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A Look Into Genre - Cyberpunk

Cyberpunk is a relatively new branch of the overarching Sci-fi genre, but it is a hugely popular form of film. Why? It is because there is so much potential when it comes to emerging technology. There are both benefits and risks of new technologies and sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish the difference between the two. After all, robots are becoming smarter, so much so, some hotels in developed parts of the world employ them as hotel receptionists and desk clerks, but at the same time, because they’re becoming smarter, they may develop their own consciousness, and decide that humans themselves are redundant. Remember IBM’s swearing computer? Yeah, they had to delete the entire program and reboot it, without the swear words, so it could function properly again.

It is this debate about AI and new technology that sparks the interest of cyberpunk film writers and directors. The dangers that new technology has are intrinsic threats to human nature. It is a threat that has not emerged yet or has already emerged, without the general population knowing, and that fear that we haven’t caught up, or won’t be able to catch up, is what directors and writers play on, in the cyberpunk genre.

The Fear Of The Unknown

One of the best things about cyberpunk is that the whole story doesn’t just revolve around the creation and destruction of AI, new technologies and the virtual world. In fact, they’re the vehicles for the story, otherwise, it’d just be an exposition of what can be made and what isn’t already in existence. What the cyberpunk genre is normally about is the idea of fear and the fear that comes with the creation of new technologies.

It is about the fear of the unknown, which is an innate human instinct that triggers our fight or flight responses. It goes back to our caveman days, where we would be afraid of what’s lurking behind a forest, or within fields of tall grasses. Instead of focusing that response on basic survival, since we now live in comfortable homes, work in big office buildings and have digital devices we can live our lives through, that fight or flight response has turned towards “what could be”, a contingent future on the possibility that our AI systems will develop a consciousness. The cyberpunk genre plays on this fear and the hype that surrounds it. So, instead of mapping out the development of new technologies, or focusing on the “good” that comes from emerging technology, cyberpunk piggybacks on the idea that these new technologies aren’t good, and that they’ll create a dystopian future that humanity has grown accustomed to and is in need of rescuing from.

Take, the Matrix Trilogy (1999 – 2003), for example. The story starts in 1992 America but is in fact a computer program, a virtual reality, in which the whole human race is born into, as a source of fuel for the machines that power the real world. The only way that humanity can be saved from this virtual reality and live in the real world again, is through the actions of a handful of people, who are already in the know about the system. For Neo, the main character played by Keanu Reeves, the system is something he knows. It’s comfortable. It’s a box that he doesn’t have to leave, and initially doesn’t want to leave, but as the film goes on, and as more dangers approach him, making his life even more difficult than it already is, he has to leave, thus forcing him to face the unknown.

It is this trope that is ubiquitous amongst cyberpunk films. It’s repeated in films like Total Recall (2012), the one with Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel, and Kate Beckinsale, Ghost In The Shell (2017), with Scarlett Johansson, and Alita Battle Angel (2019), starring Rosa Salazar, Christopher Waltz and Jennifer Connelly. It is the human against the machine, and in the end, the humans win, or at least they seem to.

The Revolution Is Here

It should come as no surprise the cyberpunk genre and the idea of revolutions are almost synonymous with each other. After all, in nearly every cyberpunk genre, there’s always a conflict, whether it’s humans against the machine, or humans against the people controlling the machine, or humans against governmental control, because they have access to the machines. Take, Divergent (2014), for example. Although it’s mostly about the political strife between the different factions, if you go further into the film trilogy, you’ll find that in actual fact, the whole system was created to find the “perfect” specimen for a greater scientific project. Now, although the film is a general post-apocalyptic sci-fi, it doesn’t excuse the fact that there are elements of cyberpunk in it, with post-modern digital CGI holograms that sends a nod to the Matrix series.

Another example of a synergetic relationship between cyberpunk and revolution movements is The Hunger Games series (2012 – 2015). This is most definitely part of the cyberpunk genre, since it starts with a computer-simulated battle of survival between chosen champions, and becomes a revolutionist movement, sparked by the “love story” between two champions. While we might think that The Hunger Games is a pioneer for cyberpunk, or even the revolution genre (because let’s face it, it has become a genre of its own), that fact couldn’t be farther from the truth. The revolutionary movement in The Hunger Games is actually an old trope that the cyberpunk genre has utilised for years, going back as far as the 1980s, with films like Akira (1988).

