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1995: The Year That Killed Cyberpunk

So, then, who's to blame?

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1995: The Year That Killed Cyberpunk

As with most things that humans enjoy, there is much debate surrounding the origins of cyberpunk fiction. A handful of authors in the early ‘80s began inching their characters toward the same sense of noir-ish cool, as if agitated by a shared premonition. People started jacking in, jacking out, taking runs at megacorporations and slumming it through the neon alleys of Japan and Berlin and Mars. Together, this new fiction pointed toward larger concerns about the nature of self in a digital world, the global economy of information, and the increasing gap between the people in power and the people who aren’t. These stories also generally involved leather.

The dispute is: Who gets the credit? Is it the lean, bespectacled William Gibson, whose 1984 novel Neuromancer popularized the form, and is the go-to written work in the genre to this day? Is it Ridley Scott and his cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who in 1982’s Blade Runner framed the moody, gold-hued melancholy of future Los Angeles? Or should it be traced back further, to Philip K. Dick, perhaps, whose 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? provided the rough outline for Scott’s film, and whose work identified many of the apprehensions that would come to define cyberpunk?

Womp womp: I don’t know. I don’t really have an electric horse in this race. What’s a lot more interesting to me is the question of who killed cyberpunk. Because, after it somehow emerged as a shared aesthetic in the early ‘80s, and thereafter produced peaks like 1988’s Akira and valleys like 1992’s Lawnmower Man, it hit its final point of saturation in 1995, in which a whopping six major-studio films took dead aim on the genre and tried their damnedest to ruin it. (One explanation as to why might have been the 1993 re-release, and critical reevaluation, of Blade Runner.) In 1999, The Matrix would prove, in true transhumanist fashion, that necrophilia was cool, but the damage was already done: the half-dozen movies of summer 1995 had forever popularized the genre as gnarly-attitude teens who type quickly and listen to Morcheeba.

In an effort to discern just which movie landed the killing blow, I recently re-watched all of these movies in my filthy, neon-lit future-bungalow. If I learned anything, it is this: all of these movies were fucking terrible.

Johnny Mnemonic

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Release Date: May 26, 1995
Culprit: This is the only film by director Robert Longo, who otherwise made his name as a painter, sculptor and director of music videos in the 1980s. By the time the credits roll on Johnny Mnemonic, it is very clear why he was not invited back to Hollywood.
Source Material: An actual short story by genre progenitor William Gibson. As such, it oozes little Gibson flourishes: Yakuza, religious zealots, magical dolphins, pyramids made of lasers and so on.
Cyberpunk Cred: After an ostentatious opening text crawl, the dateline reads: “THE INTERNET—2021.” No three words have ever been more cyberpunk than these.
Is William Fichtner in it? He is not.
How did it try to kill cyberpunk? Perhaps because of Longo’s music-video pedigree, the entire thing has the feel of an early KMFDM video: screaming anime characters, a crucifix made out of televisions, lots of smoke machines. Ice-T shows up with dreads and an anarchy symbol straight-up tattooed on his forehead—and he gets to sneer the movie’s final line, the unwittingly appropriate “Just garbage. Get that outta here”—and Henry Rollins earnestly shouts his way through a surprising amount of the film’s second act. Forced to react appropriately to these non-professionals is a young Keanu Reeves, whose leaden incompetence has become much easier to forgive over the years. “It was not always so easy.”:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=900pBdJf70k
Most Damningly 1995 Moment: “I can carry nearly eighty gigabytes in my head,” Keanu says early in the movie, as if that were not roughly the amount of dub reggae music I torrented in a single afternoon last month. What did ol’ Johnny have to remove from his actual, lived memory to carry this princely sum of data? His entire childhood.

