Code streams across a computer screen; hackers bark at each other in techno-jargon and hammer at keyboards; the real world seamlessly shifts into the virtual, and back again. This is the sort of scene that is instantly recognisable as a cyberpunk film, the subgenre of sci-fi that meshes together technology and counterculture â of which Ghost in the Shell, the live-action remake of the Japanese anime classic, is the latest high-profile example.
It is little surprise that cyberpunk has proved irresistible for many film-makers over the decades since the term was coined, by the author Bruce Bethke, in the early 1980s. With its visions of postapocalyptic futures, advanced technologies and virtual realms, they get to pack their films with visual effects to sweeten the (red) pill, while wrestling with weighty existential themes.
Yet, for all its enduring popularity â which owes so much to Ridley Scottâs 1982 classic Blade Runner â cyberpunk has often proved a tough nut to crack on the big screen. Even the author William Gibson, a founding father of the genre on the page, struggled to bring its dystopian charms to the cinema. Gibsonâs first significant foray into film came in 1995 with Johnny Mnemonic â an adaptation of his short story about a data courier with a chip implanted in his head â and was an confused and poorly received flop, even if it did feature psychic dolphins. Gibson described the film as âtwo animals in one skin â¦ constantly pulling in multiple directionsâ.
He had identified a problem that would plague many cyberpunk films thereafter. A decade before Johnny Mnemonic was released, Gibson had written Neuromancer, a genre-defining novel that thrust readers into a noirish dystopia. Neuromancer, published in 1984, came at a time of change. Computers were yet to become ubiquitous, and a strange subculture of phreaks and hackers was brewing. Slowly, governments were realising that the kids tinkering in their bedrooms with soldering irons and motherboards could be capable of disrupting the status quo. Technology was becoming threatening, and even political. In short, great material for screenplays.
However, the resulting films over the last two decades have varied in quality, to say the least. The biggest hit at the box office has been the Wachowskisâ Matrix trilogy â for which a controversial reboot is being planned. Then there are curios, like Abel Ferraraâs New Rose Hotel (based on another Gibson novel), which starred Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe and Asia Argento. Thereâs Wim Wendersâ postapocalyptic odyssey Until the End of the World (five hours, if you manage to see out the directorâs cut), and Kathryn Bigelowâs Strange Days, a critically divisive film that explored the impact of virtual reality. More recently, weâve had Carleton Ranneyâs lo-fi slow-burner Jackrabbit and David Cronenbergâs unsettling short, The Nest. Cyberpunk has come to the small screen, too: Mr Robot is a modern incarnation, as was the TV show Orphan Black.
In truth, cyberpunk themes existed in film long before the phrase did. Fritz Langâs 1927 film Metropolis envisaged wealthy elites, oppressed masses and a unnerving fusion of woman and machine â all themes explored in the remake of Ghost in the Shell. That lineage can be traced through to Blade Runner, based on Philip K Dickâs 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was set in a smog-filled futuristic LA, dominated by the Tyrell Corporation, where Harrison Fordâs retired cop hunts âreplicantâ cyborgs while musing on humanityâs metaphysical quandaries.
A turning point for cyberpunk in film came from an in 1988, with Katsuhiro Ãtomoâs landmark anime Akira. A fusion of rebellious youth culture and groundbreaking animation, its story of teenage biker gangs in a postapocalyptic Tokyo became an international cult hit. The film paved the way for a wave of animations for adults that peaked in 1998 with Ghost in the Shell. That filmâs arresting visuals, existential questions and a pared back, cat-and-mouse narrative was unlike anything audiences had seen before.
Crucial to cyberpunk is a countercultural take on social issues, albeit often viewed though a Hollywood lens. As Iain Softley, the director of the tongue-in-cheek 1995 thriller Hackers, says: âAs far a cyber culture is concerned, it is this mixture of technological culture with underground movements. That appeals to younger audiences and that is also the appeal for film-makers.â
Hackers, he says, âwas never about the technology. It was about the popular culture that it generated.â
But how do film-makers ensure that the genre remains cutting edge? The remake of Ghost in the Shell, directed by Rupert Sanders, will be the first big-budget outing for cyberpunk since the Matrix films. Guillaume Rocheron, who worked on the film as a visual effects supervisor, says that while the original animation was a key source, the makers âtook a lot of inspiration from glitch art, various art installations inspired the architectureâ.
Rocheron explains that the filmâs âsologramsâ (âSolid volumetric projections of people and advertisements you see in our city shotsâ) required them to develop a new camera system. This is a common feature of cyberpunk films: the pioneering of visual effects technologies to create new worlds, such as the âbullet-timeâ technique that was developed for The Matrix.
In todayâs increasingly technology-driven world â where our work depends on connectivity, our leisure on social networks, our economy on digital information â cyberpunk remains more pertinent than ever. News headlines are dominated by email hacks, the growing clout of mega-corporations, and rapid developments in AI and virtual reality. Cyberpunk remains a genre that pushes the boundaries, opening audienceâs eyes to the intersection of technology and humanity and the blurring lines between artificial and organic intelligence. The questions about what makes something real â and who exactly is in control â are left to us to work out.