1 – In his influential study Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, Scott Bukatman argues that “the real advent of cyberpunk, with the publication of [William Gibson’s] Neuromancer in 1984, was preceded by at least three films that, in varying ways, had a formative impact upon the cyberpunk aesthetic: Videodrome, Blade Runner,and TRON” (137).
And indeed, as Graham J. Murphy and I have argued elsewhere, “the initial (and most influential) ‘look’ of cyberpunk would be cemented” (102) by these three films, making them as essential and central to the mode as Gibson’s novel.2 It is hardly controversial that Blade Runner (Scott 1982) popularized cyberpunk visuals via its “never-ending cityscape, continuous rain and night, neon lighting, and teeming crowds” (Butler 121). Meanwhile, TRON’s (Lisberger 1982) depiction of a world “of abstract shapes, vibrant neon colors, and tessellated square grids” (M. Johnson 139) has irrevocably connected this visual with cyberspace. And lastly, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) not only connected the mode with body horror (especially prominent in Japanese cyberpunk), but was important for its grotesque representation of visceral technology “under our skin” (Sterling xiii), providing an early imaginary for human-machine synthesis.
For cyberpunk, these key elements (the urban sprawl, the nostalgic neon glow, human-machine synthesis, the abstraction of cyberspace) create a visual language, an aesthetic beyond any individual medium so recognizable that Paweł Frelik has claimed that “cyberpunk’s optical surfaces […are] its most enduring legacy” (81). Cyberpunk’s visuals are central to mapping new and digital worlds saturated with technology that have the potential to open up and redefine human experiences. Bukatman writes that “cyberpunk’s job [is] to perform an act of abstraction and intensification” of these worlds, “to perform that ‘bewildering’ new (corporate, physical, cyberspatial) space, and […] to generate simultaneously abstracted and compelling images emblematic of emerging world orders” (“Foreword” xvi, emphasis in original). Digital visual effects, that is those elements of film created by digital technology that move “away from live action and towards images that are highly designed and that can depart in many ways from camera reality” (Prince 2), push the envelope of what is possible in terms of performing new spaces, and generate ever more compelling images of our cyberpunk world.3
Digital visual effects disrupt the idea that film is a medium “conceived in terms of photographic facsimiles and the sobriety of a realist aesthetic” (Prince 2), highlighting an artificiality of the image that was always inherent in film from its earliest beginnings, but with digital technology becomes a prominent feature. Digital effects take this visual spectacle or artificiality—i.e., the aspect of film that ‘shows off’ technological developments and draws the eye of the ‘spectator’—not as a distraction from narrative caused by superficiality, but instead as “an index of ways in which technological imagery is becoming increasingly visible in the world of cinema” (Wood, Digital Encounters 43). Visual effects, then, have become so sophisticated that they “appear as indistinguishable at the level of representation” (Darley 108, emphasis in original). What is created digitally looks, to the viewer, as if it were “ontologically coextensive with” (Darley 108) the actors and their surroundings. Much as the ‘real’ and ‘simulation’ are ontological spaces placed under considerable pressure by cyberpunk, so too are digital and analog ‘reality’ in film seamlessly integrated into one diegetic world, creating a new aesthetic of verisimilitude, or “a super-realism given over to rendering the fantastic with the surface accuracy associated with photography” (Darley 115). It is no longer “possible to separate representation from reality” (Vint, “Afterword” 231). As a result, virtuality and reality, information and materiality are cognitively processed as one, thus destabilizing all ontological categories. Digital visual effects provide cyberpunk film with the ideal tool in which to express its visual aesthetic via the blurring of categories, be they representations of past, present, and future, the spatial distinction of digital and material worlds, or the boundaries of human and machine.