Judge Dredd

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Release Date: June 30, 1995
Culprits: Director Danny Cannon was apparently an absolute Blade Runner and Judge Dredd fanboy growing up, having, early in his life, won a contest imagining a 2000 AD movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford and Daryl Hannah. (2000 AD is the comic book from which Judge Dredd was birthed.) This movie, then, was basically his life’s work, which is why Armand Assante’s antagonist follows the exact narrative arc of Rutger Hauer’s from Blade Runner, and why much of the production arches constantly toward Scott’s film.
Source Material: The long-running comic book Judge Dredd encompassed a densely realized dystopia, full of weirdo junkies and brutal cops. That is sort of what they were shooting for here, but a certain large Italian man gets in the way. Clue: He is the law.
Cyberpunk Cred: In the movie’s opening seconds, Rob Schneider stumbles into Mega-City One and boards a flying taxi cab through a dingy world of neon depravity: fighting robots, big magenta faces, up higher and higher into a world of glistening bodies lying out by aquamarine swimming pools, before plunging into an underworld of “citizen riots” and “recycled food.” It’s Scott’s L.A., painted in ‘90s cartoon hues.
Is William Fichtner in it? Sadly, no.
How did it try to kill cyberpunk? Quote: “Starring Sylvester Stallone and Rob Schneider.” Two shitty actors at the peak of their shitty powers wrench the movie into both everything awful about a mid-‘90s Sylvester Stallone movie—at one point he whips a taxi he commandeered up to Rob Schneider and grunts, in perfect mid-‘90s action-movie quip cadence, “Need a lift?”—and everything awful about a mid-‘90s Rob Schneider movie…namely, Schneider. If you have forgotten what it sounds like when Rob Schneider yells, I have just the movie for you.
Most Damningly 1995 Moment: Also quote: “Judge costume design by Gianni Versace.” Future-cops are shiny!

The Net

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Release Date: July 28, 1995
Culprit: Legendary Hollywood producer of pugilistic cinema (Raging Bull; Rocky) and weepy sometimes-director (Life as a House; De-Lovely) Irwin Winkler.
Source Material: An original script by sci-fi hacks-for-hire John Brancato and Michael Ferris, who also penned the third Terminator movie. These forces did not combine for good.
Cyberpunk Cred: The movie’s crucial flaw is the way it transports cyberpunk ideas into the general mindset and production quality of a Lifetime movie. But, as far as “speculative fiction” goes, The Net gets a lot right. That Bullock uses the Internet to order a pizza, keep a to-do list, and maintain a chintzy digital fireplace is all treated as incredible—almost depraved—but today these actions are totally normal.
Is William Fichtner in it? Bafflingly, no.
How did it try to kill cyberpunk? An overwhelming anti-technology angle treats Bullock’s digital life as a perfect analogy for a broken and lonely soul. Several monologues are given over to the dangers of storing all our information online, which is valid in an age of increasing identity theft but also strikes an alarmist, technophobic note. The Internet, and the world at large, are full of dangerous men that Bullock must navigate at her own peril. (This, too, is totally relevant today, but it plays out here almost exclusively like an ex-boyfriend from whom she’s trying to get away.) The film’s final fade, from a glitching computer screen to a field of flowers, rings the gong most clearly: Go outside, you loser.
Most Damningly 1995 Moment: The movie gets a lot of predictions right but is totally incapable of conceiving of wireless technology. At one point a handsome man says to Bullock, “We’re sitting on the most perfect beach in the world, and all we can think about is—” and she interjects, wryly, “Where I can hook up my modem?”

Virtuosity

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Release Date: August 4, 1995
Culprit: Hack auteur Brett Leonard, who was high off the commercial success of Lawnmower Man and would go on to envision such low-rent fantasias as Siegfried & Roy: The Magic Box and Highlander: The Source.
Source Material: My nightmares, maybe? Seriously, fuck this movie.
Cyberpunk Cred: Russell Crowe plays Sid 6.7, a computer program that is also a serial killer that comes into the real world. Denzel Washington plays the future-cop tasked with “deleting” him. There are weird obligatory nods to Asian culture, like an opening shootout in a tea-house, as well as a character who is a dopey hacker-nerd who watches some future-porn that consists of a lingerie model undressing on a computer-generated chessboard while Massive Attack plays in the background. How unoriginal our porn actually is, in comparison!
Is William Fichtner in it? Yes. Fichtner’s greasy as all get-out for exactly one scene.
How did it try to kill cyberpunk? Good lord: by portraying the entire aesthetic idea as the accumulation of either smug, dour shitheads who smirk and tap-dance and arc their eyebrows—think an entire movie of Dennis Nedry going, “Ah ah ah, you didn’t say the magic word”—or corporate goons enacting dopey conspiracies about, uh—hey, look over here, it’s action! Russell Crowe’s character is “the perfect madman” and is literally, actually created by combining Charles Manson, Hitler, Mussolini, Pol Pot, et al., but apparently that combination only yields a D-grade Bond villain who drinks blood (?). The back nine of the movie is just shitty action, and in August of 1995 the world was still engorged with the previous month’s Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. NO ONE NEEDED THIS.
Most Damningly 1995 Moment: “Colon. Parentheses. Smiley faces,” Denzel says when a clueless detective presents him with an emoticon. “People used to sign off their email with that.”

