Science fiction is one of the most expansive genres in cinema, largely because of the countless subgenres that branch off of it. From time travel to post-apocalyptic to space opera, there’s bound to be a sci-fi film that appeals to even the pickiest of moviegoers, but the subgenre that’s spawned some of the more fascinating sci-fi flicks in recent memory is cyberpunk.
Combining themes of cybernetics and punk, cyberpunk features some of the most thought-provoking – and oftentimes terrifying – subject matter in regards to the state of humanity in the not-too-distant future. And while many passing sci-fi fans have likely seen a cyberpunk movie or two, perhaps without even realizing it, those specifically seeking out such films to expand their horizons could find themselves at a loss for where to start.
Thankfully, we here at Epicstream have you covered! Whether you’re new to the subgenre or you’re simply looking for some fresh recommendations, you’ll be sure to find something in our list of 10 must-watch cyberpunk movies:
Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt
Looper delivers a smart, bravely original blend of futuristic sci-fi and good old-fashioned action, with time-travel, mob men, and assassins galore. Unlike some time-travel films, though, Looper goes to extraordinary lengths to leave every base covered in its quest to avoid plot holes and inconsistencies – a goal that’s achieved with flying colors. As well as confidently dealing with a complex script that could have easily become too convoluted, writer/director Rian Johnson also creates a very believable future, filled with people and events that all feel plausible. It’s a film that treats its audience with respect, and it features a wonderfully multifaceted and intelligent story that rewards patience and concentration with a fantastic and satisfying conclusion.
Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
In Ex Machina, a young programmer is selected to participate in a ground-breaking experiment in synthetic intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking humanoid A.I. It’s a film that leans heavier on ideas than effects, but it's still a visually polished and highly thought-provoking piece of work that seeks to answer the question of what makes humans “human.” It’s a premise that we’ve seen a number of times before, yet it still manages to feel fresh thanks to writer/director Alex Garland’s tightly written script. All in all, Ex Machina is an impressive piece of science fiction for those who appreciate the more cerebral side of the genre.
Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich
A visually awe-inspiring sci-fi classic from the silent era, Metropolis takes viewers to a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, as a man falls in love with a prophet who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences. Metropolis challenges its viewers to think about their relationship with society, both as a whole, and with each individual person, as well as contemplate the rationale of divisions amongst peoples and groups. It’s a landmark early example of cyberpunk that has stood the test of time, serving as a cornerstone of the evolution of the science fiction/fantasy film genre.
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Dan O'Herlihy
The first, and arguably only worthwhile installment in the RoboCop franchise is a hyper-violent, over-the-top, yet surprisingly effective political satire that’s brilliantly disguised as a hodgepodge of leftover gritty cop show and comic book storylines. Taking place in crime-filled Detroit in the near-future, the story centers on a police officer who, after being killed by a gang, is transformed into a crime-fighting cyborg with a whole new outlook on justice. Released in 1987, the political subtext is perhaps even more relevant in today’s climate, which is a tremendous testament to director Paul Verhoeven’s ability to craft a film that was so tragically far ahead of its time, yet simultaneously enduring.
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside
Another Paul Verhoeven-helmed addition to this list is Total Recall, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers a decidedly “Arnold” performance as a construction worker who learns that his entire memory of the past stems from a memory chip implanted in his brain. Schwarzenegger’s limited acting chops aside, this film boasts action that’s both fast and furious, as well as special effects that were lightyears ahead of their time back in 1990. The violence, while excessive at times, does little to detract from the fun of this wild thrill ride, and although the spectacle nature of the movie threatens to overwhelm at times, it still manages to strike a nice balance between insightful science fiction and pure popcorn entertainment.
Directors: The Wachowski Brothers
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving
In The Matrix, the Wachowski Brothers seek to answer an intriguing and terrifying question: what if virtual reality wasn’t just entertainment, but rather a means to imprison you? It’s this shocking revelation that turns an ordinary computer hacker into a weapon of hope for a group of rebels waging war against their controllers. Stellar acting and a deep, philosophical story are major selling points for the film, but the visual effects and fight choreography are what sets it miles above similarly themed movies that The Matrix has inspired since its release. It truly was a watershed moment in filmmaking – in every respect – and even though its two inferior sequels left a bit of a stain on the franchise, they can't distract from what an uncompromising and hugely influential masterpiece this is.
Ghost in the Shell
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Cast: Atsuko Tanaka, Iemasa Kayumi, Akio Ôtsuka
Moviegoers were disappointed by the 2017 live-action Ghost in the Shell for a number of reasons, the least of which being that the 1995 anime did a far better job adapting the source material than its big-screen counterpart. The film takes place in 2029, where a cyborg policewoman and her partner are on the hunt for a mysterious and powerful hacker called the Puppet Master, who hacks people’s minds and leaves a trail of victims robbed of their memories. The animation is every bit as stunning as the narrative, resulting in a thoughtful, complex treat for longtime anime fans, as well as a perfect introduction for viewers that are just starting to dip their toes into the medium. In any case, regardless of how you feel about anime, Ghost in the Shell remains an excellent science fiction story with a lot to say about human nature.
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young
Ridley Scott, perhaps best known for the Alien franchise, directs this action-packed sci-fi thriller in which an assassin known as a blade runner finds himself in pursuit of a group of androids, called replicants, who’ve stolen a ship and fled to Earth. A visually remarkable, surprisingly human sci-fi masterpiece, Blade Runner’s influence has continued to deepen with time, earning it a significant cult following in the process. The film tackles many intriguing themes, such as the dehumanization of people through a society shaped by technological and capitalistic excess, the nature of humanity, itself (ie. emotions, memory, purpose, desire, cruelty), and the very meaning of existence. If you’re not someone who naturally enjoys contemplating such deep and complex themes, the film's brilliance may be lost on you. If that sort of thing is right up your alley, though, you’ll likely agree that Blade Runner is a masterpiece; one that deserves recognition and long remembrance in film history.
Director: Katsuhiro Ôtomo
Cast: Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama, Mitsuo Iwata, Tesshô Genda
This cyberpunk adventure takes place in the post-apocalyptic city of Neo-Tokyo, where a secret military project gives a young boy telekinetic powers that place him at the center of a conflict of Earth-shattering proportions. Akira is a landmark achievement that set the standard for modern anime with its kinetic style and top-notch animation, and not only did it pave the way for the medium's growing popularity outside of Japan, but it also remains a significant influence in the sci-fi genre today. The world building and mythology are both immersive and fascinating, allowing each and every visually-stunning scene to transport you directly to the heart of Neo-Tokyo. At times, Akira can be overshadowed by its excessive, graphic violence, but this is one of the only faults in this brilliant adaptation of director Katsuhiro Otomo's seminal 2,000-page manga.
Blade Runner 2049
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Jared Leto, Robin Wright
Not to be outdone by its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 doubles down on what made the original film great, particularly when it comes to the visuals and the tantalizing ambiguity. Ryan Gosling delivers a stellar performance as the titular blade runner, filling Harrison Ford’s shoes admirably in a role that’s an unmistakable homage by Denis Villeneuve to the aura of mystery surrounding Deckard’s true nature. In fact, despite a 35-year time gap between the two movies, 2049 feels like an impressively seamless, direct continuation of the original, which can be a tall order for even the greatest directors. While Blade Runner planted the seeds, it’s 2049 that gives viewers the chance to watch them bloom into something truly breathtaking.