1. History and Nostalgia
Cyberpunk’s claim to revolutionary politics and its anti-establishment and anti-corporatism have long been disproven4 and, as Frelik has argued, this extends to its visual aesthetics, which “align with [cyberpunk’s] conservatism and reactionary stances” (93). The mode’s visuals are instead oriented towards romantic notions of a future imagined in the past, “a retrofuturistic gesture,” such as Blade Runner’s revisiting of 1950s noir, that Frelik connects with “visual nostalgia” and a “collapse of historicity” (93). Through digital visual effects, cyberpunk enhances this nostalgia, which Fredric Jameson describes as “the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past” (19). Jameson goes so far as to claim that cyberpunk film makes use of “the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion” (17). Cyberpunk’s retrofuturism can thus be understood to form intertextual and hypertextual recursivity, technologically made feasible by the use of digital visual effects. As Andrew Darley has pointed out, films that rely heavily on digital visual effects seem to promote a form of “self-reference (both backwards and sideways) to already existing images and image forms” (102–03). Take, for example, the Wachoswskis’ The Matrix and its franchise, which includes the sequels The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003), a number of animated films collected as The Animatrix (2003), a series of comics, and several video games. This transmedial franchise intertextually plays with allusions to classic literature, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) or L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (1900), Jean Baudrillard’s concept of simulacra, the cyberpunk aesthetic of Blade Runner’s retro-noir themes, Chinese martial arts films’ style of action sequences, and Ghost in the Shell’s (Oshii 1995) philosophical posthumanism.
It is Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017), however, that best showcases the impact of the digital to perform “acts of manipulation and recombination, and efforts aimed at further ‘perfecting’ and simulating the already mediated” (Darley 75) in order to satisfy this visual nostalgia. The original Blade Runner is famously already an example of postmodern challenges to historical authenticity, with a visual aesthetic that is “hybrid, made up of citation, quotation, reference, and pastiche” (Flisfeder, Postmodern Theory 93). Driven by this wish for ‘perfecting the already mediated’ it has been edited and re-edited into at least half a dozen different versions over the past four decades. In his study Postmodern Theory and Blade Runner (2017), Matthew Flisfeder shows that with each version the film’s meaning is rewritten, making possible “an evacuation of the past—of history” (92), and changing the meaning of the film and turning it into an infinite “work in progress, still caught in a perpetual present” (98).
Blade Runner 2049 continues this historical evacuation by providing a re-writing of Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael’s (Sean Young) relationship, refusing to acknowledge any ‘truth’ and instead inserting ambivalence about their ontological status. In a scene between the aged Deckard and Nyander Wallace (Jared Leto), Wallace plays Deckard an audio recording of his first meeting with Rachael (which then triggers his memory of her first appearance) and then questions its historical reliability: “Did it never occur to you, that’s why you were summoned in the first place? Designed to do nothing short of fall for her, right then and there. All to make that single, perfect… specimen. That is, if you were designed. Love, or mathematical precision.” Questioning Deckard’s status as “designed,” is, of course, a reference to the most famous interpretational debate in Blade Runner lore, whether Deckard is a replicant or not—based on the inclusion or excision of specific scenes from the different versions of the original film (see Flisfeder 92). But this dialogue also re-writes the history proposed by the original film by again suggesting Deckard may not be a replicant after all, once again remaking the entire franchise’s meaning.
Blade Runner 2049 goes further, though, making use of digital visual effects to throw into question its representation of reality. Wallace offers Deckard the chance to be with ‘his’ Rachael, a clone of the original replicant, the film digitally mapping Sean Young’s 1982 appearance (retrofuturistic clothing and hair styles included) onto the motion-capture of actress Loren Peta. The digital technology (intradiegetically in the form of cloning and via digital mapping in terms of its film production) opens the possibility of another nostalgic rewriting of history—due to Rachael’s pregnancy, Deckard had to forfeit his chance to have a life with her, which now again seems to be within reach. But Deckard realizes the emptiness of this nostalgia and rejects the clone by leaving and commenting on its inauthenticity: “Her eyes were green.” While the technique of digital mapping is not specific to cyberpunk, its use here in the context of a meta-commentary on the valence of different representations of events, marks it as a deliberate ‘act of manipulation’ that showcases the retrofuturist aesthetic of cyberpunk.
