Decoding Dystopia: The Cyber Noir Spectrum

Sometimes, it’s good to kick back and watch a good, old-fashioned noir. Wrapping yourself up in tales about scoundrels, femme fatales, crooks, and regular joes who just found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time scratch an itch in the deepest, darkest bowels of the soul that other film genres can’t quite reach. It’s quite possible that the film noir may be the most influential form of media that has ever hit the silver screen. In the original draft of this article, I was going to list off the countless ways that noirs have influenced their successors, including numerous subgenres that have cropped up since the death of the classic noir.

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(The black and white kind.)

However, I could get on a feedback loop about the subject for days, so these are the basics, in case you’re not as deep into the genre as I am. The “birth” of the film noir is commonly attributed to the release of The Maltese Falcon in 1942, which was based on the hard-boiled detective novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett. The death of the classic era of film noir is largely marked by critics by Orson Welles‘ masterpiece, Touch of Evil, which was released in 1958, as following films that banked on noir tropes either fell into cliche or evolved into what we now refer to as the neo-noir, an international expansion that has reached nearly every corner of the globe. Cinemaphiles oftentimes cite the noir’s use of dramatic, Expressionist-inspired lighting as a staple of the genre, but I’ve found that this is not necessarily the case; what truly lies at the heart of the noir is a deep-seated cynical (or sometimes outright nihilistic) worldview that came about as the result of late-stage, post-war capitalism. As it is considered to be a force to be reckoned with in the postmodern movement, almost nothing is romanticized or held sacred in the noir, deconstructing the so-called fundamental goodness of humankind’s technological and sociological progress that were presented in modernism.

Hopefully, this is enough to highlight why film noir tropes keep popping up in cyberpunk. While it does tend to play with a plethora of styles and plot structures that range from full-out, over-the-top sci-fi action (though even elements in early action movies can be traced back to the noir as well), slice-of-future-life dramas, and neo-myths, the lowlife element is a common factor. Cyberpunk that takes heavy inspiration from the noir (but more commonly its successor, the conspiracy thriller) oftentimes follows the hard-boiled detective format down to a T, simply updating elements that would otherwise feel anachronistic. For instance, the paranoid, lonesome, and invasive nature of the private eye (the noir’s favorite protagonist) is oftentimes transplanted onto the hacker archetype. However, the similarities don’t start and end there; there is a wide range of cyberpunk that digs deeply into the sordid history of industrialization, to the point that it becomes significantly altered from what we most commonly attribute to the genre.

Info Dump

One of the most crucial elements of weaving an engaging cyberpunk yarn is style, and in my experience with the genre, I’ve noticed that creators vary widely in this regard. When it comes to cyberpunk that follows the codified noir structure, there seems to be a spectrum based on how much the creator intends on evoking the works that have inspired it. On one end, there’s cyberpunk that merely adapts the structure and archetypes into a futuristic setting; on the other, we have dieselpunk. You might be familiar with dieselpunk, which remains a less popular variation of the cyberpunk genre than steampunk and is oftentimes confused with it due to its retrofuturistic nature. However, dieselpunk stands on its own as a genre, delving into futurism as envisioned by artists from the 1920s up until the mid-to-late 1950s. This might be most familiar to you tech heads in the Animatrix short “A Detective Story”.

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Hacking, well before it was cool.

Before we explore dieselpunk further, however, let’s examine the other end of the spectrum. Many of the most often-referenced cyberpunk sagas are up to the gills in noir trappings. For instance, The Matrix’s first half is saturated in techno-conspiracy-thriller goodness, finding a proper protagonist in the lone hacker Neo, an enigmatic femme fatale (literally) in Trinity, and shady authority figures running amok within the system. Altered Carbon takes this a step further, nearly replicating a detective noir beat-for-beat with Takeshi Kovacs as a burned-out, drug-addled, PI-type character, a corrupt police force on the take from massive criminal organizations (re: megacorps) and a story that’s rife with twists and turns, dead ends, ambushes, and sharp, nihilistic attitudes that crank up the classic noir’s brutality by 1000%. You can find similar approaches to this type of cyberpunk in Johnny Mnemonic, Minority Report, Goku Midnight Eye, Ghost in the Shell, and various others that will be listed below. The common link in this style of cyberpunk is simple: while it relies on the timeless impact of the noir for story direction and character development, these stories are completely futuristic for the time they were written in.

