Oh look, apparently Netflix wants to shift their focus on original content from comedy to science fiction. Not surprising, since sci-fi seems to be where it’s at these days. And while the all-consuming database that is our favorite corporate streaming service seems to somehow still be growing unchecked, there’s only so much demand for space lasers and men in tights with the ability to decimate entire cities without repercussions. Therefore, to fill in the gaps left between the conventional and the niche, Netflix seems to be leaning heavily on a mainstay subgenre of science fiction: the dystopia. Ironic, considering Netflix’s growing dominance over certain sectors of the entertainment industry nearly rivals that of Disney’s and suggests its own brand of stifling corporate atmosphere. But thankfully, for the time being, the streaming giant seems to be giving its creative personnel free rein over their respective properties, be it for better or worse.
So, like a good little drone, I decided one recent weekend to sit myself down and distract myself from our terrifying reality with every cyberpunk/wannabe-cyberpunk B-movie Netflix currently has to offer and pass on a brief summary of my takeaway from each movie to you, dearest reader. I hope my suffering pleases you.
*Note: in order to keep the length of these articles to a minimum, I’ve chosen to exclude films that do not fit squarely within the dystopian genre (such as Turbo Kid, a film that blends cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic elements with a heavy dose of corny ’80s nostalgia) or television series (a la the long-awaited Altered Carbon).
Aeon Flux (2005)
Ugh. Fine. Let’s just get this one out of the way.
Very, very loosely based on Peter Chung’s much beloved 1991 animated series, the live-action version of Aeon Flux starring Charlize Theron bastardizes the original’s hyper-violent, hyper-mechanized atmosphere, and moral ambiguity by malforming the city-state of Bregna into, essentially, a hyper-manicured version of the Beverly Hills, and making the whole damn world make no sense. After some clumsily-dispensed exposition stating that the government is super evil you guys, Theron’s Aeon Flux, a rebel spy, rendezvouses with a grown man wearing eyeshadow who tongue-feeds her a pill that inexplicably dispenses a mission briefing from Frances McDormand cosplaying as Merida from Brave. After ineffectually attempting to cement emotional stakes for Aeon’s character through an interaction with her sister, she ninjas her way into an absurd and impractical surveillance station for… some reason. I dunno. I kinda stopped paying attention. Much wannabe-sexy and poorly-directed action ensues, and a conspiracy revolving around the true, sinister nature of Bregna unfurls.
I don’t think there’s much else I can say that hasn’t already been said. If you enjoy complex storytelling, well-crafted worldbuilding, good acting, or plot elements that make any sort of logical sense, avoid this like the inevitable coming nano-plague. If you enjoy a good, ironic laugh, maybe give it a whirl for a good half hour.
Aeon Flux – 1/10
Set in 2035, Arès centers on what society would look like if it was built around a laissez-faire approach to pharmaceutical research. It is implied that an economic downturn (possibly due to a decreased need for human labor) has led to the legalization of human experimentation for the production of new drugs. Instead of decreasing poverty, however, this somehow leads to the open control of the government by corporate entities. Arès begins by showing us a day in the life of the titular character (aka Reda), a washed-up arena fighter in a dilapidated, polluted, and ad-infested Paris. After suffering a stroke due to an experimental drug formula pushed on him by his sponsors, Arès/Reda is the futuristic equivalent of Robert Ryan’s character from The Set-Up. After taking a temporary gig as corporate security holding back a brewing riot (and taking a drug that suppresses any noncompliance in the process), Reda is offered a dubiously-tested steroid that may restart his career. He initially hesitates (with good reason) but is soon spurred into action after his sister–a single mother of two and underground journalist–is arrested for alleged terrorist actions and must have her released on bail for fear that she’ll die in prison. Of course, the drug comes with side effects–the drug only lasts five minutes and its comedown is life-threatening. And, of course, Arès is drawn to face a fighter known as Panzer, who has been physiologically modified to become the arena’s best fighter. Does Arès stand a chance?! Tune into EurOne to find out!
Watching Arès was a surprise for me. I never expected such a conceptually-solid, biopunk neo-noir to come out of the French film industry. Arès digs deep into a wealth of cyberpunk imagery, contrasting the clean, corporate headquarters with the gritty, dog-eat-dog world that the other 99% are subject to on a daily basis. We’ve also covered how the dystopia loves its futuristic gladiator-style combat sports, and the world Arès is built around fits the mold perfectly. Though the tech is only as high as building-sized ads and holographic televisions, it hits the low life element right on the head. Reda, outside his Arès persona, fits the world well as a largely self-centered antihero, holding no ideals outside getting through each day.
Of course, as is with the vast majority of art, Arès has its drawbacks. The film does include a sympathetic transgender character (a fortunate turn from yesteryear’s portrayal), but adheres to stereotypes of mild depravity and physical unattractiveness that seem to liken her more closely to a perverse cross-dresser. The film never goes to explain exactly how the pharmaceutical megacorporations take over–in fact, business models built around the mass manufacture of drugs that seem to promote violence not only seems impractical, but wholly unsustainable (then again, I’ve been wrong before). And finally, if there’s one flawed ideal that Arès doesn’t quite manage to dodge, it’s that of the valorous revolution. But, all in all, it’s a decent watch, and worth the 80-minute runtime.