Hackers

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Release Date: September 15, 1995
Culprit: It’s hard to rag on director Iain Softley for the movie’s faults, since he appears to be a sort of journeyman just trying to get this fucking thing done. So I’ll instead fault the Sony PlayStation, the videogame console, which was released in late 1994 and appears to be the aesthetic inspiration for the entire film.
Source Material: Again, I honestly think the original PlayStation’s marketing campaign inspired this whole movie.
Cyberpunk Cred: This movie wears its cyberpunk influences on its neon-orange mesh sleeve: a computer called Gibson, big posters of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and even off-handed references to da Vinci and the Bible, allusions made just as Gibson himself might. But the movie most aggressively asserts its cyberpunk bona fides in the passages when it posits hacking as a form of counterculture. Matthew Lillard at one point screams: “Listen, we got a higher purpose here, alright? A wake-up call for the Nintendo Generation. We demand free access to data!”
Is William Fichtner in it? No, but Bunk from The Wire plays a bumbling, hacker-hating FBI agent, which is sorta fun.
How did it try to kill cyberpunk? Do you know how in like skiing movies everyone does nothing but talk about skiing? It’s like preparing to ski, skiing, talking about skiing, meeting other people who ski, talking about who’s better at skiing, skiing against other people who are good at skiing, hating the way they ski, out-skiing them, and then skiing into the sunset? And then you know how there are other movies like that in weird niches—sky-diving, playing the drums, cheerleading? This is that movie, for hacking.
Most Damningly 1995 Moment: There are almost too many contenders to this throne—at one point Trainspotting’s Jonny Lee Miller rollerblades down a ramp at a cool club for teenage hackers and plays the 1995 videogame Wipeout; also, the immaculately facial-haired antagonist skateboards around wearing these huge ‘90s vests that sort of look like curtains—but instead I’ll go with the fact that all the teens smoke. Like it’s not a big deal! Just high school students smoking cigarettes!

Strange Days

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Release Date: October 13, 1995
Culprit: It’s tempting to blame Jim Cameron, because he both produced and co-wrote this movie. But no, we’ve gotta blame Kathryn Bigelow, who had just finished her Near DarkthroughPoint Break hot streak and was just entering her pre-Hurt Locker quiet period.
Source Material: This was an original work by film-critic-turned-Oscar-bait writer Jay Cocks (Age of Innocence; Gangs of New York).
Cyberpunk Cred: The movie takes place in a filthy but surprisingly good-looking Los Angeles; Ralph Fiennes is in total mid-‘90s Fiennes form as a schlub who deals other people’s memories for other dystopian schlubs to get off on. He also gets off on them himself. There’s a lot of getting off in this movie, and that it so decidedly yanks that impulse together with virtual reality and digital culture is what makes it surprisingly relevant and also deeply unpleasant to watch.
Bill Fichtner? Friend, rest your weary eyes, for Bill Fichtner is in this movie.
How did it try to kill cyberpunk? The easy answer: it’s 150 fucking minutes long. The slightly more difficult answer: it promises cyberpunk fun and instead delivers appalling, prolonged first-person sequences of rape and murder, as evidence of an impending millennial apocalypse. Despite some earnest attempts to make all this ugliness relevant to the mid-‘90s—including police conspiracies to murder a prominent West coast rapper—the movie gets lost up its own ass, and so the snuff ends up just being snuff.
Most Damningly 1995 Moment: Four words: Juliette Lewis nude scene.

The verdict?
So, who actually killed cyberpunk? While every movie makes a compelling case, drastically mistaking the qualities that made the original fictions interesting a decade or so earlier, there can really be no argument. It is Brett Leonard, director of Virtuosity and Lawnmower Man. I lay the leather-clad corpse of an idea at your feet, you godless savage.


Clayton Purdom is a writer and editor living in Chicago. He is an Editor at Kill Screen and has written for the AV Club, Pitchfork, and Cokemachineglow. You can follow him on Twitter, where he’ll stand by everything he ever said about Gucci Mane.

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