A similar conservative retrofuturism can be found throughout the film in the historical cannibalization of cyberpunk aesthetics in its mise-en-scène. This is obvious in Wallace’s headquarters, externally reinterpreting the visually unique architecture of Tyrell’s pyramid from Blade Runner, as well as the color palette and indirect noir-inspired lighting of its interiors. It can be found in the repetition and reinterpretation of the iconic fashion of the original film, from Tyrell’s elaborate robe to Rachael’s business outfit to the street fashion of the masses. But the film also moves beyond a mere refashioning of its original, instead nostalgically alluding to specific moments in U.S. history, revealing continuous retrofuturistic tendencies in our current imaginations of the future. Digital companion Joi (Ana de Armas), for example, greets K (Ryan Gosling) in perfect mid-20th-century housewife mode, simulating the preparation of a home cooked meal and offering to mend his clothes; the music playing is Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” from 1966, and Joi is sporting a lace blouse, petticoat, short apron, pearl necklace, and bunned up hair. The image of gender roles, telegraphed by these cinematic markers, points towards the simulacrum of simpler times, all made possible by the film’s (retro)futuristic promise of digital technology, as Joi is a fully programmable digital companion that offers “everything you want to hear / everything you want to see.”
The nostalgic impulse at the heart of this retrofuturism creates false longing for something that never existed; the simulacrum reveals its emptiness in the digital visual effects of the film. Blade Runner 2049 reimagines Las Vegas, arguably the city most associated with mediation and technological spectacle, in ruins and glitching. As Lily Loofborouw writes: “2049’s Las Vegas is magnificent—and so fractured and anxious and elegiac about the past that even the hologram recreations of Elvis keeps blinking in and out.” Elvis’s holographic performance shows the artist at the zenith of his career. It is a denial of history in its erasure of the artist’s subsequent drug-abuse and downfall and a synecdoche for the inauthenticity of Las Vegas, or even the United States of America as a whole. This is the cyberpunk aesthetic expressing a breakdown of historical realities, by channeling Las Vegas’s simulacrum of Elvis, digitally conserved and rearranged into perceived perfection, and yet fragmenting and glitching, not an outlook onto a radical future of digital technologies but a disintegrating image of the imagined and idealized past.
2. Hacking and Video Games
Digital visual effects do not just allow cyberpunk film to question the authenticity of history, but also the distinctions between worlds, as the fully immersive digital worlds imagined by cyberpunk fiction have become reality. The simulated spaces of video games are immersive and navigable through virtual reality (VR) gear and feature graphics that easily compare to those of cinematic productions.5 The created worlds of both film and video game grow increasingly synonymous, with actors being mapped, motion-captured, and rendered in ‘super-realism.’ Similarly, digitally created settings and technologies link the imaginaries of science fiction in both video games and film. Video games and digital effects in cinema converge in their production processes and aesthetics, as well as in terms of their consumer experiences. Video games have long featured cinematic cut-scenes and extended storylines to motivate player-actions and create the semblance of Hollywood style continuity, while cinema enhances its immersive potential through the use of 3D technologies, which purportedly draw viewers into the filmic action modeled after video game sequences. And both, games and film, attempt to render living in today’s media- and technology-saturated world, which Sherryl Vint has described as “an everted cyberpunk world in which cyberspace permeates and shapes our experience of material reality” (“Cyberwar” 254). It is through cyberpunk’s visual aesthetic in TRON that a conflation between cyberspace, game space, and hacking occurs—a conflation that represents how inseparable our material lives become from their digital counterparts.
