Whenever the word "cyberpunk" gets thrown around, there are certain expectations to be met: futuristic cities, advanced technologies, class warfare, moral decay, rampant crime and poverty.
Cyberpunk represents the best and worst qualities of science fiction stories in predicting the future, and cyberpunk movies often serve as cautionary tales of the dark sides of humanity and technology.
Fortunately, cyberpunk has been creatively interpreted by Hollywood in various ways over the years. Here are my picks for the best cyberpunk movies of all time and why they're worth watching.
12. Dark City (1998)
Directed by Alex Proyas
Starring Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly
Fantasy, Mystery, Sci-Fi (1h 40m)
Dark City is a cult classic from The Crow director Alex Proyas, which depicts a distinct kind of cyberpunk world that's draped in noir shades and steeped in ideas of nihilism and existential crises.
At the center of it is amnesiac John Murdoch (played by Rufus Sewell), who's accused of murder. The situation takes him on the run and prompts him to discover what his true identity is.
Proyas owes much to classic noir films—like Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Michael Anderson's Logan's Run—for his world where the walls close in on almost everyone. With its gothic aspects, dreamlike aesthetics, and sleek action sequences, Dark City shines.
11. Upgrade (2018)
Directed by Leigh Whannell
Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Melanie Vallejo, Steve Danielsen
Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller (1h 40m)
From Blumhouse prodigy Leigh Whannell comes Upgrade, a cyberpunk horror film about a car mechanic named Grey (played by Logan Marshall-Green) who, after becoming paralyzed, agrees to install a microchip in his body that gives him a lethal upgrade.
Upgrade offers a taste of a cyberpunk-inspired future with the STEM microchip that enhances the human body but also corrupts it.
The theme of humanity versus technology is the central conflict here, and it leads to nonstop action from the killing machine that is Grey. It's a seriously underrated, pulse-pounding, terrifying sci-fi horror.
10. eXistenZ (1999)
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ian Holm
Horror, Mystery, Sci-Fi (1h 37m)
One common trope in cyberpunk movies is the simulation of the real world in a dystopian reality, driven by a sprawling conspiracy that threatens the existence of everyone and everything.
David Cronenberg's eXistenZ dives headfirst into this idea while taking different paths that show off his twisted sensibilities.
The story follows game designer Allegra Geller (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), who becomes the target of a group of terrorists. She joins forces with security guard Ted Pikul (played by Jude Law) to uncover the people attempting to sabotage her creation.
Released in the same year, eXistenZ is a good companion film to The Matrix if you're looking for a cyberpunk take with body horror.
9. Strange Days (1995)
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis
Crime, Drama, Sci-Fi (2h 25m)
Kathryn Bigelow is one of the most flexible directors out there. She can direct almost any genre, from cheesy action flicks to tension-filled real-life dramas full of pathos.
But Bigelow's most underrated release is a sci-fi story about a black marketer who uses a device that accesses and experiences the memories of people to solve a criminal conspiracy.
Strange Days is set in an unkempt dystopia where morality is absent and order is defined by crime. The violence hits hard from the first scene, and you'll be challenged by its racial, social, and anti-tech undertones.
However, if you can stomach and endure all of that, Strange Days presents an immersive and grounded world that's brimming with possibilities.
8. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Directed by Mamoru Oshii
Starring Mimi Woods, Richard Epcar, Tom Wyner
Animation, Action, Crime (1h 23m)
Anime has consistently delivered all kinds of unique interpretations of cyberpunk, most notably in one of the pioneers of the genre: Ghost in the Shell, based on the manga by Masamune Shirow.
The film centers on Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg public-security agent who constantly finds herself in the middle of a citywide conspiracy that defines the advances of cutting-edge technology.
Motoko gets her first taste of nihilistic terror when she tries to stop a hacker known as the Puppet Master. What follows is a groundbreaking blend of worldbuilding, sleek action, and stunning animation. The bleak, relevant story still resonates to this day.
7. Dredd (2012)
Directed by Pete Travis
Starring Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey
Action, Crime, Sci-Fi (1h 35m)
Dredd is the second cinematic adaptation to come from the 2000 AD comic strip. Beneath the helmet is Karl Urban, who's tasked with leading a dangerous raid on an apartment complex and apprehending the ruthless drug lord Ma-Ma (played by Lena Headey).
