With the increasing domination of technology over our sociopolitical realities, cyberpunk themes have become an important part of public discourse. In recent years, artists have used technological frameworks to push the boundaries of cyberpunk thought – especially through interactive mediums such as video games.
However, cyberpunk elements aren’t a recent phenomenon at all and have been anticipated by the great visionaries of the last century. While proto-cyberpunk concerns can be found in early sci-fi films, it was William Gibson’s vastly influential 1984 novel Neuromancer which helped formulate the genre.
Some of the greatest cyberpunk masterpieces predated the internet age which is why they appear to be prophetic to modern readers. For this list, we have focused on some of the precursors of cyberpunk cinema as well as definitive examples of the genre. Although the exclusion of works like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is noteworthy, those brilliant cinematic gems have been left out because this list focuses on the core ideas of cyberpunk rather than its offshoots like steampunk.
Check out the list below.
10 greatest cyberpunk films of all time:
10. The Matrix (Wachowski sisters, 1999)
Probably the most famous entry on this list, this is the cyberpunk work that managed to enter the public consciousness. The first and definitely the finest addition to the franchise, The Matrix asked deep philosophical questions through the engaging frameworks of sci-fi action cinema.
It stars Keanu Reeves in the most iconic role of his career – Neo, a computer programmer who realises that our current reality is actually a virtual simulation designed to keep its subjects sedated while a race of intelligent machines harvest our bodies.
9. Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)
Paul Verhoeven films often appear to be flashy action films on the surface but they are much more complex than that. Robocop is the perfect example of that, focusing on a dead police officer who is revived as a cyborg agent by a mega-corporation.
Stripped of the core elements of his humanity, he embarks on a campaign against crime in Detroit while engaging in shocking violence. More than anything else, Robocop is a trenchant critique of police brutality in the country and the violent structures of power.
8. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece is definitely more of a science fiction classic than a proper cyberpunk film but it contains multiple precursors that shaped later works in the genre. Set in a futuristic dystopia whose image is characterised by the urban wasteland, Metropolis is astonishingly modern.
It explores the stratification of class conflicts in a technologically advanced society while imagining a fascinating but haunting world. The images that Lang created in the film continue to influence newer generations of filmmakers including Christopher Nolan who borrowed from Metropolis while envisioning Gotham City.
7. Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)
A French New Wave gem by Jean-Luc Godard, Alphaville is another work that predates the cyberpunk movement by a couple of decades but its neo-noir treatment of proto-cyberpunk concerns played a major part in the later evolution of the genre.
Alphaville imagines a place that is under the control of a technocratic dictatorship, ruled by a supercomputer. Governed by the strict laws of computer logic, it is a society where poetry and love are outlawed but such fascism is always met with resistance.
6. Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii, 1995)
Among the most famous Japanese cyberpunk films ever made, Ghost in the Shell is a fantastic entry to the genre for those who are uninitiated. Set in Japan in 2029, this film also features a cyborg police agent and follows her as she tracks her target.
Structured as a visually appealing, high-octane action-thriller, Ghost in the Shell is so much more. It is a philosophically complex text which examines the question of individual identity in a society that is overwhelmed by technological advancements.
5. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1989)
A truly enigmatic film by Shinya Tsukamoto, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a bizarre cinematic experience that is often cited as one of the most influential Japanese cyberpunk works because of its unforgettable examinations of body horror.
Influenced by the likes of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, the film imagines the logical conclusion of the union between man and technology through the character of the iconic “metal fetishist” – a madman who is obsessed with replacing his biological body with metal.
4. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)
The next entry in this list is one by the master of body horror himself and it is probably his most famous work. Videodrome is an unprecedented exploration of the information age, uncovering the sinister operations of mass media.
It chronicles the misadventures of a TV network exec who tries to learn more about a signal that broadcasts snuff films but he ends up going down the wrong road. Cronenberg’s ultimate critique of modern sexual politics and media, Videodrome is essential viewing.
3. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
Many claim that Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s seminal cyberpunk novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a flawed one. However, the film remains a visually stunning gem whose aesthetic framework has been adopted by many later cyberpunk works.
Blade Runner stars Harrison Ford as a man lost in an urban labyrinth, navigating the maze of modern life while running into uncanny technological replications of human life. By the end of the film, we are left wondering whether the distinctions between natural and artificial mean anything anymore.
2. World on a Wire (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973)
Although this was released as a miniseries, World on a Wire works as a single cinematic viewing and it is too important for the cyberpunk genre to be left out of such a discussion. Based on Daniel F. Galouye’s novel, this is one of the most unique works of sci-fi and cyberpunk.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder deviates from the usual concerns of the genre like action and pays more attention to the philosophical implications of living in a world where a computer is capable of deceiving the human mind by generating a highly realistic simulation.
1. Akira (Katsuhiro Ôtomo, 1988)
Influential for the development of anime as well as cyberpunk works, the timeline of Akira is no longer futuristic for new viewers since it is set in 2019 but its visions of Tokyo are crucial for understanding the stylisation of cityscapes in cyberpunk films.
Incorporating the omnipresent anxieties of modernity such as conspiracies and nihilistic social currents, the film tells the story of a biker who discovers newfound telekinetic activities after an accident. The apotheosis of hand-drawn animation, Akira is dangerously mesmerising.