As Mark R. Johnson argues, it fell to TRON “to provide the visual reference points that would dominate later depictions of cyberspace” (139), both in film and game depictions of the virtual spaces. Moreover, the film took its neon-outlined, abstracted geometric forms and the grid layout as a representation of internal computer processes and conflates them with gaming mechanics—taking over (i.e. hacking) systems becomes a matter of defeating the opponent in game-like battles. The Matrix continues this conflation of cyberspace and gaming mechanics by presenting the action of stealing data as a heist, rendering conflict with programs as martial arts fights and processing the navigation of new environments via mini-game routines such as The Woman in Red—all of which are testament that hacking and gaming remain visually connected. In addition, the visual aesthetic of the grid, used to provide cyberspatial markers of distance (Johnson 140), is merely invoked by the white room ‘construct’ in which visual orientation is impossible—precisely because it is missing those grid markers. Instead, the typical grid is transformed by adding a new element to cyberpunk’s visual aesthetic: green rows of glyphs represent the underlying code of the virtual world, the glowing marks raining down the screen becoming synonymous with systematic control, out of reach, hidden and only made visible by the hacker. Therefore, when Neo unlocks his god-like hacking potential at the end of the movie, the indistinguishable nature of the virtual world falls away and he ‘sees’ it as code, the agents and his environment neatly mapping as green lines of glyphs onto the grid of the Matrix—shapes made of code determining and highlighting the constructedness of reality.
It is this image of hidden computer processes and systemic control made visible by hacking and the representation of virtual environments that is one of the most compelling arguments for a lasting impact of the cyberpunk visual aesthetic. As Anna McFarlane has pointed out, “themes and cinematic techniques associated with cyberpunk” have been used in films with “a realist context” (236). Hacking and its consequences, for example, are visualized using a cyberpunk aesthetic in films such as Blackhat (Mann 2015), where a criminal mastermind has been able to insert a backdoor program into essential systems controlling infrastructure in the real world. The opening sequence demonstrates the interconnection of digital and material worlds by referencing TRON’s image of the city at night, lights and power infrastructure becoming a grid that directs our life.6 Blackhat then digitally transports the viewer onto the microscopic level of the computer system, by zooming through and into the computer screen, to the level of electrons firing through circuits. The shot tracks a rushing and focusing movement first via cables onto the main board, then into a processor unit and onto the layer of printed circuits. The imagery is reminiscent of cyberpunk’s navigation of game space: in its movement of flying over digital landscapes; in its color scheme, which flickers neon blue as energy pulses through the system; and in its geometric design, each bit of information a neat square pulsing in a grid. When the hack is executed, pulses of white light flood through the levels of the computer system, raining down just like the glyphs that determine the cyberspatial reality in The Matrix. A zoom out reveals the impact of the code, a glitch on the screen as the read-out becomes unreliable, no longer showing that the turbines of a nuclear reactor cooling system are malfunctioning. By rendering the cyberpunk aesthetic through digital visual effects, Blackhat reveals the interconnection of digital and analog worlds, highlighting the everted nature of cyberspace and the interdependence of processes on the virtual and material levels. The image of a hidden world of code that rules our material reality, controlled by simple, game-like instructions, is frightening and in the film used to visualize our fear of unknown power systems that control our world.
This frightful reality is even more relevant when one explores “the ways that cyberpunk, digital gaming, and military training converge” (Vint, “Cyberwar” 257) to mediate our experience of war. Vint argues that military programs, especially the use of drones, are rendered through digital visual effects in terms of gaming and virtual worlds, thus linking them to cyberpunk aesthetics. In films such as Good Kill (Niccol 2014) or Eye in the Sky (Hood 2015), the images used to portray drone navigation and strike situations reveal how material and virtual worlds connect to form a hidden, and equally brutal, system of power relations. The drone operators in both films enact what N. Katherine Hayles describes as “embodied virtuality” which constitutes a material “presence […] always already penetrated by the virtuality of information” (153, emphasis in original). When steering a drone over their respective war theatres, the pilots are reliant on a virtual stream of information that the satellites in orbit provide. They are aided by information officers that confirm identification, as well as navigators that track the drone’s flight relative to its geographical locations and the satellite’s imagery. In the process of embodied virtuality at work here, all three become dehumanized as parts of the complex military-industrial system that operates the drone and processes the orders that come down the chain of command. But moreover, not just the operators become dehumanized, as McFarlane has argued for Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow 2012): the distance created by the surveillance technology shifts the “nature of the field situation,” which is watched as mediated images, into the realm of “virtual reality” (249). The drone gaze, according to Jennifer Rhee, makes illegible human difference, reducing its targets to abstract objects: The “cybernetic impulse to render all things not just knowable, but knowable in specifically mathematical, formulaic ways, echoes in drone labor, which requires a similar abstraction and reduction of complexity and difference” (142). The embodied virtuality of the drone operators simultaneously abstracts and enhances the view, on the one hand using the technology’s “scale at which individuals are largely indistinguishable from one another and look more like insects” (Rhee 161), while at the same time enhancing the image with information about the likelihood of casualties and damage estimates. The overlay of information that informs drone decision-making as depicted in Good Kill or Eye in the Sky, the added layer of data provided by hidden systems of power, is reminiscent of cyberpunk aesthetics in video games, the cyborgized head-up display (HUD) allowing players to better navigate the game space and eliminate their targets, whose rules are determined by the code of its programming.
