Did Hollywood Kill Cyberpunk?

In 1995, cyberpunk as a cinematic genre was attempted, desiccated, mutilated, and forever laid to rest. There are many potential culprits behind its demise, but really: who is to blame?

1995: The Year That Killed Cyberpunk”
C
layton Purdom

Paste Magazine
December 15, 2014

I am a longtime fan of Cyberpunk, the subgenre of science fiction that deals with a near-future dystopia suffused with technology, virtual worlds, massive global corporations, and the desperados living in the seams where these forces intersect. In 1989, after years away from any kind of fiction, I read stories by the likes of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling in my tiny room above a godown in Taiwan, and in so doing reinvigorated my interest in the novel and short stories.

The stories had great power and more relevance than almost any other sort of science fiction. Almost a rejection of the majesty and melodrama of space operas like Star Wars, the Cold War allegories of Star Trek, or even the deep space horrors of Aliens, cyberpunk was happening in a future no more than a decade or two away. It felt real, immediate, and urgent, and it told us (long before cyberwar and the rise of corporate oligarchies were real things) that the Cold War was not the end of history: it was the beginning of the real nasty shit.

The Hollywood Whodunit

And yet today, three decades after cyberpunk’s birth, Clayton Purdom has scribed an interesting whodunit in Paste in which he laments the demise of cyberpunk as a subgenre of science fiction.

Our literary coroner determines the time of death to be sometime in 1995, where the Summer of Cyberpunk offered up, in succession, Robert Longo’s soul-crushing take on William Gibson’s short story Johnny Mnemonic; Danny Cannon’s misbegotten Judge Dredd; Irwin Winkler’s The Net*, which Purdom acknowledges is probably the best of the bunch; and Brett Leonard’s gawd-offal** Virtuosity.

When I read the article through the first time, I shrugged, discarding it as an interesting idea. And then I stopped myself, and realized that the reason that I was discarding it was that the idea was probably so much nonsense.

Now, it is a treasured meme among literary circles that good writers, good writing, and good stories go to Hollywood to die. Purdom probably buys into that meme, and I am loathe to discredit it. But in the case of cyberpunk, Purdom stretches the point.

Movies Don’t Kill Genres

After all, film has screwed up speculative fiction in the past without destroying it. Every adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit prior to the advent of Peter Jackson were mediocre at best. Yet people never stopped reading either fantasy or Tolkien despite an entire decade of bad big-budget fantasy films like Excalibur, Krull, the Conan series, and Willow.  Likewise with hard science fiction: Frank Herbert is selling books three decades after his death despite two attempts to bring Dune to the screen, and Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov titles remain backlist performers after predictably bad adaptations of their own stories.

No, Hollywood did not kill Cyberpunk: the genre died of maladies baked into its very code.

First, Cyberpunk makes for bad cinema. Like bad acid trips, cyberpunk narratives are really hard to film well because so much of the action takes place inside the heads and computers of the characters, making it almost impossible to convey the plot and drama with any kind of accuracy. It’s all contrived video effects, and since nobody actually knows what it feels like to wire yourself into a deck and go totally VR in a world that looks nothing like our own, those effects quickly devolve into a lot of context-free eye candy. Alternately, you wind up with scenes like Hugh Jackman’s laughable under-the-gun 60-second DoD hack in Swordfish: a lot 0f spasmodic twitch-finger keyboarding accompanied by unsynchronized high-speed playback graphics on a computer screen. The real drama is contrived and too often forced to rely on awkward narration. No fun. Bad movies.

Perhaps more important for film, cyberpunk defied happy endings. Both dystopian and noir, the genre was populated by anti-heroes or protagonists just trying to save their own skins, all in a world that was doomed and getting worse. It was as if the most depressing parts of film noir and post-apocalyptic fiction were combined. There were only so many ways to tell that kind of story, and by the time Hollywood even read Johnny Mnemonic, the proverbial shark had been jumped.

Death by Abandonment

Filmability aside, the more likely killer was, to steal a phrase from Blade Runner, accelerated  decrepitude. The more avid readers of the works in question will acknowledge that cyberpunk as a subgenre had run its course long before the summer of 1995, hitting its apogee with Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash in 1992 before evaporating. Indeed, it was almost like there had been a secret meeting of cyberpunk authors in some little Idaho hotel where everyone quietly conferred, agreeing that it was time to move on.

By the 1993 premieres of Lawnmower Man and Freejack, the early and lousy cyberpunk movies that screened and disappeared long before Purdom’s Summer of Denouement, Stephenson, along with pioneers Gibson, Sterling, and most of their contemporaries, had left Cyberpunk to sow more fertile fields. Sterling went first: his excellent 1988 collection Islands in the Net was his last major work in the genre. After Snow Crash, Stephenson moved beyond cyberspace and into nanotech and cryptology. Gibson, perhaps most reluctant to leave behind a genre he all but created in 1981, took a half-step away from cyberpunk with his media-obsessed Virtual Light in 1993, and then never looked back.