It’s the idea that because of the tightening controls of the governing bodies, in these films, the people are getting angry, and the trust that they once placed in the people they put in charge is now disintegrating. It is with this unrest that certain individuals become the symbol of freedom and utopia, and eventually, their actions and messages spark those world-altering revolutions. Let us use Akira as an example of this. While the film may revolve around the breakdown of the relationship between Kaneda and Tetsuo, there’s a bigger revolution that’s taking place around them. Both boys are trapped between the governing military and the activist group that Kei and her friend Ryu are a part of. It is because of the technology that the military is trying to develop that first trap the boys, and eventually, as time goes by, the fight to free Tetsuo from the military’s grasp draws in the activists who use it to destroy the military once and for all.

Therefore, in nearly all aspects, cyberpunk and the revolution storyline are synonymous and synergetic, because they complement each other. With the development of advanced technology, there’s always a chance government will use it to control the people they govern, and create a society they want, while the tight restrictions and controls create unrest amongst the population, and eventually a revolution that tries to take down the very government that failed to protect them.

It’s Mostly Visual

While the storytelling element of the cyberpunk genre is evident in conflict and is synonymous with revolutions and the fight to be free, the main contributor to the genre is the visual aspects of any cyberpunk film. Most cyberpunk genres use the idea of built-up cities, advanced technology, and urban decay as visual cues to suggest what you’re watching is a cyberpunk film. The reason why is in the name, with “cyber” pointing towards the virtual or digital aspect of technology, and “punk” leaning towards the urban cityscape, where everything is either dirty, grey, or decaying. It’s the combination of the two, advanced technologies with a built-up city, that create the cyberpunk genre’s visuals. For example, the remake of Total Recall (2012) is mostly set in overpopulated cities that are built on top of each other, creating tiers of society. The film Alita: Battle Angel (2019) takes place in another futuristic city, again with cities built on top of each other. And even the film Elysium (2013) takes place on a spaceship, that separate the upper class from the destroyed, dying and overpopulated Earth.

All these cues are what make up the cyberpunk genre, but they’re not the only ones. After all, a film can be a cyberpunk genre, without having to include the entire population of a country. In fact, they can take place on a battlefield, like Edge Of Tomorrow (2014), where mecha suits of armour are used to fight an invading alien force. Or, Ready Player One (2018) where players play a virtual reality game, or even in the Marvel films, where rusted and beaten-up spaceships and interplanetary travel is involved.

Essentially, most cyberpunk films take their cues from each other, using built-up city landscapes, desolate wastes, and virtual reality to create a sense of a dystopian universe, and one of the pioneers of this movement is Akira. With its innovative use of transparent cells, to create imitations of long exposure photographs and light trails, as well as for the layering of background and foreground action, the film has inspired not only animators but film directors as well, to create that overcrowded landscape. In fact, its innovation has reached even further into the general sci-fi genre, with films like Star Wars: Episode II – The Attack Of The Clones (2002) using the built-up cityscape to create the planet Corusant, and Inception (2010), using mirror effects, in dream worlds, to make an existing city become even more built-up than it already is. Even the films in the Marvel Universe have taken their cues from the cyberpunk genre to create more advanced planets, and to create a more epic landscape for the world-shattering battles that these superheroes and supervillains fight.

Colour Is Important

Although cyberpunk can mostly be associated with the dull greys and blacks from an urban city, the truth is there are a few dominating colours that can be found in nearly all cyberpunk films, chiefly neon blue and red. This was, again, inspired by the film Akira, as its use of the colours has inspired other filmmakers to use them too. After all, the red jacket and motorcycle that Kaneda uses, connotes passion for life and living, while the subtle blues from Tetsuo suggest a deeper and more troubling story. It is this contrast that other films, like Ghost In The Shell (2017), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and even Guardians Of The Galaxy (2012) exploit, not least because they sometimes connote the deep blues of space, compared with the red heat of life and energy.

Moreover, grey, silver and black are predominantly featured in cyberpunk films, along with dirty browns and yellows, as well, because these colours are mostly featured in real-life cities and cityscapes. The dull greys connote the stark concrete buildings, pavements, and roads, while silver connotes the ever pristine and evolving technologies that are emerging even today. As for black, most of this can be associated with the nighttime or the oil that’s used to power machines and keep them lubricated, like in cars or construction tools. It’s this coldness and absence of colour that creates the entire genre of cyberpunk and gives films like Ex-Machina (2014), I Robot (2004) and Minority Report (2002) their colour palettes and aesthetics too.

You’re Watching A Cyberpunk Genre

So, with its synergetic relationship with the revolutionary movement and the battle against the unknown, as well as its use of the contrast between blue and red, as well as using built-up cityscape environments, the cyberpunk genre is well on its way to being a film trend that permeates all aspects of the sci-fi genre. It’s a subtle takeover, and one that you’re probably not going to forget, now that you know what makes up the genre, but for those not in the know, whatever sci-fi film they’re watching, they’re watching the cyberpunk genre as well.

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