Cyberpunk Playlist: Beyond Neon (MUSE)

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The Matrix” characters Neo and Trinity are shown with weaponry after an action sequence. Played by Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss respectively, the actors worked together closely in many scenes.

In 1999 The Wachowskis released the Matrix, an anime and Hong Kong action inspired sci-fi film borrowing philosophical terms and names to speak about free will, the digital world and as one of the directors would later reveal, trans identity. What sounds like a predetermined flop, or at least an incredibly niche film, grew into a sensation, grossing 460 million dollars at the box office and producing video games, animated spinoffs and of course plenty of sequels. 

The Matrix wasn’t the first of its genre however, with the film Blade Runner and manga Akira both releasing in 1982 and establishing the sub-genre we now call cyberpunk. A science fiction subgenre exploring how the advancement of technology could further hinder, rather than reduce, the issues society faces today, typically with plenty of flashing neon lights and ads cluttering city skylines. It’s flashy, sometimes thrilling, other times extremely occupied with pretentious philosophical tangents, but never boring. So in celebration of Matrix Resurrections coming out today here is a playlist of all sorts of cyberpunk films to muse over!

Hi! I’m Jillian, and this December I’ll be reviewing “The Matrix,” recipient of the 2000 Empire Award for Best Film.

 

“The Matrix” was made to be iconic: it was a visually revolutionary, cyberpunk jewel of the sci-fi genre with a star-studded cast and fight choreography heavily influenced by martial arts animation. The premise surrounded the idea that life was all a simulation (pretty meta for 1999). As someone who’s criminally short attention span makes complicated plots fly over her head, I was able to stay engaged for two reasons. One, cinematographer Bill Pope explored new film techniques, most notably the now-popular visual effect “bullet-time.” This allowed certain characters with heightened perception to view action scenes in slow motion while the camera seems to move at a normal speed (the sped-up motions of other characters then appeared normal). This allowed for new realms of indirect characterization, as the directors could now make individual characters’ advanced perceptions of action scenes apparent to the viewer. 

Two, lead costume designer Kym Barrett’s work, which I believe is a commentary on sustainability and had a definite impact on the fashion industry. In “The Matrix,” costumes in the non-simulated “real world” are faded, distressed and blue-washed, reflecting both the direness of the apocalyptic dystopian society and the sustainability through necessity. Barrett said, “The real world was a world of recycling.” When in simulated, virtual reality, characters first enter “The Construct,” a blank void where humans manifest their self image onto a digital persona. The idea is eerily similar to the filtered and stylized aesthetics of the images we upload to social media. Characters now wear differentiated, sleek looks with black, duster-length coats and micro-sunglasses (today, you can still see these in many Emma Chamberlain posts). And as these outfits reflect how characters perceive themselves (they literally “manifest” their clothing into existence), personality changes are deliberately and externally shown. You can see this idea most clearly through Trinity, who is described as “oil slick,” “ever present,” and “there when you least expect it” by Barrett. Her residual self-images include short jackets, an Elizabethan-style long coat-dress and the iconic trench with rubber-soled boots. She is meant to be feminine and capable, practical and without a nod to the male gaze. The movie was ahead of its time in its use of modern, utilitarian-looking women’s fashion with clean lines and experimental silhouettes. Just months after the film’s release in theaters, John Galliano created a line for the 1999 Christian Dior Fall haute couture collection heavily influenced by the film. The runway included PVC, black leather, futuristic gowns in blood red, the iconic micro-sunglasses and dresses reminiscent of trench coats. The messages sent through costume design are almost as direct as the film itself: stylistic fashion will soon overtake sustainability, and human individualism (fashion is an art form, after all), won’t die with reality. In other words, a digital fashion industry should be embraced. “The Matrix,” was a self-fulfilling prophecy in this sense; the collections we see today almost always have an emphasis on futurism. (Sorry to everyone reading for the aside on fashion- we look at different things beyond this point).

Another part of the movie to receive critical acclaim were the fight scenes. Clearly, even if you’re like me and don’t necessarily view movies through a profound lens, the surface-level aspects of “The Matrix” are still visually stunning. Lead Keanu Reeves, although presently not exactly known for his emotional range, does an excellent job portraying Neo as a tough, resourceful fighter. What makes this movie special is that the rules of the Matrix allow characters to bend reality while fighting. Martial arts expert Woo-Ping Yuen, also responsible for action in “Kill Bill,” does amazing work throughout the franchise. Fighting techniques are grounded in reality, even if “The Matrix” isn’t, and actually deadly. There are literally Kung Fu fights. Neo dodges bullets in slo-mo. I mean, I would watch it for the iconic action sequences alone. 