3. Cyborgs and Technology
Thematically, the image of drone operators as technologically enhanced cyborgs in embodied virtuality goes hand in hand with another aspect of the cyberpunk aesthetic, even when the films mentioned do not promote the idea visually. As argued above, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is one of the most important cyberpunk films, especially due to its commentary on society’s oversaturation with media and the impossibility of accessing a distinguishable reality. In addition, though, the film provides an essential trajectory to the cyberpunk aesthetic in its embrace of body horror tropes and its depiction of human becoming-machine. As Bukatman claims for postmodern sf, especially cyberpunk: “In the era of terminal identity, the body has become a machine, a machine that no longer exists in dichotomous opposition to the ‘natural’ and unmediated existence of the subject” (244). He continues that “a new, hard-wired subjectivity” is formed by the “fusion of being and electronic technology” (244), but one which is threatened by a “crisis of meaning and definition” (247). In order to function in a technologically saturated cyberpunk world, the body thus has to “become a cyborg” and be “resituated in technological space and refigured in technological terms” (247).
Cronenberg literalizes this image and refigures the body of his protagonist Max Renn (James Woods) by opening him up to the “conditions of universal technological penetration and colonization” (Beard 124). After having been subjected to the mind and body altering influence of Videodrome, Max awakens with a vaginal slit in his stomach, into which over the course of the film several objects are inserted that then begin to exert their technological influence over him. On the one hand, Max fuses with video technology, being inserted with writhing, living VHS tapes which program him to perform certain actions, such as killing his colleagues. On the other hand, he also fuses with his gun, inserted by accident, which reappears later and sprouts mechanical connections directly into his body. He becomes a cyborg, the fusion with the technologies driving him “further and further from stable identity and meaning […and] experiencing the inexorable crumbling and collapse of his personality” (Beard 124).
Visually, these fusions are based in horror, showing grotesque transformations and meldings of the mechanical with the biology of Max’s body—an imagery picked up on by Japanese cyberpunk, in films such as Akira (Otomo 1988) or Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Tsukamoto 1989), both of which feature cancerous growths of cells infused with wires and mechanical parts (see Player).7 While the image of the human-machine hybrid became part of the cyberpunk aesthetic, it was decoupled from its more horrific images of cancerous growth and bodily abjection, instead focusing on the power of technological weaponry and its integration with the human, resulting in a wave of cyborg warriors that combine flesh and metal—for example, The Terminator (Cameron 1984), RoboCop (Verhoeven 1987), and Cyborg (Pyun 1989). These films visually center on the fascination and/or rejection of the cyborg imaginary as “the self-sufficient, self-generated Tool in all of its infinite but self-identical variations” (xv), which Donna J. Haraway connects to both military and entertainment worlds. These cyborg bodies represent the male fantasy of bodily control and power, allowing for their ‘breaking down’ only in a tightly controlled and self-determined manner, as seen in scenes of the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in the Terminator series slowly peeling back skin from his arm or face, revealing the hardened metal shell underneath, to repair itself—its functionality and self-control never questioned.
