• Source code: The origins of cyberpunk cinema

    Cyberpunk is the sub-genre of speculative fiction dealing with high tech and low life, the pair generally united by a consensual electronic information flow that sometimes achieves consciousness. The term itself is generally regarded as having been coined by writer Bruce Bethke in 1983, with William Gibson its most well-known practitioner, although precursors stretch far back into literary history. Those twin tropes are now firmly established in film, from Ready Player One (2018) via Lucy (2014) to Inception (2010). Here too antecedents are to be found, the best in each decade called out in bold below. But what – and when – was the first cyberpunk film?

    The Millennium appears to have been a turning point, with Cypher and Minority Report (both 2002) and Avalon (2001) in the van of the rush and The Matrix (1999) announcing it, though either the little-known Xchange (2000) directed by Allen Moyle from a screenplay by Christopher Pelham or Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel (1998) taken from Gibson’s short story might have been the catalyst had they been more successful.

    It was though a few years before this when one of the most accomplished productions appeared: Strange Days (1995), written by James Cameron and directed by his former wife Kathryn Bigelow. With characters ranging from a pop star to a bodyguard to a cop, all later intersecting, and a sensorium-recording device taken directly if without acknowledgement from Gibson, the basics were firmly in place. And though produced well before the conception of internet-enabled social media, the established power of television and the viral video – here inspired by the real-life Rodney King footage – supplied that connecting network.

    Elsewhere Robert Longo’s poorly-received Johnny Mnemonic (1995), the other cinematic adaptation of a Gibson work, also under-performed financially and critically although it deserves closer scrutiny for being rather more faithful to its source material than is commonly supposed and for the careful and credible design of the hardware used by its protagonist (even the boxes those devices come in).

    It is though necessary to go back to the mid- and early 1980s to find films imbued with the true qualities that made Gibson and his fellow cyberpunk writers so popular.

    The period saw two relevant blockbusters – RoboCop (1987) and The Terminator (1984). Both feature elements of cyberpunk – cynicism, corporate power versus the man in the street, advanced technological, an urban setting – though only the latter includes the information linkage, through the malevolent war-fighting computer Skynet. More interesting are the slew of similarly-themed yet individually fascinating films that appeared within just a few years at the start of the decade.

    Steven Lisberger’s Tron (1982) pre-figures RoboCop in essaying many of the same concerns, and arguably comes closer to Gibson’s mind’s-eye view of what cyberspace might be. The year was of course most notable for Ridley Scott’s sleeper cult classic-turned-landmark Blade Runner (1982), which looked to the filmic past for many of its cues even as it explored issues of life and death in an engrossing future. Moving from street vendors to billionaires using video phones, flying cars and more (the cop is there again), the all-seeing eye of the Esper police supercomputer fulfils the role of the omniscient network yet the artificial intelligence on show is organic rather than electronic.

    Scott’s visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull made Brainstorm (1981, released 1983), which like Strange Days 15 years later also revolved around a technology that allowed the recording of the entire human sensorium. Here the military-industrial complex is set against the purity of science and, ultimately, something more spiritual. Importantly, Trumbull wrote and directed the film with the express purpose of promoting his patented large-format Showscan film system, which he intended to create a shared, immersive visual environment – the majority of the film was to be shot in 35mm, with the Brainstorm device sequences filmed in 65mm at a wider ratio and run at 60 frames per second, more than twice the standard rate, to increase perceived resolution . The plan was not enacted but Trumbull was anticipating the use of IMAX for portions of Christopher Nolan and Michael Bay’s output.

    One film from the remarkable cross-over talents of director, screenwriter and novelist Michael Crichton and another that emerged from the low-budget, independent film movement are the next of significance in this chronology.