So cyberpunk may not have been dead by 1993, but it was sufficiently close to deaths door that even its creator had moved on. In truth, Hollywood didn’t kill cyberpunk: if anything, the studios engaged in an ill-timed effort to revive the subgenre long enough to suck a buck out of it. The attempt was every bit as bad as Purdom relates, and it failed.

Life in the Old Girl Yet

Yet if cyberpunk died of its inherent cinematic and dramatic limitations, there are occasional works that suggest a revival might be possible. Ernest Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One returns to the formula that made cyberpunk so powerful and appealing, yet substitutes a true hero for the noir antiheroes favored by Gibson et. al. Sadly, Cline does not appear inclined or able to carry the cyberpunk banner much further.

Nonetheless, the success of Ready Player One makes an important point. There remains a latent audience for speculative fiction wherein a hero triumphs in a dystopian near-future facing down massive networks of data and artificial intelligence. (Think The Matrix, but without the over-choreographed fight chases substituting for plot and the heavy-handed messianic archetype.†) And little wonder: thirty-five years after “Burning Chrome,” we are all still trying to figure out the relationship between the individual, humanity, and the machines we are creating to think for us. The network is the ultimate villain, and neither Hollywood nor the authors who outed the nemesis have destroyed it or the latent fear it inspires.

Cyberpunk will return, and when it does it will be far more relevant and terrifying than it was two decades ago.

 

Notes

* Full disclosure – I worked on The Net as an uncredited member of the crew, and I owe Irwin and Sandy and playback supervisor Todd Marks a debt of gratitude for supplying the paychecks that got me through a very rough patch in my life, so I will cop to the potential for some implicit bias.

**I know, it’s supposed to be “G-d awful,” but my spelling is no less appropriate.

† No joke: I remember walking out of the theater after seeing Matrix Revolutions feeling like the Wachowski siblings had just spent the last 25 minutes beating me over the head with a copy of the New Testament. There’s nothing wrong with the messianic archetype, but like all literary devices and most condiments, a lot of a good thing isn’t always better than a little.  

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Grosse Pointe Blank Slate

As I rip the Grosse Pointe Blank soundtrack CD – which is worth buying for all kinds of reasons – I find myself playing one song over and over: Pete Townsend’s only-available-here version of “Let My Love Open the Door.”

This rendition is a down-tempo, almost coffeehouse version of the ’80s pop standard that played during the most quietly electric moment of the movie. Martin and Debi are at the Grosse Pointe High School reunion, sitting in the balcony alone, leaning on the rail, and looking into each others eyes. At that moment, they stop being the hard-as-nails DJ and the battle-weary assassin, her bitterness and his confusion evaporate, and they’re in love again in a way that you can only be in love at eighteen. She’s his world, and he’s hers.

The song floats and soars, the keyboards giving it an almost supernal quality. Then, about halfway through, Townsend does something subversive – he weaves the iconic chords of “Teenage Wasteland” into the song, giving it an emotional connection with the torment of maturing that the original lacked. We listen, and we, with Martin and Debi, are now doing what we all do – we are hearing those same songs that we heard then, but now they are different because we are different. And yet, fundamentally, the song, and we, are the same.

Townsend, composer Joe Strummer (of The Clash) and Cusack (the clear creative force behind the film) are, in a single song, delivering the message of the movie. You can go home. You can reconnect with your youth without getting sucked into the butterscotch pit of dewy-eyed nostalgia or maudlin regrets. The moment of re-connection brings to an older, more jaded, more wounded heart the essence of what was wonderful and shitty and pure and debased about being young, and in the process becomes a healing that makes us more whole.

Listen to it in a dark room, with a candle burning and your high school yearbooks open.

Academia and Star Wars

Criticisms — or defenses — of Star Wars’s narrative retreading are misguided.

Source: Making Things Right: “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” – The Los Angeles Review of Books

(Spoiler alert: do not read the linked article if you have yet to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens.)

Yale Professor J.D. Connor has penned a review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens that is composed of a series of astute observations. There is superb grist here for serious students of film or of the Star Wars universe, and his observations about Disney’s handling of the Star Wars “canon” (and that of the Marvel Universe, which it also now owns) make the piece worth the read.

But it should be read only for the occasional enlightening nugget because, unfortunately, the piece is meandering and confusing. He denigrates critics for impugning (or defending) the film’s narrative repetition of Episode IV, only to say that the problem with the film is that “resonance with earlier versions are far too strong.” He deconstructs the film into a series of patterns, very subtly derides it as typical franchise fare, and explains that what made the first movies unique were sound and special effects.

I am sure there was a point to all of this, that Professor Connor did not spend a big chunk of his Winter break away from undergraduates and faculty politics penning this piece for no reason. I cannot discern it. It seemed aught more than an expository vehicle for the author’s use of the toolkit of scholarly critique.