In the last few years, cyberpunk films have pushed the boundary of their aesthetic in how they present cyborg bodies as entities that cross boundaries between categories such as living/dead, material/virtual, organic/machinic. Ghost in the Shell (Sanders 2017), for example, opens with Major Mira Killian’s (Scarlett Johansson) human brain being encased in and connected to a machine chassis, the tendrils of its artificial nerves self-guiding towards their counterparts. The machine body then passes through several fluids to ‘grow’ a skin, whose outermost shell it ‘sheds’—the whole process rather more a natural birth than a machinic assembly. The camera lingers for a moment on the fissures of parts not having fully and seamlessly assembled, contrastively highlighting the artificial nature of the cyborg’s construction, before the finished cyborg rises into the light. The mixture of digital cinematic cues, hinting towards categories of both natural and artificial creation, is purposefully used to undermine categorial expectations and instead reveals the transgressive nature of the cyborg in Haraway’s feminist concept of the figure.8
Alita: Battle Angel (Rodriguez 2019) opens with a similar ‘construction scene’: after Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) has found Alita’s (Rosa Salazar) head and spine on the scrapyard, he (re-)assembles her in his workshop and fits her with a new body, the camera focusing on the detail of reattached wires, stitched skin, and metallic plates clicking into form. The artificiality of the body’s construction in the scene is counteracted by the super-realist verisimilitude of the child-like human face attached to the cyborg head and by Ido and his assistant (Idara Victor) treating the cyborg as a child, Ido even asking “What are you dreaming, little angel?” when he notices rapid-eye movement. Again, the digital effects allow for a crossing of boundaries, suggesting Alita is both a human child and a machine, both ‘healed’ and constructed in this scene. The film also flaunts its digital visual effects, highlighting its artifice and spectacle already in the protagonist, whose appearance has been adapted from the original Gunnm (1990–95) manga by Yukito Kishiro. Alita’s exaggerated eyes mark her as a digital creation, but the super-realism of her features, digitally mapped from actress Rosa Salazar, nevertheless produces a realistic mimetic accuracy. The equilibrium between denying and flaunting Alita’s artificiality is upheld throughout the movie, in terms of story and thematics, as well as in its visual presentation. This becomes obvious in the film’s pivotal fight scene with cyborg Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), in which Alita’s child body is ripped apart, slashed into pieces by Grewishka’s grind cutters, fingers that extend into bladed whips. The fight scene is spectacular, making use of digitally rendered 3D and slow-motion shots of the blades whipping towards Alita and the viewer. When Alita launches herself at Grewishka, his blades form a spiral and slash through Alita’s body, fragmenting it—the film renders this quite explicitly, Alita remains only torso and one arm, showing her constructed nature.
Overall, Alita: Battle Angel highlights the fragmented and constructed bodies of cyborgs, making a spectacle of bodies torn apart and ripped open, shredded and slashed—a visual aesthetic that returns to its body horror roots, mitigated only by the fact that these bodies are clearly machines. The film does not stop with cyborg bodies either, showing Ido’s wife Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) fragmented into internal organs (lungs, brain, eyes still blinking) ready to become biomedical experimentation or separating Hugo’s (Keean Johnson) head in order to attach it to a cyborg body. Alita: Battle Angel¸Ghost in the Shell, and numerous other films show that the body, in classic cyberpunk tradition, is no more than meat or metal that can be sacrificed or discarded if need be, and digital visual effects allow for the films to make this explicit, highlighting the construction of these bodies and justifying the viewer’s fascination with the monstrous cyborg.