To conclude, “The Matrix” has layers of virtual reality, characterization and doomsayer predictions about the future that culminate in the realization all of life is a simulation. But for everyone who thinks that sounds like a twisted tapestry too strange to untangle, it is most enjoyable for its visuals: fashion, action, and cinematography. I highly recommend “The Matrix” to anyone who heard the words “the meta-verse” and immediately began watching cyberpunk, but I also recommend it to those of us who love to enjoy movies on a surface-level. If the world is a simulated reality, might as well give “The Matrix” franchise a try. Thanks for reading MUSE!

Hey y’all! I’m Chenyao and I’ll be reviewing “Akira,” the 1988 cult classic.

 

Many consider “Akira” the birth of the Japanese cyberpunk subgenre. “Akira” inspired a wave of Japanese cyberpunk works, including “Ghost in the Shell,” “Battle Angel Alita” and “Cowboy Bebop.” However, “Akira” didn’t just revolutionize the Japanese film industry. “Akira” has also been cited as a major influence on western films like “The Matrix,” “Inception,” and “Star Wars.”

Set in 2019, “Akira” follows a teenage boy, Tetsuo, as he discovers latent psychic abilities, eventually threatening an entire military complex and the city of Neo-Tokyo. Like many cyberpunk films, the plot includes a corrupt government, heroic teenagers, a burgeoning romance and a mysterious hope. But perhaps the most interesting parts of the film are its ability to defy traditional tropes, while creating an entire genre, and its terrifying predictions for our future.

“Akira” starts with very predictable characters—which makes sense, it is the original cyberpunk film. Tetsuo begins as the hot-headed protagonist, desperate to prove himself. Kaneda, Tetsuo’s best friend and almost brother, is the cool one, getting into trouble to protect his friends. The film follows their story, while providing insight into the political atmosphere of Neo-Tokyo. But as the film progresses, the story becomes less traditional. Tetsuo is consumed by his desire to be better than Kaneda and turns against everyone, killing indiscriminately while showing off his new power. Kaneda becomes the protagonist, Tetsuo’s rival and the pinnacle of anarchist justice. 

The two main characters aren’t the only ones that defy common tropes. In the beginning of the film, we see Takashi and an anti-government activist running away from the army. Takashi is caught by his friend and fellow psychic, Masaru. This paints the picture of the terrifying government conducting experiments on children—which to a certain extent is true. But the film stops following that trend. Kiyoko, Masaru and Takashi help Colonel Shikishima, the paragon of the military and authoritarianism, and in the end of the film, save him. While the government’s forces are not painted as the good guys, the film allows its main characters to be humans, not merely tropes.

“Akira” is mainly science fiction, but like any good cyberpunk story, it has a deeply political plot. Neo-Tokyo is an incredibly advanced and technological city that’s filled with crime and decadence. Introduced early on in the film, we see that the peace in Neo-Tokyo is being disturbed by riots and an increasing military presence. The city is controlled by a circle of old politicians all looking to deny responsibility for their actions. Anti-establishment groups fight against imperialism while cultists claim Akira is coming to cleanse the world of its sins. There’s student protest movements, biker gangs, “new religions” and police brutality. While the film is best understood in the context of Japanese politics, it critiques any political system where people attempt to maintain the flawed status quo.

Of course, one doesn’t have to be digging for underlying analysis to enjoy the film. There are many other great things about “Akira.” One of my favorite parts is the fact that the character the film is named after, Akira, is almost always present but never actually seen. The people of Neo-Tokyo idolize him, the government fears him, and Tetsuo wants to find him. Despite the fact that Akira is mentioned over a dozen times in a single scene, we still don’t know who Akira is or what happened to him. Akira’s grand reveal at the 2020 Olympic stadium actually terrified me the first time I watched the film. Another aspect deserving of praise is the animation itself. The colors, movement, special effects and transitions are far ahead of its time. Neo-Tokyo is beautifully animated and feels alive.

Even if deep political and literary analysis isn’t your thing, “Akira” is still worth a watch. The film is fast-paced and exciting with an incredibly haunting soundtrack. The only thing I have to say is to watch the original Japanese audio with English subtitles 🙂

 

Howdy! I’m Christian Ledbetter and I’ll be reviewing Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell!

