Cyber Cinema, 1981-2001
What is Cyberpunk?
It's the question everyone groans at, the one that inspires dissection into "cyber" and "punk", the one that inevitably leads to an hour-long diatribe on The Sex Pistols and the Greek linguistic origins of kybernetes and how somewhere between Norbert Weiner and Arnold Schwarzenegger it all went bad. But that's not what we're here for.
We know what cyberpunk is. Or rather, we think we do. Because when you get right down to it, everyone's interpretation of cyberpunk is different. There's Gibsonian cyberpunk, Stephensonian cyberpunk, Cadiganian cyberpunk, early cyberpunk, modern cyberpunk, post-modern cyberpunk, and on and on... It seems like there are more answers than there are questions.
And just in case I lost you there for a second, I'll restate the question.
What is Cyberpunk?
In response, I present to you not one, but two score answers, each given during a different year, in a different way, between 1981 and 2000. And not only will this exploration of Cyber cinema give you the nitty gritty on all the silver (chrome?) screen favorites you might have missed, but I'll go a step further. I'll show you how, in true cyberpunk fashion, you can find your own use for the ideas that have gone before, recycling the plots of these classic films for use in your Cyberpunk campaigns.
Along the way, I'll be introducing new concepts, characters and ideas, and I'll be using some of your feedback to steer us along the path. For starters though, it's just me and my iMac, and the year 1981.
Ah, 1981. The original IBM Personal Computer hit the shelves, Pope John Paul II and President Reagan were targeted for assassination, Bob Marley passed away, and "Johnny Mnemonic" was published in Omni magazine. Definitely a sign that the world was well on its way into a cyberpunk future. No surprise, then, that 1981 is also the first time we'd see a true example of cyberpunk cinema -- John Carpenter's Escape From New York.
From a distance, it hardly looks like the cyberpunk classic it turned out to be. Just take a look at the cast, for crying out loud:
You've got an animated fox, a grizzled veteran, a funk singer, a cowboy and a spooky old doctor. And you're supposed to believe that these five guys helped create what is arguably the first true cyberpunk film?
First, of course, you have to suspend your disbelief, because this film's anarchistic future takes place not in 2020, but in 1997. In this alternate timeline, the United States is forced to turn the entire city of New York into a maximum security prison, where they put society's worst criminals away for life. Nobody gets in or out, ever... except when a terrorist plot gone wrong results in the President of the United States crash-landing in the middle of the city.
Who you gonna call? Not the Ghostbusters. Especially not when the criminals are holding all the cards. A full-frontal assault will only result in the President's death. No, it'll take a prisoner to infiltrate a prison... and that prisoner just happens to be stepping off the bus.
Snake Plissken is the archetypical cyberpunk anti-hero. Just check out the description from the screenplay:
Being debriefed by Police Commissioner Bob Hauk, we learn even more about our so-called "hero":
Auspicious beginnings, rise to heaven and then falls to hell all in one shot. But of course, it's Snake's fall that makes him so valuable. Because only he can get into the prison to rescue the President, and the precious tape that he carries. Snake will be geared up, and of course there's a time limit -- 24 hours and counting. But there's also a catch, a way for Snake's new "employers" to ensure that he returns as promised. Hauk explains:
Of course, if Snake returns as promised, the capsules will be neutralized with X-rays. And if that sounds familiar, consider the following:
That, of course, is from Gibson's Neuromancer, which came out in 1984. And if William Gibson can borrow ideas in order to create a cyberpunk plotline, then so can you.
I'm not going to review the entire plot here, because to be quite honest a lot of it is pretty dull and slow-paced. Snake flies into New York on a glider, landing atop the World Trade Center, and makes his way down to the street, once again demonstrating the "rise to heaven, then fall to hell" theme that pervades most cyberpunk fiction. Tracking the President via his vital signs, he hooks up with a guide we only know as "Cabbie", who plays Virgil to Snake's Dante (Dante's Inferno is a must-read for anyone who's more than passingly interested in cyberpunk fiction).
The first thing Snake learns, of course, is that the mission's not going to be as easy as he thought -- the guy whose vital signs he was tracking is not the President at all, but some crazy drunk guy. But it's too late to turn back; once you've fallen into hell, you can't fly back out. And so it's onward and downward as Snake spirals ever closer to the center of evil, hoping to find the President before his arteries erupt.
It doesn't help that everyone and their brother has heard of Snake, when he's trying to be sneaky. But then, Snake soon learns that he's not going to get to ninja his way out of this one. He's a street samurai, albeit a ronin, and like the samurai of old, he's no longer afraid of death. And that makes him powerful.
GIRL: I heard you were dead.
SNAKE: I am.
GIRL: I heard you were dead.
SNAKE: I am.
His biggest bargaining chip, of course, is the promise of that return to heaven, courtesy of the glider that brought him in. The other inhabitants of this cybernetic hell are just as eager to escape the flames as Snake is, and he uses that to his advantage to coerce them into helping him find the President.
Of course, this being a cyberpunk adventure, it's never that simple. One thing after another goes wrong, and Snake winds up captured and stripped of his weapons, the precious hours dripping away as he lies unconscious and bleeding. And when he does wake up, he immediately gets thrown into a blood pit and forced to fight for his life... and the life of the President (who's secretly being freed by Snake's companions in crime).
By the time they all plan their escape and locate the precious missing tape, there are only minutes left on Snake's life timer. And there's only one way out of New York since their glider has been trashed -- across a mine-covered bridge. The group almost makes it... but like the typical cocky anti-hero, Snake pushes it a little too hard, hits a mine, and wrecks the cab.