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Further along the scale you’ll find cyberpunk that takes a sociological, tongue-in-cheek approach to the future of style. Since it’s virtually impossible to gauge how exactly society on a large scale will express itself visually in the future, some artists choose to lean into the unspoken rule that fashion is cyclical, or that trends and attitudes from eras that have been recorded extensively will eventually come back around, even if our technology continues to diligently press onward. One of the clearest, if not perfect, examples of this can be found in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, in which many characters dress as though they live in a futuristic version of the actual Renaissance/Victorian periods in history, in order to evoke a sense of the world’s “cyber-renaissance”.

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Screenshot of “The White Room” in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Note the Victorian furnishings and tiling alongside futuristic design elements.

Looper, while ambiguously part of the cyberpunk canon, has its main character, Joe, dress as though it’s the 1950s all over again. He carries a pocket watch, and is learning to speak French as opposed to the soon-to-be-dominant language, Mandarin, much to his time-traveling boss’ dismay, who comments on his style much as I would to a hipster who still thinks it’s the 1890s. And speaking of, I would be negligent if I didn’t mention Blade Runner, which also toys with futuristic style, but also features various characters that dress in the fashions of the 1940s, from Deckard’s trenchcoated-PI appearance to extras wearing fishnet veils to Rachael’s deliberate femme-fatale costume design. The purpose of this style, it seems, is to avoid visual elements that will undoubtedly age as society’s vision of the future changes with the passage of time, instead attempting to create an appearance that will age more gracefully.

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Can’t forget Gaff.

Now we come to what I commonly refer to as the cyber noir. Whereas the previous category merely incorporates retrofuturistic style as a way to subvert audience expectations of the indefinite future, there are some cyberpunk works that take this to an entirely new level, saturating it in the mentalities of yesteryear. Oftentimes, these works take place in an ill-defined “near future” environment, rarely giving an exact timeframe in which the story’s events occur. One of the most recent examples of this is Anon, which, despite incorporating futuristic technology in the all-encompassing augmented reality network known as the Ether, features detectives in longcoats and fedoras, cars fashioned after economic, European vehicles from the 1960s and earlier, and architecture that suggest that the fashion of the classic noir era never went out of style. This is also apparent in the anime Metropolis, a loose remake of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, which features futuristic technology but slaps a heavy coat of bleak, 1950s-style industrial visuals over it.

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There may be a little bit of ’30s era cartoons in there somewhere, too.

Similarly, other series such as Total Recall 2070, Heat Guy J, and Wild Palms dip heavily into their noir roots, not only visually, but through the story’s presentation. While cyberpunk’s delivery is oftentimes dry and merciless, the cyber noir seeks to invoke not just the visuals, but the attitude of its predecessors in creating stark, dramatic transactions between characters. In the cyber noir, one foot is rooted in the past and the other in the future–hackers are a rarity, and people rely on cigarettes and booze to get by as opposed to futuristic uppers and downers in pill or inhaler form. The dialogue, sometimes hearkening back to the slang of the era it invokes, crackles with drama worthy of Raymond Chandler and Alfred Hitchcock, enhancing each character’s connection to their archetypal precursors. In this way, the cyber noir creates a world that could someday come to be and never be all at once.

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When you get right down to it, Total Recal 2070 is really just an unofficial Blade Runner sequel.

And finally, we have dieselpunk. Dieselpunk is retrofuturistic to its core, never incorporating tech that could not be envisioned by the science fiction authors it draws most heavily from. Though it’s more often used for one-off, stylized takes on existing franchises, it oftentimes takes on a gritty quality akin to cyberpunk and is set in worlds that are a result of industrialization gone mad, but a crucial element of this is in that computerized technology is rare, if used at all, replacing fractal dirt with engine grease. Therefore, the reality-bending implications of the New Wave of science fiction of the ’60s and ’70s is most often left unaddressed. The closest one can come to finding an AI in dieselpunk resides in tin-can robots, instead focusing more on the wonderful future technologies of yesteryear, such as widespread use of Zeppelins or almond-shaped moon rockets, massive factories, and rayguns. Oftentimes, instead of leaning on the works of Gibson, Pat Cadigan, and Bruce Sterling for inspiration, dieselpunk derives its concepts from works like Flash Gordon, Metropolis, and the fiction of Isaac Asimov and Franz Kafka, in addition to many, many other futurists from the era defined by the expansion of machines in our daily lives. While dieselpunk’s visions of the future may fluctuate between art deco-styled utopias and dystopias (or somewhere in between) the common element that unites their world-building is that bigger may not necessarily be better, but it’s coming whether we like it or not.

