Few things remain as enduringly interesting as the cyberpunk aesthetic. The combination of lowlife and high-tech that defines the genre comes with plenty of fascinating design elements, and also serves as a constant reminder that the future isn’t necessarily going to be a more utopian place than the present.
The best cyberpunk movies know how to translate the genre’s defining archetypes into fascinating stories, even as they do something new. Plenty of great movies have cyberpunk aesthetics, but only a few manage to say anything interesting with them. Here are the 10 best of all time.
Terry Gilliam is a steampunk specialist, and Brazil is his foundational work. Set in a future filled with mindless bureaucracy, the film’s aesthetic brilliance is matched by its frenetic, thrilling plot. Like many of the movies on this list, Brazil imagines a future that is not quite dystopian, but suggests that things have gradually gotten worse instead of better. Technology may seem like our salvation, but as Brazil suggests, it can also be a terrible curse.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
While it may seem like an adventure movie, A.I. is one of Steven Spielberg’s most contemplative, soulful films. It tells the story of David, an A.I. child who is adopted by a family and eventually abandoned by his mother. The rest of the film chronicles David’s attempt to return home, even as we already know that his mother doesn’t want him back. The journey he takes is both fascinating and moving, and it’s one infused with enough futurism to qualify it for this list.
Elysium is not a perfect movie, but the aesthetic choices it makes are pretty universally excellent. Set in a future where the world’s wealthiest people have abandoned Earth and taken residence on a ship above the planet, the class commentary inherent in steampunk comes to the forefront here, as those living above the Earth are styled to look sleek and elegant, and those stranded on Earth are forced to make do with the scraps that have been left behind.
Spielberg’s early 2000s were devoted to a certain steampunk aesthetic, but just because Minority Report came out immediately after A.I. doesn’t mean that the two have the same vision of our future. In Minority Report, the plot revolves around a group of police officers who catch people before they commit a crime. It’s a meditation on free will and destiny, and it’s also a vividly-rendered world filled with the perfect mixture of utopian and dystopian ideas.
The real world of The Matrix is an unambiguous dystopia, but it’s one with pretty undeniable cyberpunk aesthetics. Those aesthetics become even more heightened in the world of the Matrix, especially for those people who are already awake. Neo and team dress in wonderfully ridiculous outfits, typically some mixture of black and white, and style themselves in outlandish ways as well. The Matrix has a maximalist approach to its steampunk aesthetic, and that’s part of what made it a phenomenon.
Telling the story of a man who finds himself transported to the past in order to learn more about the virus that’s about to kill off much of the world’s population, 12 Monkeys is the most steampunk-y during its futuristic sequences. Even once the action turns to the 1990s, though, there’s a certain attitude that pervades the film, one of a dark future that’s just around the corner. 12 Monkeys is a bleak vision of the world, both in the future and in its eerie, heightened present.
Escape from New York
John Carpenter’s sci-fi classic Escape from New York wasn’t made with an enormous budget, but it nonetheless had a massive influence on the grungy futures of many steampunk-y futures. Following Snake Plisken, a talented degenerate, as he’s tasked with rescuing the president’s daughter from a New York that’s been transformed into a prison, the movie traffics in outlandish styles and plenty of bureaucracy, two things that would come to define steampunk.
Paul Verhoeven’s vision of a future where humanity has colonized Mars is also a trippy look inside the brain of one guy who may be totally normal, or may be some sort of super spy. The film features plenty of futuristic technology, but it’s coupled with a smart commentary on the ways that new technology don’t necessarily accrue to the benefit of everyone equally. Verhoeven is a brilliant visual stylist, and every choice he makes in Total Recall only deepens the story he’s telling.
Verhoeven’s Hollywood movies all hue to a certain aesthetic, but Robocop is perhaps his most trenchant critique of America. The movie resembles our world in many ways, except for its attempt to transition the work of policing to robots, and eventually, to Robocop, a hybrid of an actual cop and a robot. Robocop is most steampunk in the design of its titular character, but other details peak through in this bleak examination of why American companies are so invested in the police state.
Blade Runner 2049
The original Blade Runner is obviously one of the foundational texts in the world of steampunk, but Denis Villeneuve’s sequel commands a bigger budget and has plenty of tricks of its own to make this future seem both cooler and bleaker. Everyone’s got a trench coat on, the aesthetic is pretty gray, and there are holograms everywhere. There’s plenty of plot in Blade Runner 2049, but you’d be forgiven if all you really want to do when you turn it on is vibe with its aesthetic.