6 films you should watch before you see Ghost in the Shell

With the release of the live-action Ghost in the Shell, starring Scarlett Johansson, we recommend some key viewing for a crash course in the world of cyberpunk and its pre-history.

30 March 2017

By Joseph Walsh

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Rupert Sanders’ live-action take on the classic anime film Ghost in the Shell is one in a long line of cyberpunk films that explore our relationship with technology, providing a window into a strange world of biomechanically enhanced humans, alternate realities, sinister mega-corporations and tech-savvy dissidents.

In Sanders’ film, Scarlett Johansson stars as a new breed of military cyborg, uniquely equipped to combat the growing threat of cyber-terrorists who are hacking human minds.

Cyberpunk has a more than 30-year history, surfacing in popular culture in the 1980s when the term was first coined. The genre was thrust into the mainstream with William Gibson’s neo-noir hacker novel Neuromancer, published in 1984, and it wasn’t long before cyberpunk’s influence impacted the big screen. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Hollywood spawned a series of strange futuristic tales that evolved the sci-fi sub-genre.

The elements that make a ‘cyberpunk film’ can be wide-ranging, and there’s a lot of detritus to wade through. So, with the release of Ghost in the Shell, here are six films to see if you want to explore the best of cyberpunk’s film history – and some key precursors. In addition to these, the 1995 anime original of Ghost in the Shell, directed by Mamoru Oshii, remains essential viewing.

Metropolis (1927)

Director: Fritz Lang

Metropolis (1927)

Some 50 years before authors William Gibson and Bruce Sterling kickstarted cyberpunk, there was Fritz Lang’s dystopian silent-era masterpiece. H.G. Wells might not have liked it much, but the representations of wealthy elites, oppressed masses and a technological future are three familiar tropes that would come to define cyberpunk. Like many sci-fi classics that have followed in its wake, Metropolis would be defined by its ambitious representation of the future, which remains as visually arresting today as it was in 1927.

Blade Runner (1982)

Director: Ridley Scott

Blade Runner (1982)

Like Metropolis, this neo-noir sci-fi is a precursor to the sub-genre proper. Yet it remains one of the key touchstones in the canon of cyberpunk films. It features the looming presence of the Tyrell Corporation, which dominates the smog-filled skyline of a near-future LA. Rogue cyborgs (called replicants) are plagued by short lives and existential quandaries, while a cop cut in the Raymond Carver mould is assigned to ‘retire’ them. Blade Runner is a film that has come to define the best of the sci-fi genre, not to mention spawning some of the most quotable lines.

Akira (1988)

Director: Katsuhiro Otomo

Akira (1988)

Akira was a landmark moment for animation around the world. There is a psychedelic quality to its post-Third World War Tokyo that was rendered using both traditional and computer animated technologies. The film is bloody, brash and kinetic, telling the story of a gang of teenage bikers who go up against a sinister military organisation that’s experimenting on children. Katsuhiro Otomo’s film can be credited, at least in part, for bringing anime to the attention of the west, and it’s on a par with Blade Runner for the impact that it’s had on movie sci-fi.

No Maps for These Territories (2000)

Director: Mark Neale

No Maps for These Territories (2000)

This documentary provides a perfect primer for the cyberpunk genre. William Gibson sits in the back of a limo rigged with cameras as he expounds on his work and the world outside the car, with the occasional prompt from the likes of fellow cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling and U2’s Bono. What Gibson offers up in this distorted talking head doc is fascinating, jumping from drug culture to the intimate relationship we now have with technology. He also discusses his most famous work to date, Neuromancer, which helped launched his career.

The Matrix (1999)

Directors: The Wachowskis

The Matrix (1999)

Impossible to miss out, the Wachowskis’ cyberpunk thriller (now being rebooted by Warner Bros) was a film that not only evolved sci-fi but also filmmaking technologies with the innovation of ‘bullet time’, subsequently imitated to nauseating levels. Blending Platonic philosophy with hard-hitting action, along with characters adorned in androgynous clothing and a dystopian fairytale where reality is shown to be a lie, The Matrix remains one of the most expensive and successful cyberpunk films to date. It’s also worth seeing Alex Proyas’s Dark City (1998), with Rufus Sewell, which teeters on the edges of cyberpunk and explores many of the same themes. 

Strange Days (1995)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Strange Days (1995)

Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 foray into sci-fi, starring Ralph Fiennes, divided opinion at the time but has a strong critical following today. Set in 1999, the action takes place in LA (a popular destination for cyberpunk films), where the new high involves using a cybernetic implant that allows you to live someone else’s experiences. Bigelow gives us a world on the brink, where addiction rules, providing an intriguing and truly creepy tale that, like many cyberpunk films, asks us to consider what makes our lives real and meaningful.

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