The visual aesthetics in cyberpunk cinema, particularly those films reliant on digital visual effects, include a variety of films (and other media products), not all of them science fictional, further problematizing the idea of cyberpunk-as-genre.9 In this regard, the one film of recent years that best embodies the question of “is this cyberpunk?” is Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ready Player One (2018). In terms of its story and tone, the film is geared towards younger audiences: a coming-of-age narrative couple with a typical quest fantasy. The film ticks off some thematic cyberpunk markers, such as a greedy corporation that dominates the market and a virtual world into which to escape, but these are offset by themes taken from fantasy, such as the quest for three keys, wizards and magic, overcoming obstacles, and apotheosis. On the level of its visual aesthetics, however, Ready Player One is more convincingly cyberpunk: its digital visual effects retrofuturistically recreate cultural artifacts from yesteryear—the allusions and cannibalizations of past visual styles can be vertigo-inducing, and one of its key scenes literally places the protagonists in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). The future portrayed in Ready Player One is a wistful vision of the past, digitally reassembling the 1980s in a simulacrum filtered through the lens of unapologetic nostalgia. In addition, even though it is mostly tinged with themes from fantasy, the virtual world of the Oasis is at times indistinguishable from the real world. Though most spaces are games-oriented and recreated to look artificial, several scenes portray locations in which its virtuality is undetectable, such as James Halliday’s (Mark Rylance) childhood bedroom. What is real and what is virtual becomes a central argument in the film and is used as part of the quest to win the prize, digital control of the Oasis that will inexplicably effect material change in what is shown to be a largely destitute ‘real’ world. And lastly, all of the characters show a strong affiliation with the image of the cyborg, not only in that they are digitally mapped and created by computers, but also in that within the Oasis, each character has another layer of digital information at their disposal in which applications, weapons, appearances, or vehicles can be stored. Much like military drone operators can call up their protocols on their HUDs, so too can Oasis users access their added resources via HUD and directly connect each character to their digital inventory, making them part of an embedded virtuality. In spite of the obvious fantasy chassis that governs the diegetic level, Ready Player One’s visual aesthetics ensures the film uses cyberpunk as a marker to generate meaning and to tie it to discourses on virtuality.
In sum, digital effects, particularly in cyberpunk film, have pushed the boundaries of the representational in a way that analog film never could, allowing for its “ocularity” (Frelik 81) to move to the fore, defining its connection to the mode. This has allowed films to become explicitly more self-referential, intertextually referencing and cannibalizing other films and media so as to promote cyberpunk’s own retrofuturistic nostalgia. It has allowed an exploration of cyberspace as game space, drawing attention to the everted nature of cyberspace and its connection to our real, material world. And, by extension, the cyberpunk visual aesthetic has spread into non-sf film, underlining how realist and science-fictional representations converge. And lastly, digital visual effects’ ability to render the human in fantastic form has allowed cyberpunk’s central thematic—i.e., the convergence of biological and machinic in the figure of the cyborg—to move to the fore with film’s now exploring the (de-) construction of bodies. Digital visual effects showcase the visual aesthetic that binds cyberpunk into a productive mode, moving beyond the “inherent arbitrariness and instability of thematic markers” and finally allowing us to talk about cyberpunk in “the only productive approach” (Frelik 94) there is.
1. This essay has seen several iterations and was only possible with the guidance of my co-editors Graham J. Murphy and Anna McFarlane, and the honest and insightful review provided by Sherryl Vint. For this, I am grateful.
2. For more detail on early cyberpunk film and these initial influences, see Andrew M. Butler’s contribution to this collection.
3. As Stephen Prince points out, “digital imaging tools permeated all phases of filmmaking” (4), thus a category such as “digital film” is invariably too vague to be used, as it could be applied to almost any film made today. Instead, I focus on “digital visual effects” as opposed to photographic realism, noticing the caveat that “clear boundaries between the domains often do not exist” (Prince 4). Explicitly blurring these boundaries and foregrounding the indistinguishability of digital and analog is precisely the purpose of digital visual effects in cyberpunk film. [AM1] [GJM2]
4. See Frelik; for more detail, see Butler’s analysis of early cyberpunk film and its connection to Reaganite neoliberalism or Hugh O’Connell’s analysis cyberpunk and marxism in this collection.
5. For more detail on the concept of simulation and its connection to cyberspace and gaming, see Rebecca Haar and Anna McFarlane’s entry in this collection. For an analysis of cyberpunk video games, see Paweł Frelik’s chapter in this collection.
6. TRON conflates computer electronics representing the data grid with the city’s grid of streets and buildings at night, thus blurring the boundary of material and virtual worlds. The visual overlay is repeated twice in the film, once as a bookend final scene, and again when the CEO of ENCOM, Ed Dillinger (David Warner), flies over the city grid with a neon-outlined helicopter, the red outlines of its blade and chassis aligning him with the Master Control Program, which in the filmic cyberspace is represented by its programmer—also played by Warner—further conflating material and virtual worlds and their organizational structures.
