Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the sequel to the legendary Deus Ex, received rave reviews when it was released in 2011. Why not reflect on Square Enix and Eidos Montreal’s cyberpunk renaissance with some cyberpunk cinema? Rebellious hackers, religious allegory, virtual reality, and groundbreaking special effects are all provided in the cream of the cyber crop.
Jack in, cyberpunks.
The Matrix (1999) – Revolution and religious symbolism often intertwine in cyberpunk fiction and it’s probably no clearer than in this turn of the millennium blockbuster. Neo’s journey from lowly office worker to kung fu-kicking cyber Jesus resonated with audiences by marrying wire-fu action and bullet time special effects to a smart script full of questions about our relationship with reality itself. Before The Matrix action movies in the 90s were sad bloated affairs with maybe a single brain cell of thought to them. By using even basic philosophical concepts in their story the Wachowskis set the standard for action and sci-fi movies to come.
Memorable Quote: After discovering reality is a virtual sham created by machine overlords, Neo laments his loss of innocence by pointing out a restaurant he’ll never see the same way again: “I used to eat there. Really good noodles.”
Tron (1982) – The first movie to show us a world inside computers, or cyberspace, is worth it for Jeff Bridges’ affable turn as video game programmer and arcade owner Kevin Flynn, as well as for revolutionary computer graphics and impressive art design. The story involves classic cyberpunk conceits, like corporate conspiracy, a rogue A.I. that wants to take over the world and plenty of suggestions that our world of grid-like cubicles and neon-lit highways isn’t that different from the digitized universe Flynn finds himself transported into. Tron also takes an optimistic twist by making most of the inhabitants of the computer world benevolent A.I. who love to do their repetitive tasks and regard humanity as gods for their creation. Highly influential.
Memorable Quote: Cocky Kevin Flynn explains his video game prowess to a fellow arcade-goer: “It’s all in the wrists.”
The Terminator (1984) – A “tech noir” if there ever was one, James Cameron’s original Terminator pits time traveler Kyle Reese against an unstoppable cyborg who aims to kill Sarah Connor, the mother of mankind’s savior, John Connor. J.C., hmm? Where have those initials appeared before? Not just the Bible, those are the first initials of the cyborg protagonist of the first Deus Ex. And where would video games be today without Arnold Schwarzenegger’s compelling killer cyborg? A fusion of flesh, steel and microchip, we see it acquire clothes and weaponry by beating up thugs, search relentlessly for its targets through strangers’ homes, storm into nightclubs Uzis a-blazing, heal itself through self-surgery, and we even get to see the world through its red-hued heads-up display. Sounds like video games owe themselves to yet another early work from James Cameron. (Aliens is the other one!)
Memorable Quote: Uh-oh! Sounding an awful lot like a machine yourself, Kyle Reese: “Pain can be controlled — you just disconnect it.”
RoboCop (1987) – This time the cyborg is the good guy. Murphy, a family man brutally gunned down by gangsters led by the dad from That 70s Show, gets resurrected by a corporation that runs the police as RoboCop, a cybernetic law enforcer with some serious identity issues. He doesn’t remember his former life (and death) as a flesh-and-blood human, so when hints of it crop up he breaks protocol and does a little soul-searching and vengeance-seeking. Dehumanization by technology is only one of the themes explored by director Paul Verhoeven, who also satirizes the overwhelming presence of mass media with commercials for crappy cars and a TV show that nearly everyone watches about a grotesque man surrounded by women in bikinis, spouting the same one-liner over and over. RoboCop‘s very funny and very entertaining, but it also shows us a future frighteningly close to our present. In many ways, our present has surpassed it. For one thing, Verhoeven got it wrong with the board games.
Memorable Quote: In a chilling scene, or hilarious depending on your point of view, hulking robot ED-209 demonstrates its firing power by accidentally blowing away an unlucky suit. Everyone at the meeting is horrified except executive bad guy Dick Jones, who mutters “I’m sure it’s only a glitch.”
Blade Runner (1982) - Blade Runner focuses on replicants, android slaves made to believe they’re human, complete with false memories, photographs to reinforce those false memories and expiration dates to ensure they don’t outlast their welcome. The most powerful of these, the NEXUS-6, arrive on Earth leaving a trail of bodies, hoping to settle things with their corporate maker Tyrell. Sent out to “retire” these rogue robots is Rick Deckard, a glorified slave catcher who begins to question his own humanity after he guns down artificial people who just want to be alive. Dense, bleak, rainy Blade Runner has been cited as the inspiration for tons of works, including Batman Begins, most of Hideo Kojima’s milieu, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. If there are rainy run-down metropolises covered in Asian lettering, it can be traced back to Ridley Scott’s existential opus.
Memorable Quote: Deckard’s love interest Rachel discovers she’s not the niece of god-like Tyrell, just her replicant replacement: “I’m not in the business. I am the business.”
Ghost in the Shell (1995) – Major Kusanagi leads the Section 9 police force in the hunt for the Puppet Master, a talented hacker who can take over people’s bodies without their knowing it. A full-body cyborg — she is just a brain in a robot body, a “ghost in the shell” – Kusanagi begins to doubt her own humanity, especially when a prosthetic body escapes a factory without any traces of brain matter inside. But it has a “ghost” and seeks political asylum. Ethereal and meditative, Ghost in the Shell is a world of blurred boundaries and identities, a place where it’s possible to escape into “the net” or a world of false memories. Similar to Blade Runner, its vast rain-soaked metropolis and “sexy cyborg” imagery influence anime, movies and video games to this day. One of the endings of the original Deus Ex even copied this movie’s post-human outcome, and Human Revolution takes a cue or two from the body-hacking Puppet Master as well. Director Mamoru Oshii crafted a cyberpunk masterpiece, and the TV series, Stand Alone Complex, is no slouch either.
Memorable Quote: The Major sums up our tech-loving nature: “If a technological feat is possible, man will do it. Almost as if it’s wired into the core of our being.”