing field of virtual reality, it wouldn't be far off the mark to state we are now living in a cyberpunk world.

As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, we are seeing a universal rift between both our global and national societies and a criminal market for illegal produce such as drugs, weapons and even contract killers opening up on the "dark web." It is for this reason that cyberpunk is making a defiant resurgence. Never has it been more relevant, and never has its glimpse into a future which seems to lie but 20 minutes away ever been more important.

'The Matrix' [Credit: Warner Bros.]
'The Matrix' [Credit: Warner Bros.]

Alongside Blade Runner 2049 and Ghost in the Shell we can look forward to the upcoming Matrix reboot, a TV anthology series based on Phillip K. Dick's 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' entitled The Commuter, a Netflix original movie adaptation of Blame! as well as a highly anticipated live-action remake of cyberpunk classic, Akira. And this it seems, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Hold on to those dark shades and safeguard your store of bitcoins, it looks like we're in for a cyberpsychosis.


Are you excited for the cyberpunk resurgence?


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