We're in the last week before the final, actual launch of Cyberpunk 2077. After what feels like eons since that first trailer debuted in 2013, it will be playable by the general public on Dec. 10.
Cyberpunk as a genre, though, has been steadily rolling along in various media over the years. Its implementation varies, wrapping a general neo-future aesthetic in core themes of corporate greed, evolution and commodification of bodies, and surprisingly analog applications of digital tech.
As a genre, the term "cyberpunk" gets a little nebulous, but using those signposts we can establish a rough framework of both the must-see hallmarks and the less-appreciated works. Much like Mike outlined the samurai film you should watch if you vibe with Ghost of Tsushima, I'm here to lay out some great stuff to watch if you're in a Cyberpunk mood this weekend.
Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049
These might feel like obvious choices, but both Blade Runner films are seminal works, and rightfully so. The first, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford, is about a detective who pursues and "retires" (read: terminates) replicants—synthetic androids made to resemble humans—whose time is up. The sequel-of-sorts, Blade Runner 2049, is directed by Dennis Villeneuve and follows another detective who fills the role of "blade runner."
Both are great detective stories with a strong heaping of noir inspiration, as Ford's Rick Deckard and Ryan Gosling's K dive deeper and deeper into the intrigue surrounding their targets. They're also replete with cyberpunk visuals: massive advertisement laden buildings stretching into the sky, raising the wealthy above the smoldering din of the poor below.
Blade Runner also discusses the possibilities of futuristic technology, and their possible misuses, in a rewarding manner. The replicants are an obvious example, as Deckard and K both question what it means to be alive and what makes them different from their targets. K also has a virtual partner of sorts named Joi, an artificial intelligence designed to be an intangible but ever-present romantic companion. They're both very good and very worth your time, though in the original Blade Runner's case, you'll want to seek out the Director's Cut or other non-theatrical cuts. There are a lot of options, but just know, if Harrison Ford starts doing voice-overs during quiet moments, you should find a better version.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Yes, you should also watch 1995's incredibly influential Ghost in the Shell film, but I wanted to call special attention to Stand Alone Complex for a few reasons. Among them, the original Ghost in the Shell is good but brief; you don't really spend a lot of time with the characters or explore interesting aspects of the side characters' lives.
The episodic nature of Stand Alone Complex and its several seasons seem like a more natural fit for Cyberpunk 2077, an RPG that will have side quests and contained missions to complete. It also lets the team really explore individual issues, even denoting whether an episode is "stand alone" or not. Some of my favorite bits of Ghost in the Shell fiction come from this series, like the virtual chat room debate and the episode about one helicopter pilot that feels like an homage to Taxi Driver.
Both the first and second season, which is called 2nd GIG, are very worth your time. The Netflix follow-up SAC 2045 is a little bit more action-heavy, though it tries to grapple with some interesting subject matter as the season goes on.
If you're looking for a more lighthearted watch, this is the one. One bad brain trip sends Arnold Schwarzenegger into a violent caper on Mars, and a bonkers adventure ensues. This is the second movie on the list lifted from the works of Philip K. Dick; Blade Runner is based on "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", while Total Recall draws from "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.
Really, the star of the show is the special effects and sheer spectacle of what's happening. Director Paul Verhoeven dives into some real visual effects, toying with what a fluid, shifting vision of the future could be. If Cyberpunk 2077's "brain dances" are appealing subject matter to you, this is worth a watch.
Here's another anime series tackling cyberpunk subject matter that still feels underrated, if only because I don't hear someone mention it daily. Psycho-Pass is about a futuristic Japan that has seemingly created utopia under the rule of the Sibyl System, a computer network that scans citizens and dictates their lives.
These scans elicit "hues" and a Crime Coefficient, a number that predicts the citizen's potential to commit crimes. Inspectors track criminals down with the help of forcibly-employed Enforcers whose Crime Coefficients have already landed them in cuffs, their weapon of choice being the Dominator: a sidearm that can stun or even kill if their target's Crime Coefficient is high enough.