Apparently the dice were favorable, because four of the five people in the cab somehow survive the explosion. But only two of them will make it all the way across the bridge -- the President, and Snake Plissken. With only seconds to spare, they make it over the wall, and the explosives are disabled.
The coda is typical cyberpunk as well. The President is safe, but it turns out he's just a cocky ass who's not at all concerned about anything but his own image. Snake wants to kill the people who got him into this, but he's learned that his freedom is more important than vengeance. And everyone learns that the guy holding the cards is the cyberpunk, as Snake pulls a switcheroo and gives them the wrong tape, destroying the precious original as he wanders off into the sunset.
A glorious, cynical understatement... one that pretty much wraps up the entire movie. Because although it's filled with bits of action, lots of great lines, and a story concept that everyone would be ripping off for the next two decades, Escape From New York is ultimately little more than a representation of everything that cyberpunk is all about. It's not a great film, but it is a necessary film. It's a film that laughs at itself, at its own outrageous concept, at the entire theory of heroism and anti-heroism and the epic battle between good and evil. It's neither dark nor light -- it's in that infinite area of grayness within which all cyberpunks inevitably find themselves at some point.
Which brings us back to our five main actors. The cartoon character turned criminal, the retired warrior turned cabbie, the soulful singer turned gang leader, the cowboy turned sycophant and the horror film investigator turned President. None of whom, by themselves, is a true cyberpunk character. But taken as a whole, they represent everything that the cyberpunk "hero" is, tries to be, and is not. A parody of a hero of a rock star of a criminal of a fallen leader. Good and evil, heaven and hell, comedy and tragedy, all rolled up in a big ball of chrome and tossed in a corner to die.
And of course, what you're thinking now is, "How can I incorporate this into my own Cyberpunk campaign?"
It would be sheer folly to try to force every aspect of this film into your own storyline. For one, you probably don't have a character named Snake Plissken just waiting to be thrown into prison. So I'll play this one a little loose and fast (cyberpunk style) and see what happens. Let's see what we've got:
1. Impenetrable prison. Martial Law was declared in 1996. Boostergangs roamed the streets for a while but were quickly put down by the corporations. Now, no doubt, the most dangerous of them are rounded up and put away somewhere secure, someplace where there aren't even any guards except for the deadly automated systems. Nobody can get in or out. Which is a problem, because the head of a major corporation has just crashed his plane inside the perimeter. And of course, the characters are hired/cajoled into rescuing him, and the data he carries with him.
2. Lack of cybernetics. This one's a toughy if you've got a bunch of guys all cybered-up and ready to rock, but it's an interesting way to bring Snake's 'ol eye-patch problem into the mix. What say that the prison's got a dampening field in effect which cripples all cybernetic and electronic devices inside the perimeter? Suddenly, you've got three useless arms, two useless eyes and a bunch of frightened Solos who are going to have to think on their feet in order to make it out alive.
3. The old "bomb in the bloodstream" schtick. The characters must succeed, because if they don't, they're dead. Or at least, that's what they think. Only their employer knows for sure.
4. Doublecrossing the doublecrossers. Who's to be trusted? Are the contacts really on your side, or are they secretly trying to find a way out of the prison themselves? And what about that captured corporate executive -- exactly what was he doing in a plane so far off course, and what is so important about that data he carries? Does he deserve to be rescued? Is rescue even the real goal? Or is it something more insidious...?
5. Tons of Cool. If there's one statistic everyone's going to need, in spades, it's Cool. Everything is going wrong, there are bombs in your head, time's running out, and it's probably raining. And just when nothing else can possibly go wrong...
This prison is so incredibly bad, they don't have guards. But what they do have are plenty of prisoners, all of whom are ready and willing to give the punks you're playing a run for their money:
_____________________________________________________________________ A Generic Prisoner INT [ 5] REF  TECH [ 4] COOL [ 5] ATTR [ 3] LUCK [5 ] MA [ 6] BODY [ 9] EMP [ 4] Run  Leap [ 4] Lift  Armor: [ Head:0 Torso:0 R.Arm:0 L.Arm:0 R.Leg:0 L.Leg:0 ] Save: 9 BTM:-4 Cybernetics: None (see #2, above) Special Ability: Combat Sense [ 5] Skills: Handgun [ 5], Brawling [ 5], Melee [ 5] Possessions: Yeah, right _____________________________________________________________________
Any number of characters can be inserted at one time, but more than 3-5 of them is going to cause suspicion, in which case someone working from the outside (say, a Media or Netrunner) might be a good idea.
As for the prison itself, anywhere remote will do, from an island off the coast of what's left of California, to the middle of a cornfield in Kansas, to an underground mineshaft in Colorado. The point being, difficult to get into, even more difficult to get out of. There being no guards or cells (the prisoners are entirely on their own), you can use just about any design for a prison that you can imagine. Try converting a large farm in the middle of nowhere -- run some razorwire and some automatic guns around the perimeter and you're all set. Or why not an old nuclear missile silo? Just about anything will work.
Since this is the first edition of what I hope will be a long, beneficial series, I'll leave it up to you to decide what direction we should take this in. Post your comments, concerns, suggestions and ideas. It's entirely in your hands.
There's only one question that must be answered -- which cyberpunk film from 1982 do I cover: Blade Runner or Tron? Not an easy decision, is it? But then, nobody ever said this was gonna be easy.
Condensed Cyberpunk Cinema Classics:
The One | Unbreakable | The Matrix | Dark City | The Crow: City of Angels | Escape From LA
City of Lost Children | Strange Days | The Crow | Leon | Nemesis | Sneakers
T2: Judgment Day | La Femme Nikita | Batman | Predator | Robocop | Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome
Max Headroom | The Terminator | Videodrome | Tron | Blade Runner | Escape From NY