Cyberpunk. Glittering dystopia impaled by skyscrapers. Dark rain drenching the streets. Hard boiled characters. Trench coats. Shoulder pads. Synth music. Androids, cyborgs, AI and flying cars. A bored Harrison Ford voice over.
Ok, maybe not the last one. But you’re now enveloped by the visual grammar of a unique world. You know what I’m talking about thanks to the likes of Blade Runner, Minority Report, and The Matrix. A special breed of sci-fi, not content with a simple narrative, but one that thrives on blowing your mind with ideas.
The genre is the more cerebral kind of sci-fi, dealing with the consequences of a transhuman (or post-human if you prefer) era. The melding of human and technology, cyborgs and AI colliding together. Populated by ambiguous characters, hard choices and thought-provoking themes and topics. It’s been described as detective noir wrapped in sci-fi. The genre demands audience engagement unlike a lot of recent sci-fi, which is all too eager to distract you with spectacle.
Yes it’s time for a brief bout of getting kids off my lawn, a divisive opinion of a stranger online, and here it is: the cyberpunk genre has been lacking lately and has been replaced by mindless sci-fantasy. 2013 in particular has been abysmal for sci-fi films for fans of the genre, who grew up reading literature from the likes of Gibson, Stephenson, Dick, Asimov, Clarke.
This was the year that we were to be treated with more sci-fi than usual by Hollywood. Yet almost every film released had as much substance as vapid reality-TV; just as vacuous and empty, devoid of meaning, coherence, riddled with plot holes and hollow spectacle. The film-makers did not trust viewers, so pandered to the lowest common denominator.
From the incredibly dumb to the un-cinematically boring and unforgivably clichéd, we’ve been plagued by films that have insulted our intelligence, painted everything in broad strokes, contrived action over ideas, and have just plain sucked. Sci-fi films have garnered some of the worst reviews of the year, relied on CGI rather than fleshed out characters or plot, and have ultimately been derivative of everything that came before.
Upstream Color, though nebulous in typical Carruth fashion, managed to engage our brains giving them a much-needed workout. Elysium and Gravity have the potential to save us with compelling stories told well, too.
Film-making is a collaborative medium and is no easy feat, to nail the right tone, get the right performances, and to convey a story according to a singular vision past a team effort. All of the bad films this year were made with great effort put into them, by incredibly talented people. Which makes it all the more painful when as a viewer I feel that the film-makers have no faith or trust in me.
This is why the cyberpunk genre is due for a resurgence. It doesn’t care if you can keep up with it or not. Don’t understand what’s going on in Ghost in the Shell? Tough sh*t, here’s a five minute montage of a city in the rain just to piss you off. Can’t figure out if Quaid is dreaming in Total Recall? Who cares, here’s a dude with a mutant poking out his stomach. Cyberpunk doesn’t want to hold your hand.
Interestingly video games have paved the way for the genre’s return. Deus Ex: Human Revolution (which is currently being adapted to the big screen), the horrendous bloom-infested Syndicate sequel, the hilariously cool Far Cry: Blood Dragon, and even the Metal Gear Solid franchise has elements of the genre embedded in it. CD Projekt RED’s upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 promises to envelop gamers in a world heaving with high tech and low life.
For gamers, we’ve been spoilt for choice when it comes to sci-fi; always provided with vast worlds to navigate, and more recently the impact of our characters’ choices matter more with the inclusion of emergent worlds and dialogue pathways. How strange when most video games have a more coherent narrative than movies. Though unlike film studios, they tend to not be as concerned with having a product written, completed, edited and ready for distribution in twelve months time just for a particular date.
In the music world, synth music, always reminiscent of cyberpunk via film and anime is on the rise. My personal favourite is the hidden gem that is Perturbator, a mysterious denizen of Paris, whose debut album I Am The Night transports you to a retro future.
There are adaptations in the pipeline for Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash and William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Ridley Scott is working on Blade Runner 2, though fans weren’t exactly clamouring for a sequel to the classic film. But if it’s responsible for spearheading a new wave of science fiction that does not insult us then so be it. We’re heading fast to the epic-sounding 2020s, and the world around us is bathed in technology run amok, with shadowy government agencies surveilling our every move, corporations becoming more powerful than nations, humans wearing technology like appendages.
We need cyberpunk as a mirror to contemplate and make sense of our present. This is what the best sci-fi does. Not attempting to predict the future, but making us confront our present to avoid repeating the past.