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The 10 Best ’90s Cyberpunk Movies That Were Ahead of Their Time

The 10 Best '90s Cyberpunk Movies That Were Ahead of Their Time

The term cyberpunk was coined in 1980, thanks to a short story of the same name by Bruce Bethke, but had already been coalescing since the 1960s thanks to New Wave science fiction writers like Philip K. Dick. Dick and authors like J.G. Ballard and Harlan Ellison had already been depicting dystopian futures in their novels and short stories by incorporating counterculture rebellion and class disparity.



Cyberpunk would truly solidify in 1984 when William Gibson, the author most directly associated with the movement, published his book Neuromancer. His influence helped create offshoots like Japanese cyberpunk, and the tone of Neuromancer became hugely influential in sci-fi filmmaking thereafter.

Cyberpunk’s key element comes in combining high and low — splicing together slick, futuristic technology with a ‘dirty future’ that incorporates the rebellious elements of real-life movements like Punk Rock and New Wave. The first true cyberpunk film, Blade Runner, remains its most important and influential feature, but after a late ’80s lapse in popularity, the genre was revamped in the ’90s — with mixed results.

Because the ’90s represented the greatest technological leap in CGI, it took until nearly the end of the decade for The Wachowskis to give a true voice to the movement. Still, a cadre of other ’90s films created an enormous influence on cyberpunk filmmaking, even when they lacked on the technology and budgetary side. The following are the 10 best ’90s cyberpunk movies that were ahead of their time.

10 Johnny Mnemonic (1995)

Johnny Mnemonic may not have excelled critically or commercially, but it did what few other films have: adapting a cyberpunk story by pioneer William Gibson, rather than simply cherry-picking elements of his genre. For some reason, perhaps because they are too sprawling and technological, Gibson’s cyberpunk novels and short stories haven’t fared well as films, including the Christopher Walken flop New Rose Hotel. Even Gibson’s most famous book, Neuromancer, has languished in development hell despite visionary director and robotics master Chris Cunningham once being attached.

How Johnny Mnemonic Layed the Groundwork for The Matrix

Despite these failures, Johnny Mnemonicwas truly ahead of its time as the first film to cast Keanu Reeves as a sci-fi star — which garnered some snickers, at the time (Keanu was only a few years removed from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure). Those opinions were quelled by the success of The Matrix.

Indeed, The Matrix borrowed heavily from Johnny Mnemonic (from story to design elements) but the four years separating the films were bridged by one of Hollywood’s quantum leaps in visual effects technology. That proved fateful when Reeves went from ‘Johnny’ to ‘Neo’. Rent Johnny Mnemonic on AppleTV+

9 The Lawnmower Man (1992)

The Lawnmower Man took a deep dive into virtual reality long before developments in green screening could have made the movie more legitimate. Generally considered a bad film at the time of its release, it’s grown plenty of cult status ever since — especially as VR technology has expanded heavily into the marketplace.

While Tron had taken a shot at depicting these virtual worlds with live-action elements a decade before, The Lawnmower Man did so by adapting a Stephen King’s short story of the same name. King would later sue to have his name taken off the project, for fairly obvious reasons.

Despite Clunky Computer Graphics, The Lawnmower Man Was Prescient

The film had many ideas that would later appear in more successful films, such as the cybersex scenes that got much-needed enhancement in bigger budget films like Minority Report and Blade Runner 2049. Plot elements like VR, encryption, and psychokinesis were all expanded upon in later sci-fi films, and it isn’t hard to see an alternate reality where, in the right hands, King’s story could have blossomed. Stream The Lawnmower Man on fuboTV.

8 Virtuosity (1995)

What Virtuosity lacked in CGI capabilities, it made up for with a stellar cast and another imaginative ’90s look at the future of VR. Denzel Washington got his first action vehicle all to himself, after splitting the top of the movie poster with Gene Hackman for Crimson Tide. By the film’s 1995 release, the ’90s cyberpunk trend was in full swing, and Virtuosity was head and shoulders above The Lawnmower Man in depicting what VR battles might look like.

How Virtuosity Imagined Ultra Violence in the Virtual Realm

Although the film hilariously predicted VR technology would have developed to this level by 1999, the set pieces in VR, where Lt. Parker Barnes (Washington) battles SID 6.7 (Russell Crowe), were super-imaginative, and anticipated current VR headsets with the real world underlaid behind the VR foreground, and the ability to move back and forth between real and programmed three-dimensional spaces. Stream Virtuosity on fuboTV.

Related: Giancarlo Esposito Says It’d Be ‘Great’ To Play Professor X Opposite Denzel Washington As Magneto in the MCU

7 Strange Days (1995)

Strange Days was less punk and more cyber than normal ’90s fare, but was paced by exceptional performances by Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett. While Strange Days didn’t get too deep into the technological aspects of the genre, it created a slick pocket inside a dystopian future, with neon-bathed sets and lighting that was more like installation art than cinema. The film was a collaborative effort between then-couple Kathryn Bigelow, who directed, and James Cameron, who acted as writer/producer.

How the Film Innovated… but Flopped

Strange Days anticipated implanted electronic devices, as well as theorizing how neural signals could be translated into images. That technology now exists, albeit not on the level the film imagined it could by 1999 (apparently a favored year in the future for ’90s cyberpunk films). While the “thought devices” that Cameron imagined in his script aren’t used to, say, record dreams yet — neural-to-digital devices are, for example, allowing amputees to control robotic prostheses.

Despite these prescient ideas, the film flopped majorly, nearly derailing Bigelow’s career in the process. She would have the last laugh, besting ex-husband Cameron for the Best Director Oscar for 2008’s The Hurt Locker. Stream Strange Days on Max.

