Cyberpunk movies had something of a golden age between the 1990s and the early 2000s. Even if the genre’s origin goes back at least a decade, the worldwide spread of the internet and the diffusion of home computers made this genre boom in this period.
The most famous cyberpunk anime were also developed in the ’90s, with the exception of Akira which dates back to 1982. But Ghost in the Shell, Battle Angel, Cowboy Bebop, to name a few, were created in this period.
Cyberpunk art, movies, and games are recently having a comeback also thanks to the game Cyberpunk 2077 which revitalized the genre given the huge anticipation before its release and the success it’s having after the hotfix patch 1.5.
List of Cyberpunk movies
- Johnny Mnemonic
- The Fifth Element
- Strange Days
- Ghost in the Shell
- Judge Dredd
- Gunnm/Battle Angel Alita
- The Matrix
- Blade Runner
Cyberpunk 2077 fans will recognize quite a few things from Johnny Mnemonic. Keanu Reeves’ monotonic acting aside (we still love you Keanu), you get people “jackin’ in” to get info, memory shards and even monowire weapons.
Johnny Mnemonic has all the ingredients of a pure cyberpunk story: settings, dialogues, technology, you name it. Though the film received horrible reviews, it’s still a cult and a must-see for all cyberpunk fans.
Synopsis: Johnny is a mnemonic courier that finds himself carrying some data that can change the future of humanity. However, this info is sought after by a big corporation that wants to destroy the data and kill Johnny.
The Fifth Element
Visually fantastic and with an ensemble of great actors, flashy costumes and catchy dialogues, The Fifth Element probably is the least cyberpunk movie on the list. Still, it is a good mix of cyberpunk and sci-fi.
It misses some main elements of the genre like cyber-enhancements or cyber-dimension. However, it’s set in a world with big powerful corporations, authoritarian regimes and striking social differences between rich and poor. All typical ingredients of a cyberpunk world.
Synopsis: a taxi driver is on a quest to save the world after a young lady crashes into him. They need to find four mystical stones to save the Earth from a mysterious evil entity.
Ghost in the Shell
Ghost in the Shell is the most famous Japanese cyberpunk anime and probably needs no introduction. There are a few animated movies, tv-series and the not-well-received (euphemism) live-action movie with Scarlett Johanson set in Niihama. For this list, however, we chose the 1995 animated film Ghost in the Shell/Kōkaku Kidōtai.
The film has everything a cyberpunk fan expects: a dystopian society, cyber enhancements, hackers and philosophical reflections on the meaning of “being human”. Ghost in the Shell inspired many subsequent works of cyberpunk art such as The Matrix, Avatar and the game Cyberpunk 2077.
Synopsis: in 2029’s Japan the cyber agent Mokoto Kusanagi is on the hunt for a mysterious hacker.
Strange Days is the most underrated movie on the list. When it came out, it was a commercial flop and only recently the film has been reevaluated.
The movie pivots around the SQUID technology, a system that allows video and sensational recordings of events. Just like Cyberpunk 2077’s braindance, one could relive someone else’s memories and feel the same physical reactions (pleasure, pain, etc). Though the L.A. of Strange Days is not overly cyberpunk, the themes and the general atmosphere are.
Synopsis: Lenny, a black market dealer of SQUID records, tries to solve a murder case in a version of Los Angeles filled with social tensions, power abuses and voyeurism.
Probably only very few people know about this Italian cyberpunk movie but it surely deserves a spot on this list. Given the relatively low budget, the director managed to recreate a wonderful cyberpunk setting with great locations, amazing costumes, plausible technology and a few memorable characters.
Even if part of the story and some of the acting are not top-notch, Nirvana is a nice piece of cyberpunk art in its own right.
Synopsis: Jimi is a video game developer that has to come to terms with one of his characters that gained self-awareness after a virus attack.
Akira is the first great example of Japanese cyberpunk. Originally a manga developed between 1982 and 1990, the film Akira (1988) became a cult and a must-see for all cyberpunk lovers. Set in a dystopian and ultra-violent Neo Tokyo in 2019, Akira paved the way for numerous cyberpunk anime in Japan and helped to show “the West” that animated movies were not only for kids.
Similar to Ghost in the Shell, Akira also influenced and got numerous citations in many cyberpunk and non-cyberpunk works. Akira’s iconic bike, for example, inspired Cyberpunk 2077 signature bike. Even Micheal Jackson included clips of the movie in the video of the song Scream.
Synopsis: Kaneda, a bike gang leader, tries to save his childhood friend that got supernatural powers after a bike accident.
Let’s clarify one thing first: this film has not much to do with the comic, it became some kind of a joke and even Stallone himself stated this was a missed opportunity. Why put it here then? Well, even if just for a laugh you gotta check it out as, for better or worse, it became a classic.
The story, the acting and the directing of the film are the main sources of criticism. However, the recreation of Mega-City One, the costumes and the CGIs make it a pleasant visual experience. Even the creator of Judge Dredd, John Wagner, though generally critical of the movie, appreciated the visuals and the portraying of some characters.
In the worst of cases, this film will make you appreciate even more the 2012 reboot.
Gunnm/Battle Angel Alita
Another great example of Japanese cyberpunk, Battle Angel gained popularity, at least in Europe and the Americas, thanks to Robert Rodriguez’s live-action film. The original manga and the animation, however, are much darker and bloody than Rodriguez’s PG-13 version.
The OVA (Original Video Animation) is made of just two episodes that were created to present the manga. It seems that they’re on a free commons license so it’s possible to see them both on YouTube.
Though the focus here is mostly on cyborgs and there’s no cyberspace, Battle Angel makes it for an entertaining hour.
Synopsis: a young cyborg, Gally, is found and put back together by a cybermedic. As she has no memory of her past, she tries to unveil the mystery in a quest that will push her to become a great bounty hunter.
The film that put the exclamation mark on 90s cyberpunk movies and almost killed the genre since we had to wait a while for the next decent cyberpunk film. The Matrix managed to combine elements from cyberpunk classics into an epic opera.
There’s everything in it: action, drama, romance, philosophy; all things that helped The Matrix become so widely popular and breach non-cyberpunk fans’ interest. The film quickly got its “cult status” and there are countless references to it in all kinds of works.
Synopsis: Neo, a young hacker, unveils the truth behind what he thought reality was and joins a rebellion against the machines.
One can’t talk about cyberpunk films without mentioning the movie that started it all: Blade Runner. It’s a great cyberpunk opera though a bit more noir than punk and more philosophical than action-based. The film plays around the cyborg-human dilemma as well as typical cyberpunk themes such as authoritarian governments, big and all-powerful corporations and poor/rich social conditions.
Every film on this list, one way or another, has been influenced by Blade Runner or by the book from which the movie is based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. One of the most striking and recognizable things, however, is the beautiful representation of Los Angeles that will define the standard for future cyberpunk cities.
Synopsis: Deckard, a surly retired cop, reluctantly accepts a mission to eliminate four “replicants” that illegally landed in Los Angeles.