Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cyberpunk at the Movies

What do the following four movies have in common?

If you said Jason Statham, you're 3/4s correct (Statham didn't appear in Death Race 2, which is a prequel to Death Race).

If you're into movie soundtracks you might guess "all four movies were scored by Paul Haslinger (ex-Tangerine Dream)". And despite impressing me, you'd still only be 3/4s correct -- Haslinger did brilliant scores for Crank and the Death Race movies, but Crank 2 was scored by the one and only Mike Patton (Mr. Bungle, Faith No More). Which was a good choice given the amount of over-the-top mayhem in the film.

This is admittedly a highly-subjective appraisal, but I would submit that these are four of the best cyberpunk movies to come out of the studios in recent years.

"Cyberpunk?" you say, incredulously. Yes, cyberpunk. Here's a few selection lines from the Wikipedia article on the topic:

Giant, multinational corporations have for the most part replaced governments as centers of political, economic, and even military power.

... many cyberpunk protagonists are manipulated, placed in situations where they have little or no choice, and although they might see things through, they do not necessarily come out any further ahead than they previously were. These anti-heroes--"criminals, outcasts, visionaries, dissenters and misfits" call to mind the private eye of detective novels. This emphasis on the misfits and the malcontents is the "punk" component of cyberpunk.

The settings are usually post-industrial dystopias but tend to be marked by extraordinary cultural ferment and the use of technology in ways never anticipated by its creators ("the street finds its own uses for things"). Much of the genre's atmosphere echoes film noir, and written works in the genre often use techniques from detective fiction.

Of course, I am (what fun!) picking and choosing and ignoring certain elements like direct neural connection into a mutual hallucination (ie, "cyberspace") and god-like Artificial Intelligences who manipulate humans for their own unknowable ends. But cyberpunk isn't a hard, fast set of rules; it's a set of (highly engaging) tropes that tend to pull us into the struggle of the "little man" against The System, and (we hope) allows us to share as he ultimately raises a defiant middle finger to the Powers That Be.

It's good stuff. And while I don't want to give away any spoilers, every one of these four movies tips its hat in one way or another to William Gibson (Neuromancer), Richard Kadrey (Metrophage), and Neil Stephenson (Snow Crash). Street culture, "grunge" technology, a manipulated anti-hero who nonetheless manages to "win" in some manner -- it's all there.

Crank 2 -- arguably the most outrageous of the four films, features a great musical score plus a number of cameos by some interesting figures in the music industry, namely Maynard James Keenan (Tool, A Perfect Circle), Danny Lohner (Nine Inch Nails), and Chester Bennington (Linkin Park).

It's just nice to see cyberpunk done right. It's been attempted before -- Vin Diesel's Babylon A. D. (2008) comes to mind, and the post-apocalytic Eastern Europe in the first half was quite well-done. But once the action shifted to New York, things quickly slid downhill.

Finally -- while we're on the topic of cyberpunk -- it's strange to me to hear people refer to Bladerunner as a "cyberpunk masterpiece". The Syd Mead production design gave the movie a dark, noir-ish texture that had something of a cyberpunk "feel" to it, no argument there. But the actual plot of the movie itself was basically "cop tracks down bad guys". And -- maybe this is just me -- the first time I saw it, I found myself hoping that Rutger Hauer would kick Harrison Ford's ass.

I've noticed this tendency of late for high school english teachers to put Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep on student reading lists, and it makes me wonder if there is a sad "group-think" dynamic going on here. Dick wrote a lot of books, and DADoES is most certainly not one of his better works; it's simply (thanks to Bladerunner) his most well-known book. He's written much, much better: A Maze of Death and UBIK come to mind, as does A Scanner Darkly, which is a dark, serious book about Dick's life in the 70's drug culture that carries an anti-drug message about as strong as Hubert Selby Jr.'s Requiem for a Dream -- yet I fear that most people won't read the entire book and thus miss the point. It reminds me of that time in 1999 when David Howard, aide to the mayor of Washington, D. C., used the word "niggardly" while discussing a budget.

Of course, no discussion of cyberpunk in the movies would be complete without a mention of The Matrix.

I can't resist a final comment: if you like cyberpunk or the Death Race or Crank movies, you owe it to yourself to check out Richard Kadrey's novel Sandman Slim:

“The most hard-boiled piece of supernatural fiction I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. … all confident and energetic and fresh and angry. I loved this book and all its screwed-up people.” (Cory Doctorow)

“The best B movie I’ve read in at least twenty years. An addictively satisfying, deeply amusing, dirty-ass masterpiece, Sandman Slim swerves hell-bent through our culture’s impacted gridlock of genres…it’s like watching Sergio Leone and Clive Barker co-direct from a script by Jim Thompson and S. Clay Wilson.” (William Gibson)

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