7. For more detail on Japanese cyberpunk, see the various chapters in this collection by Brian Ruh, Kumiko Saito, Shige (CJ) Suzuki, and Martin de la Iglesia and Lars Schmeink.
8. For more detail on cyborg feminism and the cyborg’s connection to posthumanism, see Patricia Melzer and Julia Grillmayr’s chapters in this collection respectively.
9. For an explanation of the friction between thinking of cyberpunk as a genre vs. thinking of it as a mode, please see Anna McFarlane, Graham J. Murphy, and Lars Schmeink’s “Cyberpunk as Cultural Formation” that opens this collection.
- Alita: Battle Angel. Directed by Robert Rodriguez, performances by Rosa Salazar and Christoph Waltz, 20thCentury Fox, 2019.
- Beard, William. The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg. Toronto UP, 2006.
- Black Hat. Directed by Michael Mann, performances by Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, and Wei Tang, Universal, 2015.
- Blade Runner 2049. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, performances by Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, and Robin Wright, Alcon Entertainment/Columbia Pictures/Sony, 2018.
- Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Duke UP, 1993.
- —. “Foreword: Cyberpunk and its Visual Vicissitudes.” Cyberpunk and Visual Culture, edited by Graham J. Murphy and Lars Schmeink, Routledge, 2018, pp. xv-xix.
- Butler, Andrew M. “Early Cyberpunk Film.” The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, edited by Anna McFarlane, Graham J. Murphy, and Lars Schmeink, Routledge, 2020, pp. xx-xx
- Darley, Andrew. Visual Digital Culture: Surface Play and Spectacle in New Media Genres. Routledge, 2000.
- Flisfeder, Matthew. Postmodern Theory and Blade Runner. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.
- Frelik, Paweł. “‘Silhouettes Of Strange Illuminated Mannequins’: Cyberpunk’s Incarnations of Light.” Cyberpunk and Visual Culture, edited by Graham J. Murphy and Lars Schmeink, Routledge, 2018, pp. 80–99.
- Ghost in the Shell. Directed by Rupert Sanders, performances by Scarlett Johansson and Pilou Asbaek, Paramount Pictures/DreamWorks/Alliance Entertainment, 2017.
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- Loofbourow, Lily. “Blade Runner 2049 is so nostalgic it hurts.” The Week, 06 Oct. 2017, theweek.com/articles/729283/blade-runner-2049-nostalgic-hurts.
- The Matrix. Directed by the Wachowskis, performance by Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, and Carrie-Anne Moss, Warner Brothers, 1999.
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- Player, Mark. “Post-Human Nightmares—The World of Japanese Cyberpunk Cinema.” Midnight Eye, 13 May, 2011. midnighteye.com/features/post-human-nightmares-the-world-of-japanese-cyberpunk-cinema/.
- Prince, Stephen. Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality, Rutgers UP, 2012.
- Rhee, Jennifer. The Robotic Imaginary: The Human & The Price of Dehumanized Labor. U of Minnesota P, 2018.
- Sterling, Bruce. Preface. Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, edited by Bruce Sterling, Ace, 1986, pp. ix-xvi.
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- Sonja Smits, Filmplan International/Guardian Trust Company/Canadian Film Development Corporations/Famous Players Limited, 1983.
- Vint, Sherryl. “Afterword: The World Gibson Made.” Beyond Cyberpunk: New Critical Perspectives, edited by Graham J. Murphy and Sherryl Vint, Routledge, 2010, pp. 228–33.
- —. “Cyberwar: The Convergence of Virtual and Material Battlefields in Cyberpunk Cinema.” Cyberpunk and Visual Culture, edited by Graham J. Murphy and Lars Schmeink, Routledge, 2018, pp. 253–75.
- Wood, Aylish. Digital Encounters, Routledge, 2007.
- —. “Vectorial Dynamics: Transtextuality and Complexity in the Matrix.” The Matrix Trilogy: Cyberpunk Reloaded, edited by Stacy Gillis, Wallflower, 2005, pp. 11–22.
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