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And there’s plenty of standalone art to boot

While noirs in the dieselpunk style are difficult to come by, the genre illustrates dystopias in spades, as 1984 was written in the era it evokes. The most prominent example of diesel dystopia can be found in the Bioshock series‘ city of Rapture, which serves as a wonderfully terrifying deconstruction of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Rapture is rife with Tesla coils, monsters encased in anachronistic diving suits, and genetic engineering that grants superpowers through chemical alteration, the latter of which is also somewhat reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The Wolfenstein series (particularly the reboots) also present their players with a world reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle with the timely addition of over-the-top neo-Nazi-killing action; both take place in worlds in which Nazi Germany has conquered the US, allowing their absurdly fascistic technological experimentation to continue unhindered. Brazil, a more bureaucratic take on 1984, may also be considered to be a diesel dystopia. More contentious examples include Beneath a Steel Sky and the anime Texhnolyze, which both use heavy dieselpunk visuals blended with elements of cyberpunk tech.

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Beneath a Steel Sky

However, if you’re jonesin’ for more of that noir goodness in your dieselpunk, I recommend Batman: The Animated Series and Dark City. While Batman: TAS is a children’s show and features some watered-down writing, the tragedies within Gotham’s gangster-ruled, crime-ridden streets and dark, oppressive atmosphere as a backdrop to the Dark Knight’s tech-assisted vigilante detective work speak volumes of its clear noir influence. Dark City’s setting is very similar to that portrayed in Gotham; a polluted, 1940s-style metropolis in which its citizens’ memories are altered or erased by a mysterious, technologically advanced force and features a plot that might have been written by PKD himself, if he’d been born a couple decades earlier.

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Assessment

Variety is the spice of life, dear readers. I never cease to be amazed by the dark ingenuity of creators the world over that have been influenced by film noir. True to its name, it accepts the abyss, peering into our darkest natures, and those natures will become even more warped as society becomes consumed by technological overgrowth and corporate feudalism. Someday, when our ambitions catch up with our stark reality, we won’t call it cyberpunk anymore. It’ll just be noir.

Data Compilation

You’re in luck, chummer. If you’re in the market for more double-crossers, dirtbags, and devilish dames, or you’re at least looking for a more (or less) decadent version of the world that hearkens back to the “golden era” of film while retaining that sci-fi edge, I’ve got some places you can start. This list is in no way comprehensive, so if you’ve got something up your sleeve that I might have missed, feel free to give a shout-out in the comments or on social media.

Cyberpunk incorporating noir structure

Armitage III

Blade Runner 2049

Cyber City Oedo 808

Cyberpunk 2077

Ex Machina

Ghost in the Shell: Arise

Mirror’s Edge

NOIR

Observer

Psycho-Pass

Shadowrun: Dragonfall

Strange Days

Transmetropolitan

Cyberpunk incorporating noir visuals

Batman Beyond

Caprica

Katana Zero

Parasite Dolls

The Red Strings Club

Snatcher

Cyber noirs

The Big Sheep

Gemini Rue

Hard Boiled

Inception

Invisible, Inc.

The Mercury Man

The Tex Murphy series

Transistor

Dieselpunk

Acropolisworld

Batman

Batman Returns

Black Steel

The City of Lost Children

Conarium

Dick Tracy

The Fallout series

A Fistful of Nothing

The Grand Dark

Insomnia: The Ark

The Rocketeer

The Ship

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Written by shadowlink
shadowlink is lost in a sea of information. Cyberpunk helps him cope with his constant future shock.

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