 

Fresh off the heels of the opening film for the “Star Wars” series, Harrison Ford starred in the neo-noir “Blade Runner”, a futuristic, dystopian thriller about a detective hunting down androids directed by Ridley Scott. Though the film would arguably kick off the entire cyberpunk subgenre, comics, a sequel and an anime spinoff, the film flopped hard. 

“Blade Runner” is not a typical movie. Japanese neon lights clutter the streets as a mysterious, dreamlike synth plays. The camera loses pace with important characters, choosing instead to follow a pair of bikers making their way across the street. In one scene a detective rushes down the street to shoot a woman hardly wearing anything, in another a man gives a poetic monologue before dying. “Blade Runner” has all the trappings of a huge, pulpy extravaganza of sight and sound with all of its flashing lights, advertisements, and sounds of another world that Las Angeles hosts, an aesthetic so intriguing that almost forty years later the genre still can’t shake it off. Yet, the film choses a much slower pace, focusing on its characters talking about emotions and memory, some critics even called it “Blade Crawler” as a joke of its slowness when so much activity appears right outside the window. 

It’s admittedly a hard film to watch, a scene in which the main character forces himself on a woman certainly doesn’t do it any favors. Though I had seen the film various times before in a single sitting, I watched it in chunks this time around. To those who can stomach the slow pacing and uncomforting and frankly unlikable brooding, silent, almost unemotional male protagonist that so many movies from the era held in such high regard, there still lies a lot of fun.

Ads cluttering the impoverished city streets as the rich dance in extravagant bars. Craftsmen putting together scales and feathers to create artificial life, for any real life is too rare and expensive. Airships climbing through the foggy night sky promising of better opportunity in far away lands, if only they can afford it. And of course, androids running to secure a real life for themself, one where fear doesn’t have to follow them wherever they go, as an apathetic detective tracks them down. There are so many fun visuals, stories and strands of interesting commentary that clutter this film, the slowness creating a, at times hard to watch, other times source of strange tension. 

The botched version Warner Bros released to theaters may have failed at the box office, but its legacy, spawning a final cut years later in 2007, lives on due to its innovation, risks and pure dedication to creating another world with problems like our own. 

And now for Ghost in the Shell!

Before Scarlet Johansson whitewashed its lead or the powers that be decided to milk its golden goose dry, there was “Ghost in the Shell”, a cult animated sci-fi film featuring loads of nudity, long philosophical discussions on identity and fun martial arts sequences. Few would guess that the film would have such an impact on Hollywood, with the Wachowski sisters straight up stealing its green binary rain, citing it as a great inspiration for their Matrix films. It’s shadow looms large over lots of sci-fi, with various writers, directors and artists citing it as a great influence, and it’s easy to see why. Unsatisfied with the neon lights of “Blade Runner” or “Akira”, “Ghost in the Shell” occupies itself with fading city streets of Hong Kong, dirty signs, polluted canals and so on, where bright store windows chew at an otherwise dark city street. It innovates, it’s fun.

Its Hong Kong influenced streets reflect the strange crossroads the film touches upon. The line between human and machine, genders, the self and so on, though this could be felt within the film itself. Long philosophical discussions, where characters go so far as to bring out bible quotes or watching rain blanket the city as traditional Japanese music plays, it all feels a little pretentious and obsessed with its own intelligence, rather than actually smart, yet at the same time, insisting on showing its main character Makoto naked. The film dances a fine line between its overly sophisticated artistic sensibilities and, honestly juvenile, pulp storytelling associated with anime. Rather than these two sides of the film eating itself in this conflict, it actually helps to create a strange time capsule of the sub-genres growing pains, particularly in animation. We have a film from the 90’s already so focused on talking about how computers could change humanity that it brings its whole plot to a halt over it, how isn’t that fun?

“Ghost in the Shell” is a slow, mysterious and at times confusing film, though one shouldn’t fear getting lost in all of its in your face discussions. The animation is honestly the best I’ve ever seen, the music’s antiquity doesn’t at first seem to fit, but somehow meshes perfectly, and the imagery is simply stunning. The scene of Makoto staring at her bed cloaked in darkness as the city lights dazzle and distract through a window is now etched forever into my brain and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The conflict flaming between the two crossroads of pulp and philosophy produces not a mess as one would predict, but a rich, albeit slightly confusing, experience worthy of at least a rewatch.

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