The year 1990 began the decade with an economic downturn and declining birth rates. The first web server was built by Tim Berners-Lee. The Hubble Telescope was launched and Human Genome Project officially began. Still cleaning up after Exxon Valdez, next came conflict in the Middle East. Placing us on the edge of the Gulf War. Anxiety, depression, and pharmaceutical treatments were rising to a household standard. The world was shifting in a direction, that at the time, felt like the beginning of the end. This fear of change and threat of a dreary future was reflected in the sci-fi movies released in 1990. Laying groundwork for a decade in cinema that would embrace cyberpunk as a genre, rather than just a literary description.
One of the most prominent 90s cyberpunk movies was Total Recall. Based on Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”. It tells a story of Terra stripped of natural resources. Corporations were now mining the depths of Mars. Exploitation of the impoverished mutants resulted in civil unrest on the red planet. Douglas Quaid is a bored construction worker interested in the designer fantasies by “Rekall”. A company that implants false memories in the brains of clients. Quaid opts for the idea of a 2-week vacation as a secret agent on Mars. However, all goes awry when it’s discovered that his mind has already been wiped. The world that Quaid thought he knew is actually a string of programmed false memories. Total Recall was one of the last films to receive an X rating for a high number of on-screen deaths. After a trim on some of the violence it was #1 at the box office with an R rating. It won an Academy Award and 2 Saturn Awards for the stunningly gruesome make-up and practical effects. Thus launching 90s cyberpunk movies into the mainstream.
Repeating the theme of ecological devastation, Circuitry Man is a straight-to-video hidden gem for 90s cyberpunk movies. Referenced as classic “Tech-Noir”, the film begins by explaining that humans have gone underground to government-controlled housing. Top side is a toxic landscape ruled by the black market. Unlike most “on the lam” films, gender roles are reversed. A retired female bodyguard gets roped into a microchip drug deal. Accompanied by a gigolo android, the race is on to New York for a new beginning. In hot pursuit is the hard-boiled gangster Plughead.
This 90s cyberpunk movie reveals a future of pleasure on demand. Whether it be by “Romeo” bio machines or jacking-in to human consciousness. All that’s left is a trail of devoured minds and severed body parts. Circuitry Man was adapted from a student film written by director Steven Lovy and his brother Robert. There is a noticeable influence of William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer. Lovy also pays tribute to the Japanese punk film, Crazy Thunder Road. The humble budget still offers familiar characters and decent make-up effects.
Set in a post-war wasteland, this 90s cyberpunk movie gives us overpopulation and oppressive government. Hardware begins with a bio-mechanical soldier returning from another tour of duty. He buys the remains of an old droid off a scavenger. Saving the head as a gift for his reclusive girlfriend, Jill. An avant-garde artist that specializes in scrap metal sculptures. Neither are aware that her new sculpture is self-repairing. Or that it is a military machine, absorbing information all around it. Director Richard Stanley admits influence from Philip K. Dick, Soylent Green, and Damnation Alley. The script was adapted from a short story titled SHOK! Appearing in a spin off comic of 2000 AD. Stanley follows the cyberpunk elements of sexual liberation and psychedelic drugs. Also challenging the audience if they feel protected or threatened by technology. Cameos by Lemmy of Motorhead and the voice of Iggy Pop.
The year 1990 was the gateway to a lush decade of cyberpunk films. Other greats released the same year include Brain Dead, I Come in Peace, and The Class of 1999. Though many may now feel outdated, exploration of alternate realities and artificial intelligence made cyberpunk commonplace. Without the low-budget and experimental we’d never have Freejack, Minority Report, or the popular Matrix series. Playing on our fears of technology’s rapid evolution. Daring to dream beyond known existence. The 90s cyberpunk movies serve as a warning of the long-term impacts as modern realities reflect these fictional futures.
Last Updated on April 25, 2021.