Six Overlooked Cyberpunk Gems: For Better or for Worse

Aishwarya Rai and Rajinikanth in Enthiran (2010)

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) was the first major cyberpunk film, and it’s been a great influence on the genre ever since. As the sequel Blade Runner 2049 (2017) is released worldwide in theaters this week, Frameland celebrates five lesser-known cyberpunk films and television shows from around the world.

Hardware (1990)

Hardware (1990)

Visually arresting cyberpunk SF-film by cult director Richard Stanley, focusing on the use of technology as a weaponized means of social control. Although it doesn’t explore in depth the use of digital information systems with which cyberpunk has become synonymous, it believably creates a sense of governmental repression and globally decaying social order. Based on the comic-strip “SHOK!” by Kevin O’Neill and Steve MacManus, and following Stanley’s previous SF short Incidents in an Expanding Universe (1985), Hardware tells the story of space-marine-turned-scavenger Moses Baxter (Dylan McDermott) who, returning from one of his forays, presents his artist girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis) the inconspicuous remains of an experimental military droid, the M.A.R.K. 13. After Jill uses the robot in a sculpture, the killing machine re-assembles itself overnight and goes on a rampage in Jill’s apartment.

After an inventive build-up, director Stanley steadily gears into straight-forward SF-horror. Which still means that, for a low-budget piece of genre filmmaking, Hardware has pace, tension and style to burn. Biblical as well as film references abound and range from The Terminator (1984), Westworld (1973), Soylent Green (1973), Alien (1979), Stalker (1979), Blade Runner (1982), and Mad Max films to the cinema of Dario Argento. Notable actors John Lynch and William Hootkins, as well as rockers Iggy Pop, Carl McCoy and Lemmy Kilmister perform memorable supporting roles and cameos. Beautifully shot on Moroccan and London locations, and accompanied by an abrasive score (music by Public Image Limited, Iggy Pop, Ministry, Motörhead). Hardware is a true cult-classic.

Rob Comans

Cyberpunk (1990)

One of the nightmarish visuals in Cyberpunk (1990).

The first chapter of Neuromancer opens on a sprawling city trapped in a constant downpour and lit by neon lights. Its main character navigates its underworld, hard-boiled descriptions, and dialogue reminiscent of dime-detective novels from the ’30s and ’40s. But as the chapter numbers move up, the book shows its love for an over-aestheticised world, harbouring on the camp. And it makes sense: why would a future society revel in browns and greys if the mega-corporations could also use the available technology to make your city a gold-drenched paradise. In that context, it also makes sense that the only ever documentary made on the subject of cyberpunk, aptly named Cyberpunk, is the epitome of over-aestheticization.

Director Marianne Schaeffer Trench leaves no second of this 60-minute documentary un-cyberpunked: talking head footage is overlaid with pixel art, hackers are obscured by low-poly 3D-renderings of masks, and any other type of image is warped beyond recognition (the shabbiness of the VHS-rip not included). Meanwhile, William Gibson himself highlights the irony of having written Neuromancer on a typewriter. And then there are the minute-long intermezzos where nightmarishly mutilated visuals dance around on techno straight from the avant-garde. All to capture a movement that might’ve never truly existed, pulled from thin air by its creators to service a vague concept of technology fuelled by anxiety. Cyberpunk doesn’t offer any answers. Instead, it’s frightening and incredibly dense, and best of all, you can watch the film right now on YouTube.

Bram Ruiter

Wild Palms (1993)

Coty (Ben Savage) and Deirdre (Monica Mikala) in Wild Palms (1993).

If someone were to ask me to tell them exactly what the TV mini-series, Wild Palms is about, I would probably draw a complete blank.

What I do know is that Wild Palms is set in the not-so-distant future of 2007. Harry Wyckoff (James Belushi) is a relatively successful patent attorney who enjoys a moderately luxurious lifestyle in California with his wife, Grace (Dana Delany), and two children 11-year old Coty (Ben Savage) and 4-year old Deirdre (Monica Mikala). Harry is soon established as a unique character with his traumatizing dreams of rhinoceroses.

This is confirmed when a mysterious woman of his past, Paige Katz (Kim Cattrall) gives Harry an unexpected visit to ask him to help her find her son.

What ensues is a complex conspiracy theory where the government, entertainment industries, and cults all work hand-in-hand to control the population and gain immortality using cutting edge technology.

