We are in the middle of a cyberpunk resurgence and I am immensely thankful for it. The genre’s bleak aesthetic that blends old and new technology, such as landlines and virtual reality, inexplicably draws me in. Aside from the fact that I love science fiction, I can only assume the reason is because I grew up with the Wachowskis’ “Matrix” trilogy alongside the dial-up tones of AOL.
More recently I decided to explore the roots of what it’s like to live in a version of the future imagined in the 1980s. When CD Projekt Red, developers of the narrative-rich “The Witcher” series, announced in 2013 they were making a “Cyberpunk 2077” videogame I started my homework by reading William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash.” Now, thanks to creators realizing the subgenre’s potential, I’m indulging again.
Labels are loose and blurry but there are a few characteristics prevalent across film and literature. Chances are flying cars, flashy neon signs, artificial intelligence, augmented reality and cybernetics are there. But this is not the pristine Apple-inspired future like the one seen in Spike Jonze’s "Her."
There’s a gritty layer of filth, scum and villainy as megacorporations run the government and tattooed gangsters rule the streets. People still smoke cigarettes and use ashtrays while frequenting brothels covered in graffiti and half-torn posters. Common themes raise questions about humanity merging with technology, yet a heavy dose of classic noir is present. The protagonist can sometimes be found walking a rainy street—meaning society lacks weather control—while narrating.
Last year Hollywood gave us “Blade Runner 2049” and a live-action version of “Ghost in the Shell.” The former, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s cult classic, won two Academy Awards for its captivating visuals and cinematography. The first film didn’t warrant a second installment, but walking into that world again was a marvelous experience, even if the deliberately slow pacing dragged on a tad too long.
Though I didn’t see the latter because of whitewashing, I opted to watch the 1995 animated version instead. The idea of a human mind in an artificial body is always fascinating even if it didn’t exactly blow my mind with new topics since I saw it almost two decades after it came out.
Barely two months into this year Netflix released “Mute” and “Altered Carbon.” Duncan Jones, son of the late David Bowie, directed “Mute” as a spiritual successor to his critically acclaimed “Moon.” Jones lived in Berlin with his rock star dad and went to a college in the Amish countryside in Ohio, so in this version of the future the Amish have moved back to Germany and live as fish out of water in the advanced world.
As a kid Leo has his throat damaged in a freak boat accident, leaving him mute, but as an adult he always has a notepad on hand like a hard-boiled detective. Working as a bartender in the same seedy establishment his girlfriend Naadriah is a waitress, he turns into an investigator when she goes missing.
The vengeance story is flat and—as one can imagine—it’s hard to feel emotionally connected to a hero that doesn’t express his motivations well. However, the talking antagonists based on “M*A*S*H”’s Trapper and Hawkeye, played by Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux, are devilishly entertaining.
“Mute” fails in all of the areas where “Moon” succeeded, and vice versa. It has bad characters and decent world building whereas Sam Rockwell had a stellar performance while confined on a space station. "Mute" does little to flesh out the visual science fiction trappings.
Netflix’s other offering thankfully fares better. “Altered Carbon” focuses on Takeshi Kovacs, a soldier who was resurrected into a new body 250 years after he died. This is possible because in 2384 consciousness can be downloaded into disposable bodies called sleeves. Kovacs, now a prisoner lacking rights, is leased to solve his owner’s murder.
The concept of immortality produces a caste system of the haves and have-nots. A 7-year-old girl who died in a hit and run gets put into the sleeve of an old woman because the family can’t afford an upgrade. Gladiators fight to win better sleeves.
Above the dirty city, rich families live in art deco estates towering in clouds. They’re wealthy enough to afford infinite backups, downloading into a clone of the same body instead of whatever is available. This preserves mental stability as well as looks.
Meanwhile the devout are against the practice, wanting to uphold the sanctity of death and the afterlife. The conflicting factions and body swapping adds depth to the engrossing detective tale.
I still have a few episodes left in the season, but the show has plugged itself into my neck and completed installation. Here’s hoping it overclocks future cyberpunk creations.