6 eXistenZ (1999)

eXistenZ was yet another ’90s film that theorized about the cross-section of VR video games and real-life crimes. The film was written and directed by body horror sensei David Cronenberg, and set at a more realistic date in the future — the year 2030. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra Geller, a game designer who creates eXistenZ, a VR game, before a “Realist” (a group rebelling against the new digital world) hijacks her game. A security guard named Ted (Jude Law) comes to her defense.

eXistenZ Created a Completely New Production Design for a Cyberpunk Movie

The earmarks of David Cronenberg’s previous films, like Videodrome, were ever-present in eXistenZ, combining the biological and technological in a more tactile fashion than other ’90s cyberpunk efforts.

Cronenberg created organic pistols that can be smuggled through security, and UmbiCords, half-tissue/half-hardware devices that allow users to interface with VR by direct injection into the brain. Rent eXistenZon AppleTV+.

5 Hackers (1995)

Hackers is about as “90s” a film as one could find, replete with Rollerblade chase scenes, Rave-wear costume design, and a soundtrack awash with techno music from ’90s staples The Prodigy and Underworld. Corniness aside, the film caught Angelina Jolie on the verge of superstardom, and created a kitschier cyberpunk universe that crossed a heist plot with a topic that was about to take off in films: hacking.

Did Hackers Make the Internet Cool?

In 1995, a landmark year for cyberpunk films, the internet was still in its arcane stages, with noisy modems, glitchy messaging platforms like Prodigy and AOL, and a general association with all things nerdy. Back then, it was assumed it would remain so, but Hackers moved the needle on the disruptive, rebellious outlet the internet would become in the following decades. Rent Hackers on AppleTV+.

4 12 Monkeys (1995)

12 Monkeys

12 Monkeys

Release Date
December 29, 1995

Joseph Melito , Bruce Willis , Jon Seda , Michael Chance , Vernon Campbell , H. Michael Walls


12 Monkeys saw Bruce Willis move from his everyman action roles into a futuristic cyberpunk anti-hero. The film was an unexpected box-office hit from Terry Gilliam, who had already made a visionary cyberpunk film, Brazil, in the ’80s. 12 Monkeys mined La Jetée, a 1962 French film about life after the apocalypse, as its source material — but Gilliam created a much darker, less romantic vision for what the world might look like after the outbreak of a pandemic.

Uncanny Ways That 12 Monkeys Anticipated Covid

While 12 Monkeys went hyperbolic in imagining the ways a pandemic could affect society, it was ahead-of-its-time in showing the psychological effects of such an event. Gilliam used Brad Pitt’s character, Jeffrey Goines, to personify this, creating a story that blended cyberpunk with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

While Covid didn’t reach the level of 12 Monkeys, a 12% spike in homelessness, and 4 in 10 adult Americans reporting anxiety and depression as a result of lockdown made the movie seem somewhat prophetic. Stream 12 Monkeys on Hulu.

3 Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall was essentially a pet project for Arnold Schwarzenegger, as he became enthralled with a script based on Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” The script had languished in development for over a decade, before Schwarzenegger helped finance the film himself in order to get it green lit.

Venusville Became Total Recall‘s Cyberpunk Paradise

The first act of Total Recall was merely a futuristic sci-fi look at life on Earth. When the film moves to Mars, director Paul Verhoeven creates an oasis of adult entertainment and debauchery in Venusville, using the themes from Blade Runner and his own ’80s cyberpunk film RoboCop to heighten the ‘dirty future’ aspects of the film. Mexico City’s brutalist architecture provided perfect locations for what a cyberpunk Martian Colony might look like. Stream Total Recall on AMC+.

Related: Arnold Schwarzenegger & Reacher’s Alan Ritchson Join Forces for Christmas Action Flick

2 The Fifth Element (1997)

The Fifth Element let Luc Besson’s imagination run wild, using a story he originally conceived of as a teenager. For the film’s production design, he hired Møebius and Jean-Claude Mézières, whose comics had inspired Besson as a child and whose design helped heighten the cyberpunk aspects of the film. Same goes for Jean-Paul Gaultier, whose costume designs made Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) and Zorg (Gary Oldman) iconic.

Space Tourism Seemed Far-Fetched in the ’90s

A key to the plot of Fifth Element was the disparity between the rich ruling class and the Earth-bound masses crammed into smog-clouded skyscrapers. In the film, the ruling elite jump on a space cruise, Fhloston’s Paradise, which seemed far-fetched until 2001, when billionaire Dennis Tito paid to ride a Russian rocket into space.

Two decades later, Jeff Bezos is regularly ferrying high-placed celebrities into space using his Blue Origin aerospace company, and tourist trips to the moon suddenly seem well within reach. Stream The Fifth Element on AMC+.

1 The Matrix (1999)

the matrix

The Matrix

Release Date
March 30, 1999


The Matrix may have been way more streamlined than most cyberpunk-influenced films, but as soon as Neo hops a ride on the Nebuchadnezzar, the Wachowskis switched gears to production design inspired by Japanese cyberpunk. By the film’s 1999 release, CGI had finally caught up to the needs of cyberpunk filmmaking, thanks in no small part to the vision of the Wachowskis, who innovated motion-control, wire work, green screen techniques, and dynamic computer graphics that seemed light years ahead of Keanu Reeves’ previous sci-fi role in Johnny Mnemonic.

How The Matrix Set the Bar For CGI-Powered Filmmaking Going Forward

The Wachowskis’ primary influences for their action scenes were anime and martial arts films, but what made them standout was the realism of the CGI.

Now wire work could be seamlessly combined with green screening, creating dumbfounding shots that appeared to be shot practically, but defied physics. The film redefined set pieces going forward, heavily influencing the approach to filming action in the modern MCU and creating a lasting sheen to live-action cyberpunk films thereafter. Stream The Matrix on Max.

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