    Crichton’s Looker (1981) does, it’s true, dispense with the low-life element – its hero is a Beverley Hills plastic surgeon and his love interest a top model – but a plotline revolving around mass consumerism, media dominance and computer-generated avatars, plus the deployment of a light-pulse memory loss gun (surely inspired by Alfred Bester’s 1953 novel The Demolished Man, itself a prime slice of proto-cyberpunk) place it firmly on our continuum.

    John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) certainly qualifies and might in fact be regarded as the quintessential cyberpunk film of the decade, with its cynical ex-soldier antihero perfectly bridging the attitudinal gap between the punk-criminal-zombie milieu inside Manhattan island prison and the black-clad, high-tech paramilitary police force outside. An ongoing World War 3, stealth jet glider and injectable explosives provide the necessary technological and cultural enhancement.

    Two films from the previous year, Scanners (1980) and Death Watch (1980), share horror traits (visceral and psychological respectively) but also explore big business’s manipulation of the masses via technology and the media. This saw cinematic cyberpunk echoing contemporary socio-politics, with fears over consumerism, the environment, corruption and profiteering driving protest in the real world. The previous decade’s films, too, reflected this kind of distrust and unrest, with a trio of entries to the fore.

    Norman Jewison directed the sublime Rollerball (1975) from William Harrison’s short story and script. Here the human spirit is placed in conflict with the crushing endeavours of a brutal future sport that is itself shaped by the global corporations that fund and organise it. Television once more provides the shared experience, the ingeniously realised Multivision also anticipating the optional multiple viewing angles available with today’s sports coverage. The power of the computer to connect the world is also now explicit even if the on-screen vision is of its time with a single mainframe. Japan is now seen as influential.

    In Soylent Green (1973) the disparate worlds of the corporate elite and those who service them again collide, as a put-upon detective (again) attempts to investigate a murder against a background of over-population, food shortages and radical, technological solutions to both. The contrast is so well defined that selection for this survey despite the complete absence of electronic media is acceptable. Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) treads the same ground, taking the street life one step lower. Its gaudy, neon-lined street market and striking interior design cast a wide influence.

    Moving back another decade, the great exploitationist William Castle made the under-rated cyberpunk ancestor Project X (1968). Over-population is again key, but so is fear of Asian dominance. Crucially, genetic engineering, biological warfare, holographic viewing devices, memory manipulation and virtual environments all feature. Though it eschews any attempt to actually depict its own future setting, Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) still includes the low life-high tech conjunction and even a controlling central computer.

    Godard’s film also prompts the thought that cinematic cyberpunk might exist within or at least alongside film noir, with its intrigue of secrets and lies in urban settings of authority and cunter-authority. If so, is it too much of a stretch to suggest Kiss Me Deadly (1955), with its street-level characters assailed by representatives of much greater forces, hints of high-tech warfare and a certain briefcase as embryonic cyberpunk?

    But we must actually reach back much further, before World War 2, to complete our quest.

    Based on a play by Noel Pemberton Billing and directed by Maurice Elvey, High Treason (1929) is a geo-political drama set in the future. Competing power blocs, multi-national terrorists and a working class revolution are set against a leisure-saturated world of electronic dance music, and – half a century before Blade Runner – flying cars and video phones.

    Though High Treason is popularly held to be a British answer to a German film from three years earlier, I would contend that it is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) that deserves to be viewed as the very first cyberpunk film. Its protagonist and antagonist span the full sociological distance between oppressed drone and rich plutocrat, technology is the enabler of the status quo and the revolt and the whole plays out within a famously absorbing megacity of towers above ground and cavernous basements below. Aerial freeways, trains and planes connect the former, with advanced telecommunications to fill in the gaps. And from a man peering over his newspaper whilst waiting in the street to the Japanese-influenced downtown drinking hole, from neon-drenched darkness to the aerial shot of a lofty cylindrical building, and from the domineering corporate giant in his eyrie to an erotic dance by a fake human, Metropolis is a virtual blueprint for Scott’s masterpiece in almost every respect and for most of those that followed.


Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here


Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443


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