Quite frankly, it’s a mess and a glorious one at that. While it can be technically described as cyberpunk (the father of cyberpunk, William Gibson, even makes a cameo), it is like no other cyberpunk I’ve ever seen before. The dreary landscapes oversaturated with abstract pieces of technology became replaced with something much more relatable, and therefore much more threatening: Man’s quest for power and our very own television screens.

This does not take place in an abstract future or an even more abstract planet, it takes place in 2007 and is set in the globally familiar California. The familiarity interjected with threatening technology as well as a sense of the esoteric makes Wild Palms a riveting forgotten 6-hour gem of the cyberpunk genre.

Claudi Moll

Death Machine (1994)

Death Machine (1994)

When I was a kid I’d walk around dark VHS stores in disused malls and the ones about robots run amok would stare at me most empathically. “Pick me…or you’ll be stuck imagining my horrors.” The ideas I had from the back-of-the-box descriptions and cover art were almost always more dispiriting than the films. Death Machine, directed by Blade‘s (1998) Stephen Norrington was one such film. It promised robots programmed to kill, an idea that beguiled my young mind. In execution, it’s more like Hardware for the Albert Pyun crowd. Dark, cramped and living in a corporatized fantasy world. A woman must match wits with a death-dealing machine after she questions its genius inventor; a dour but accurate depiction of what the internet would do when our death-dealing robots wouldn’t materialize. Brad Dourif and Richard Brake show up in supporting roles, trying to out-preen each other as only they can. The film isn’t as funny as it imagines it is but Norrington brings a post-Verhoeven cool claustrophobic atmosphere that pulls you along when logic breaks down

Scout Tafoya

New Rose Hotel (1998)

Willem Dafoe in New Rose Hotel

William Gibson is one of the literary pioneers of cyberpunk. But despite his vast influence, his work has not been frequently adapted. Many have tried to start a film based on his seminal novel Neuromancer (1984), many have failed. When his work is adapted, the results have been flops, both financially and critically. Undeservedly so, in the case of Abel Ferrara’s sensually stylized New Rose Hotel, based on Gibson’s story of the same name. A corporate scheme by two headhunters to lure a rival businessman away from another company goes awry.

Afterwards one of them loses himself, in the final third of the film, an extended, dreamy flashback segment. And we are lost with him, as he goes over events seen earlier in the film from different angles in a non-linear, stream-of-consciousness fashion. In a world where huge corporations control the economy, their employees are simply their hottest commodities. People think they can control who they are, but lose their identity and sight of the world around them long before they realize.

All their time spent watching images of others (through surveillance footage) doesn’t result in them knowing those people better or getting a grip on what’s happening, but merely in the watchers losing their own identity through the images, they watch. Images which replace their own memories and feelings, after which neither can be trusted anymore. Followed by loneliness, despair, and isolation. New Rose Hotel is as slippery as it’s mesmerizing.

Kaj van Zoelen

Enthiran (2010)

Rajinikanth in Enthiran

Shankar’s Enthiran is an Indian Tamil-language science fiction film about the struggle of scientist Vaseegaran to control his creation Chitti. Chitti is an android that’s supposed to be the perfect human. However, Chitti has no emotions and therefore fails to understand human beings. An update of the robot’s software transforms Chitti into a robot that can get angry, sad and fall in love.

That’s the starting point of the bad part of Chitti’s life. The robot learns to feel human emotions, which results in a development of a selfish side. Chitti starts to betray, cheat and murder people. He copies himself and creates a robot army to fight against humanity. In Enthiran‘s most famous sequence, the one that launched the film into international cult status, this army does all kinds of things that defy human logic, including becoming one enormous, magnetic, man-eating metal snake.

The creation of Chitti shows that humanity can’t be replaced by robots, but also mirrors the selfishness of people by absorbing and reflecting their evil side. In other words, we are far from perfect and it might be better if we don’t replicate ourselves.

Film critics compared the film with The Terminator (1984), because of the visuals and the creation of ‘Terminators’ by an evil robot. However, Ethiran includes something that western cyberpunk films never had, nor will have: glorious, colourful happy dance and music scenes at what’s supposed to be Mount Kilimanjaro (but clearly isn’t), the desert or a birthday party.

Lisa van der Waal

This Essay List article was published in October 2017