Explore the moments that defined cyberpunk cinema and reshaped sci-fi movie history with images from the Shutterstock archives.
Just like romance or comedy films, cyber films have played a dominant role throughout American cinema. More often than not, these science fiction stories look to the future. In the 1950s and 60s that future was bleak with humanity doomed either by our own transgressions or an unforseen enemy from space.
Yet, as the 1970s drew to a close, a new plotline emerged with “the unlikely hero” who could save humanity: Star Wars. The superhero film blended with sci-fi for an audience who sought a new outlook on the future. Yet, even when sci-fi dips back into its original dystopian roots, these films continue to draw in large audiences, remaining a staple in cinema.
1. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
An alien spacecraft lands in Washington, D.C. The Army is deployed to investigate when an alien emerges and is taken to a special facility. It’s an opening scene done so many times that it has become timeless in sci-fi cinema.
The Day the Earth Stood Still was one of the first films to follow this plot line. The black and white film played on the audience’s paranoia of chemical weapons, war, and secret government agencies. As one of the first films of the techno-horror genre, its legacy has been preserved in the Library of Congress National Film Registry.
2. La Jetee (1962)
Black and white frames tell the story of a prisoner from a post-apocalyptic world who is desperately vying for answers about how to avoid the earth’s impending doom. Subject to the time-travel experiments of scientists, he is instructed to visit the pre-war world to find a way to save humanity and stop World War III. Ultimately, he fails at his mission and the audience is left to remember, “there is no escape out of time.”
Running for only twenty-eight minutes and with a single motion-picture shot, Chris’s Mark’s film was mostly shot on stills and contained minimal dialogue as a way to keep costs down. Still, his strong story line and visual style pushed the film onto the list of the fifty greatest films of all time by the British Film Institute. It was also reworked into a feature length film in 1995 as 12 Monkeys.
3. Westworld (1973)
Apollo landed on the moon in 1969. The nationally televised event ushered in a new era where audiences were more interested in stories about space and A.I. than they were about cowboys and John Wayne. So, the movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer blended the two genres in Westworld. Yul Brynner, who had played a gunslinger in the 1960s cowboy franchise The Magnificent Seven, reprised his role as a gunslinger (albeit an android one) in Westworld.
Set in 1983, the movie centers around an adult amusement park featuring highly realistic A.I. that act out scenarios in three “worlds;” the American old west, medieval Europe, and ancient Rome. After a virus spreads throughout the parks, the A.I. become self-aware and wreak havoc on their human guests.
Since its release, this idea of “man vs. robot” has resurrected time and time again in films and television shows, depicting man’s fate in the hands of his own creation.
4. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Since the 1950s, sci-fi storylines have painted images of impending doom from wars with A.I. or aliens, or nuclear mishaps by secret government agencies. Yet in 1977, George Lucas gave humanity a fighting chance with an unlikely cast of heroes: a princess, an outlaw, and a teenage boy. The movie was Star Wars, and it became more than just a critically acclaimed film. For forty years, its characters have become part of a cultural movement.
In The Empire Strikes Back, the second film in the franchise, Lucas made a bold move to revisit the story of a Jedi knight and the Rebel Alliance who save the galaxy from the Galactic Empire. His gamble paid off. The film became the highest-grossing film of 1980 and the most applauded in the franchise. It also helped to cement the popularity of the “sci-fi, fantasy, superhero” blended genre that Lucas created with the first Star Wars film.
5. Tron (1982)
Video games became a mainstream hobby in shopping malls and arcade centers in the 1980s. The boom of children sitting behind computer graphics for hours was the inspiration behind Tron. In the film, a software engineer becomes stuck in a software world where he must not only escape, but also free the captured programs. Actors strode through a backlit world where their neon suit colors took center stage, much like the computer graphics in video games at the time.
While critics panned the plot, the visual style earned Tron an Academy Award for Technical Achievement and elevated it to cult status. It was one of the first films to use computer animation and has been celebrated for its visual style ever since.
6. Akira (1988)
As the most expensive anime film of its time, Akira also became one of the highest grossing anime films. Part of its success is due to its phenomenal animation and graphics, which were groundbreakingly detailed and vibrant for 1988 and sparked countless imitations. It inspired the popularity of anime movies in the U.S. and many credit it to opening the doors for Pokémon and Ghost in a Shell, which later became popular in the U.S.
Based on the manga of the same name, Akira follows the leader of a biker gang and an activist who possess psychokinetic powers. The protagonists live in a dystopian Tokyo in 2019 where gang violence, political corruption, and civil unrest eventually destroy the city. Like all good sci- fi films, there is an unexpected twist at the end.
7. The Matrix (1999)
Action and sci-fi have never looked the same after the debut of the Wachowskis’ cyber-punk film, The Matrix. The film played on familiar themes: artificial intelligence versus humanity; computer program worlds; free will versus fate; and a dystopian future.
With action scenes influenced by Japanese animation and slow-motion visual effects, The Matrix felt fresh and became a pop culture reference. Films, television shows, and even anime performed gravity defying kicks in mid-air just like the film’s protagonists Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus. The slow-motion effect, known as “bullet time,” allows the action sequence to move slowly while the camera wraps around them at normal speed. The Matrix grossed over $460 million worldwide and won four Academy Awards, a BAFTA, and Saturn Award.
8. Minority Report (2002)
Based off of a 1956 Phillip K. Dick short story, the film The Minority Report expands on the author’s idea that in the future mutants can foresee all crime before it happens. Steven Spielberg took the reins to direct Tom Cruise as the lead character, a cop who must try to stop a crime he is destined to commit. As he navigates through a city where “Big Brother is watching” at every turn, the film also draws along other ideas of how we lose privacy in a technologically advanced society.
While many dystopian sci-fi films offer bleak city backdrops and rely on film noir cinematography, Minority Report differs with a predominantly “bleached-out” look that makes the storyline unfold in an almost dreamlike state. From the cinematography to the storyline, everything circles back to the question, “what is reality?”
9. Ex Machina (2015)
Ex Machina won the 88th Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Screenplay. Set primarily in an isolated home, the story relies on four actors, a stark set, and limited special effects to tell a chilling story about the relationship between A.I. and its makers. The film follows a programmer who is invited to visit the home of his CEO to help him decipher the intelligence of his A.I., Ava.
Often considered an intellectual sci-fi film, it relies more on questions for the audience than it does pomp, action, or glamor. Even the way actress Alicia Vikander is presented on the screen as Ava — half-human, half-robot — leads the audience to question just who is human in this film.
10. The Matrix 4 (2022)
The fourth installment in the billion-dollar cyber-punk franchise was confirmed in August with original cast members Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss reprising their roles. Lana Wachowski, who wrote and directed the original Matrix, is said to be directing the fourth film, which will have fans re-enter the Matrix universe. What that universe will look like is still a mystery.
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