And this is my problem with so much academic criticism of art, literature, music, and film. Having slogged through five thousand words of deconstruction, we do not walk away enlightened, uplifted, or more capable of appreciating art generally or the piece itself. we are left only with the work (or its creator) in pieces at our feet, looking at each other and saying “okay, now what?”

Great criticism instructs, clarifies, and opens new vistas that allow us to appreciate art, an artist’s oeuvre, or a single work. It provides us with the tools to be discerning. It gives us the wherewithal to judge whether a work is worthy of our time and consideration.

Passable criticism at least serves to tell us whether a work is subjectively worth our time and consideration, and then provides a reasonable case to back up the point.

So if you’re a fanboy or a film student, do read Dr. Connor’s essay. Otherwise, give it a pass.

Why Michael Hiltzik is Wrong About “The Force Awakens”

On Christmas Day, I fulfilled my duty as an American consumer and took the family to see the new “Star Wars” movie. The excursion solved a mystery: Why do so many of the reviews, even the enthusiastic ones, carry an undertone of disappointment? 

Source: Admit it: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ stinks — and here’s why – LA Times

Michael Hiltzik is an outstanding reporter, a man who has won the Pulitzer Prize for proving that forty years after the Payola Scandal of 1959, corruption in the music industry was alive and well. If there is a single reason that we today are not discussing Hiltzik’s work on a daily basis, it is that less than two years after winning his prize Apple introduced the iPod and iTunes, and turned the entire industry inside out. The big music story became disruption rather than corruption.

That is a shame. But Hiltzik is now turning his righteous indignation away from music and toward the film industry, accusing it – in the guise of Disney – of having given up on anything approaching originality, and offering Star Wars: The Force Awakens as Exhibit A.

It is a fun read, especially for those of us who are more amused than irked at attacks on the franchise. But once you slice through Hiltzik’s entirely unoriginal rant about those terrible pop culture tyrants at Disney spoon-feeding us measured portions of franchise tripe (a point articulated better with less indignation long ago by, among others, Mark Harris at GrantLand.com), what we are left with is “same movie, different decade.”

Let’s grant Mr. Hiltzik this much: there was a lot about this movie, plot-wise, that echoed Episode 4, known to most of us as the first Star Wars movie. What Hiltzik fails to ask, however, is whether there is a narrative purpose to the repetition. Could it be that the filmmakers and their House of Mouse overlords do not actually think that the audience are idiots? Is there a reason this all looks familiar?

I would suggest that there is, that the writers are setting up a moral point, albeit doing it in a manner that comes near to being patronizing. They are hinting that the reason this is all happening again, in a similar way, is that somehow that in the process of crushing the Empire and restoring the Republic, something crucial, fundamental, was forgotten, and thus we’re having to go through the same stuff again, only worse.

Lest you might think this far-fetched, look, if you will, on recent history. This “fix it right or do it all again” conundrum is perhaps the overarching moral of the 20th Century. Yes, the allies won World War I. But after all the parties were over, we had a world that was playing beggar-thy-neighbor games and a vanquished Germany itching for revenge for the humiliation, all thanks to a group of self-righteous bad losers at the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles. Thus WWII, a far more destructive conflict, arises from the ashes of the vanquished, and for at least the first 30 months of the war looks eerily familiar.

If you want a later example, it could be argued that we failed to learn the lesson of Vietnam – or failed to learn the right ones – and we have thus found ourselves playing referee or B-team in a long season of local insurgencies.

I think J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and all of their co-writers and co-producers get this, are trying to make a narrative point, and that over the next two movies this is going to be driven home: we failed to learn the right lessons last time, here are the lessons we failed to learn, and here’s what we’re going to do to end all of this once and for all.

All it takes to see that is a smidgen of confidence in the filmmakers and an average sense for the rhythm of history, and the courage to use both as a guide. It seems clear that Mr. Hiltzik fortifies himself with neither. But then, I suppose nothing pumps the adrenaline more than tweaking the company’s nose when you live in a company town.

Werner Herzog on LA

“I moved to Los Angeles because my wife and I decided we had to live in the city with the most substance in the United States. And I do not regret it for a second. Don’t be misled by the superficial glitz and glamour of Hollywood. It’s the city with the most cultural substance.”

Werner Herzog

via Werner Herzog’s Thoughts On Los Angeles Are Pretty Great: LAist.

Amen. Though I think San Francisco and LA run pretty much neck-and-neck…

Howard Stark: More than Just Howard Hughes’ Doppelganger

Howard Stark’s importance to the effort of building the Universe goes beyond his own accomplishments — which, the movies will never let you forget, are really-super-sensational; your man’s basically Rat Pack Einstein.

via Masters of the Universe: Marvel’s Unprecedented Storytelling Gamble «.

“Rat Pack Einstein.” Beautiful.