Can 2017 be the year cyberpunk takes over cinema?
Cyberpunk, a term coined in 1980 by author Bruce Bethke and used for a short story he wrote, was widely used afterwards as a subgenre of Science Fiction of which the works of authors such as Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and Bruce Sterling would be attributed to. The ‘high tech low life’ attributes associated with the cyberpunk subgenre provide a unique fusion of futuristic, highly advanced technology against a backdrop of a poorer standard of living. In literature, the subgenre has primarily been the stomping ground for detective or neo-noir tales, in anime it has become the playground for riveting action spliced with themes of existentialism and body metamorphosis. However when it comes to film cyberpunk has a chequered history.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), adapted from Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, is arguably the bastion of the subgenre in the realm of film and the first to show the world what cyberpunk looks like. A futuristic dystopian world where the lines between human and robot are becoming incredibly blurred. Though now a revered science fiction film Blade Runner was not released to the same acclaim that it enjoys present day. The tune of $30 million is not the type of return studios expect from the talent involved in such a film, and most likely would have put the brakes on any imminent forays into the rich and diverse setting cyberpunk offers.
Unfortunately this classic film was then followed by some obviously not so classic ones plugged into the same subgenre. Films like Johnny Mnemonic (1995) with its cybernetic dolphins, and Freejack (1992) with…Mick Jagger, did the subgenre no favours despite their efforts. It doesn’t help that these films were surrounded by forgettable straight to VHS fare such as Circuitry Man (1990), or CyberTracker (1994). Neither I would recommend watching. Clearly a lack of budgets, or focus on what makes cyberpunk such a deep world of exploration was at fault. Not to mention getting caught up selling us the shiniest CGI they could (though technology clearly hadn’t yet aligned with our imagination), just like some shady tech dealer in the back alleys of Cyberpunk city. If anything the cinema machine, or more importantly Hollywood, had been burned by misinterpreting the subgenre and as a result few relevant films followed.
Admittedly it wasn’t all doom and gloom, Ghost in the Shell (1995) was just as influential on directors as Blade Runner. James Cameron and The Wachowski siblings evidently demonstrating this in Avatar (2009) and The Matrix (1999) respectively, both lovingly borrowed elements of Mamoru Oshii’s seminal classic. The latter of which is just as major a turning point in cyberpunk’s presence in film by keeping it relevant into the turn of the century. One can even see the code of cyberpunk present in Robocop (1987), with a man who must reconcile the fact he is now a machine to survive whilst also serving the law in a crime ravaged Detroit. Despite these films, and the financial monster that The Matrix trilogy became, other entries such as Strange Days (1995) haven’t resonated like the one off blockbusters. Thus making anime the format where the subgenre flourished without fear of failure. However though we all know Akira (1988) and it’s importance, for decades these terrifically imaginative anime have existed on the fringes of popular culture (Just look at the independent Japanese films like Tetsuo: The Iron Man), especially outside Asia. Even the anime adaptation of Ghost in the Shell isn’t as well known outside the circles of film/anime/Manga fans, never mind the looks of utter bemusement you’d get from colleagues at work if you dropped names such as Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 204o (1998) or Ergo Proxy (2006). Truth is these anime, often adapted from Manga, have never translated into the Western world on a large scale. Until Now.
With Ghost in the Shell (2017) hitting screens across the world, the cyberpunk world is getting some big screen time once again. It indeed nails the glorious urban science fiction aesthetics on the big screen, even if the motifs are sort of absent. However Rupert Sanders take on this classic isn’t the only film to put cyberpunk into the limelight this year. Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to the grand daddy of the subgenre arrives in Autumn with brilliant visionary director Denis Villeneuve at the helm. Even looking ahead of 2017, a live action adaptation of Alita: Battle Angel is being produced with Robert Rodriguez (Planet Terror, From Dusk Till Dawn) directing. If these films are a success then Cyberpunk could finally blow up in Hollywood, which is the dictator of popular cinema.
Cinema is in a place where though the superhero genre has not yet went the way of the Western like Spielberg predicted, cinema goers are clamouring for different types of film. Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World are both fantastic films in their own right, but one can’t help thinking some of their box office appeal was down to the fact they were big films operating outside of the superhero sphere. Technology, which ironically was a pitfall for previous films delving into cyberpunk subgenre, is now at a point where all the elements associated with it are feasible to pull off on the silver screen and they look damn special too. But further than that the real world is no longer decades away from these dystopian futures of mega corporations like it was when cyberpunk first came online. Hacking scandals are almost prolific, body enhancement already exists, and the more we advance technology the closer to reality cyberpunk becomes. This makes the subgenre ripe for the creative minds who bring us stories, with a wealth of possibilities to explore.
Outside of the interconnected worlds of superheros currently all the rage, we’ve seen other trends come and go over the past few years. 2013 was all about post apocalyptic worlds, 2002-2010 saw nearly every Japanese horror film remade, and 2009-2015 was six years of YA novel adaptations. Manga/Anime is one of the few resources that has remained largely untapped by the big studios (probably because the potential budgets scare them to death) but 2017 and cyberpunk could change all that. After all it’s a dangerous frontier they’ve yet to venture into, but we all know how good studios are at plundering source material. For good, for bad, or for ugly, 2017 may well be the year cyberpunk becomes cinemas new popular destination.