It's one of my favorite anime series of the last decade, expertly navigating and critiquing this futuristic law enforcement in ways that feel unsettlingly prescient. There are only slight lines to draw to anything shown in Cyberpunk 2077—mostly just the fast-responding, heavily armed private military forces of various corporations—but if you enjoy this genre or style of work, the first season is wholly worth your time.
I'm going to put it bluntly: too many people slept on Karl Urban's portrayal of the titular Judge in 2012's Dredd. Many probably remember the Sylvester Stallone version, but those who have seen Dredd know the truth of Urban's incredible portrayal of the ruthlessly punitive Judge.
Dredd falls into a genre I like to call Die Hard-likes; it centers around a day in the life of Judge Dredd, as he and a rookie Judge with telepathic powers fight through a mega-building slum called Peach Trees. Locked inside with the vicious Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), the two have no choice but to fight their way to the top and deliver judgement.
If you can't tell, I really dig this movie, and it's also a good tone piece for Cyberpunk. Mega-City One is a clear analog for Night City, and Dredd focuses on the criminal elements of Peach Trees in a way that feels similar to what CD Projekt Red is doing with the gangs of Night City. It's got plenty of futuristic weapons, too; a firefight where Dredd is rotating through his sidearm's various ammo types is a highlight of the film. Seriously, go watch this.
This one feels a little on-the-nose, but I'm putting it down anyways. The Matrix is a major piece of late '90s-early '00s pop culture, it's a brilliant movie, and it's about the dangers of tech and robots. It's also about identity and perception, Plato's allegory of the cave, and a whole lot of other stuff. It is cyberpunk, yes, but you should also just watch it because it's a valuable work to acquaint yourself with. It also has Keanu Reeves, much like...
This film mainly clears the low, low hurdle of having Keanu Reeves and being a cyberpunk movie. Johnny Mnemonic is about Reeves' Johnny, acting as a digital courier who carries sensitive data in his head. While it was critically planned, it has some pretty interesting avenues to explore in regards to body modification and how corporations commodify healthcare. I saw it young, and most of my memories were of Keanu Reeves donning what looks like an Oculus Rift and a pair of Nintendo Power Gloves. I'm planning on a refresher watch before Cyberpunk 2077, but go in knowing that it's definitely going to be much more "of the '90s" than The Matrix.
The end of the list is my last anime recommendation, and it's another classic. Akira is set in a similarly shitty future to most cyberpunk works, with lots of government and corporate mess, glowing advertisements lighting the streets at all hours of the night, and cutting-edge technology.
What makes Akira interesting to me, in the context of pre-Cyberpunk watching, is its examination of the city and its governing forces. Akira, the source calamity for the events of the film, is part of an experiment gone awry, and the chaos caused by the awakening of Tetsuo's latent esper abilities shows the ugly side of Neo-Tokyo's governing forces.
Akira is beautifully animated, well-told, and generally considered one of the best anime films ever made. It's so influential that many other forms of media have replicated protagonist Kaneda's signature motorbike, even—seemingly—Cyberpunk 2077. If you're okay with some occasionally icky body horror, Akira is something you need to watch.
There are a few more that could have made the cut but didn't, either by virtue of me having not got around to them yet (I've heard good things about Upgrade) or other works here broaching those topics better. "Cyberpunk" as a genre can encompass a lot, and it's easy to make arguments that a lot of dystopian fiction could easily find a spot on this list.
Cyberpunk 2077's universe looks to be grappling with many of the pillars we've laid out in the selections above, though. There are the overbearing corporations and their "corpo" pawns, happily wrapping up those beneath them in their schemes like in Blade Runner 2049 and Johnny Mnemonic; questions of reality and blurred virtual lines from The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell, and showing how the seedy underbelly wraps up the world around itself in Dredd.
Hopefully this list can serve as something of a thematic primer, if nothing else. Cyberpunk 2077 looks to be a big game and we haven't seen much of the main story outside virtual ghost Johnny Silverhand and his vendetta against the Arasaka corporation, but these movies and series should get you up to speed on where modern cyberpunk is and where 2077 might be headed.
Cyberpunk 2077 hits PS4, Xbox One, Stadia, and PC on Dec. 10.