The world of Mega-City One shows a cyberpunk world where technology is vast but regularly abused, leading to the decay of society.
Granted, Dredd didn't really explore the tongue-in-cheek absurdity of its source comic, but the film adaptation does provide pathos for the titular enforcer who sees his own morality tested.
6. RoboCop (1987)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Dan O'Herlihy
Action, Crime, Sci-Fi (1h 42m)
One of the most famous cops in movie history is RoboCop, who's fused with robotic enhancements to become a new and improved law enforcer.
Tech aside, RoboCop is an iconic character in the cyberpunk genre for his no-holds-barred approach to the law. He's very efficient in thwarting criminals and spitting memorable one-liners.
But RoboCop is also up against the egomaniacal corporate overlords that gave him his robotic suit. They themselves define the landscape of this utopian Detroit, where brands dictate the lives of citizens and the advancements of the future only benefit the rich.
5. Total Recall (1990)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi (1h 53m)
Paul Verhoeven has crafted several timeless masterpieces. We've already mentioned RoboCop, but here's another one: Total Recall, which is an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story.
Total Recall showcases a world where technology and innovation are exploited to keep totalitarian leaders and figures in power. In this world is Douglas Quaid (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger), who inadvertently receives a memory of him as an agent stopping the tyrannical regime.
This Arnie action movie has more substance than you might expect, which isn't a surprise given Verhoeven's knack for inserting subtle commentary into his films. It's one of his best and one of the most thrilling cyberpunk films ever made.
4. Metropolis (1927)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Starring Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich
Drama, Sci-Fi (2h 33m)
One of the most defining examples of German Expressionist cinema is Metropolis, a breakthrough sci-fi film of its time.
Directed by surrealist filmmaker Fritz Lang, the 1927 classic shows a dystopian world where industrial workers are kept underground while the affluent stay at the top to enjoy the riches of the world.
However, a forbidden romance between one worker and a lord's son threatens the continuation of the entire system.
Metropolis is memorable for its production design, a mix of Gothic and Expressionist styles that fit the core conflict. Its depiction of an advanced technological society was innovative, and it paved the way for cyberpunk art through the cyborg Maria.
3. Akira (1988)
Directed by Katsuhiro Ōtomo
Starring Mitsuo Iwata, Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama
Animation, Action, Sci-Fi (2h 4m)
Another groundbreaking cyberpunk anime, Akira features a dystopian future defined by anarchy—but most threatening is Tetsuo Shima, who gains telekinetic abilities after a motorcycle accident.
This motivates Capsules leader Shōtarō Kaneda to stop him, who feels responsible for Shima's sudden rampage that threatens everything.
Akira is proof that anime is perfectly suitable for deep science fiction that deals with philosophical issues, and it's complemented by gorgeous and sweeping animation, even during Shima's body horror scenes. And how could anyone forget Kaneda's iconic motorcycle drift?
2. The Matrix (1999)
Directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss
Action, Sci-Fi (2h 16m)
One common theme in cyberpunk is a choice between reality and fantasy, and that's explored in the classic sci-fi film The Matrix.
Through Neo (played by Keanu Reeves), we're left to contemplate two choices: supporting the advancements of a simulated reality or breaking free and tearing down the system. Encompassing all of this is a glimpse of a wary and realistic dystopian future.
The Matrix is one of the most definitive cyberpunk films of all time. From Neo's wardrobe to the computer metaphors, no one can deny that the Wachowskis broke new ground for the subgenre.
It's no wonder why so many sci-fi blockbusters followed in its example, which goes to show that The Matrix is more than just bullet time.
1. Blade Runner (1982)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young
Action, Drama, Sci-Fi (1h 57m)
It's impossible to talk about cyberpunk cinema—or even dystopian sci-fi cinema as a whole—without paying respect to the important work that is Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.
In this elaborate world, societal advancements are only possible at the cost of human life, and two great characters exist at the center of this story: Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer) is trying to stop it while burned-out cop Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) is assigned to stop him.
The scuffle between Batty and Deckard raises all kinds of questions about the nature of technology and the meaning of humanity.
Rising from the ashes of its lukewarm reception and complicated release, this masterpiece stood the test of time and resonated with future audiences, eventually becoming a defining piece of cyberpunk.