Arès – 7/10
In the same vein as high-concept B-cyberpunkish movies like Listening and Vice, OtherLife takes place in near-future Sydney, home of bio-software developer Ren Amari and her company OtherLife. Through the use of nanites distributed by eye drops, the drug essentially creates virtual memories of whatever has been scripted–a day at the beach, or a skydiving session, perhaps–but only as long as the memory doesn’t exceed a day. And sloppy coding can lead to potentially fatal glitches, which is exactly what Ren’s coworker and casual sex pal, Danny, experiences, leaving Ren on the verge of being charged with manslaughter. Facing a scandal before OtherLife launches, Ren’s morally-flexible business partner suggests that Ren test-run a new rehabilitation app at the behest of corporate sponsors who will sweep the incident under the rug. In this simulation, Ren will experience a year in prison that only takes a minute in reality to experience–or so she’s told. After (barely) consenting, Ren goes through her “year” in a windowless box, but when it’s up, she doesn’t wake, and the clock resets. In desperation, Ren claws her way out of the cell and makes her way back to civilization to uncover a conspiracy to wrest control of her company away from her–or, as those of you who have seen Total Recall know, maybe not.
Like the aforementioned Vice and Listening, the most glaring aspect that separates OtherLife from traditional cyberpunk is its narrow scope due to a limited budget, which makes the worldbuilding somewhat lackluster and the concept of a nanite-based hallucinogen developed in the modern day a bit difficult to swallow (although, if you think about it, it kinda supports our whole thesis). However, it’s clear that writer/director Ben Lucas draws heavy influence from cyberpunk and new wave sci-fi. Ren is addicted to the drugs she’s created, constantly reliving her last happy memory with her brother before a horrible accident put him into a coma. After Ren escapes from her cell, she discovers that her software has largely been re-engineered to revolutionize the penal system the world over, which, as I’m sure you could guess, isn’t exactly a solution. And, of course, the inclusion of nanites and the dissolving distinction between fantasy and reality are well-worn topics of interest in cyberpunk. Give this one a shot, you might find something you like.
OtherLife – 7/10
High school student Tom lives in modern-day (or perhaps near-future?) London, living a normal life and facing the awkwardness of overcoming adolescence, despite living in a city that is rampant with crime. That is, until the girl he’s crushing on, Lucy, is sexually assaulted in her apartment by masked intruders and he is shot while fleeing the scene, trying to call the authorities in the process. After waking up in a hospital ten days later, Tom learns that, while the smartphone he was using stopped the bullet, many fragments have become embedded in his brain, disfiguring the side of his head with a large scar. Stranger still, in a twist similar to that of Goku Midnight Eye, Tom soon discovers that he now has the ability to search through and hack computerized devices with his mind. Ashamed of his own inability to stop Lucy’s attackers, he uses his newfound abilities to track them down and execute vengeance, but quickly learns that the crime fighting game isn’t as simple as it looks as he puts his life and the lives of the people he cares about on the line.
I was actually quite surprised to watch this movie–my initial impressions were that iBoy was more along the lines of a more family-friendly post-superhero flick. But instead, iBoy is a dark, mature rumination on the nature of vigilantism. Despite the, frankly, absurd premise, the writing, acting, production value, and dreamy electronic score are all top-notch, providing a gritty, vicious view on the modern power fantasy. This isn’t Spider-Man–adolescence is not idealized, as Tom, Lucy, and the other teenage characters are either victims or perpetrators of rising violence and drug use. Tom makes for a fitting cyberpunk protagonist as an idealistic-yet-awkward teenager gone wrong as his quest to wreak havoc on the criminal underworld begins to sabotage his own life, be it his performance at school or his relationships with Lucy, his grandmother/guardian, and his best friend, respectively. But the film’s standout performance comes from Maisie Williams’ portrayal of Lucy, who, partially thanks to the impeccable scripting, accurately portrays the fear and depression of a victim of assault.
London in iBoy reflects the cyberpunk ethos particularly well, packed with images of tall, glistening towers and industrial architecture alongside graffiti-stained alleyways, shipping yards, and dirty, neon-lit clubs. The film’s central location, Crowley Estates, is a particularly dystopian image, standing like a dilapidated tower standing, as one character puts it, “in the shadow of millionaires”. While it doesn’t tap into cyberpunk’s penchant for psychological twists, I’d be willing to bet that this is a film for you, my friend.
iBoy – 8/10
What Happened to Monday (2017)
In the near future, new breeds of genetically modified organisms are created in order to sustain rising populations and shrinking food supplies. Unfortunately, this has the unintended consequence of raising fertility and birth rates. Instead of, say, backtracking on the whole GMO thing and handing out free vasectomies, the WHO of this brilliant future society decides to take a page out of the People’s Republic of China’s sterling handbook, except instead of allowing a multitude of societal issues to arise from a new one-child policy, they just put any extraneous children that come about into cryosleep until the problem I guess fixes itself somehow.
Inexplicably, Willem Dafoe is an American apparently living in a vague, unspecified European country upon finding out that his daughter has died after giving birth to identical septuplets. Instead of bending to the iron will of the dagnabbed government, Willem Dafoe chooses to raise these seven girls–named after each day of the week, to any self-respecting writer’s chagrin–on his own, wherein they must learn how to act as a single woman with an inexplicable Swedish accent on their respective namesake days. If something happens to one of them, the same thing must happen to all of them, which at its most mundane results in each sister sitting down together at the end of each day to discuss the events of what had happened to that day’s lucky winner. At its most extreme, as demonstrated in a flashback by Willem Dafoe brandishing a red-hot butcher’s knife, each sister must inflict physical harm upon themselves in order to maintain visual consistency. Incredibly, twenty-some years pass without a hitch (like, say, nobody tears off one of the sisters’ obvious wigs in public, nobody breaks an arm, resulting in seven identical women requiring actual medical assistance, etc.) and the adult Noomi Rapaces have, of course, developed radically different personalities (oh goody, there’s even a nerdy hacker type). But, oh no, all of a sudden the government is on to the Noomi Rapace collective! Now, you might be asking, what did happen to Monday? Welp, she’s dead. The police literally shanked her in a prison cell.
In case you couldn’t tell, it was incredibly difficult for me to take What Happened to Monday seriously in any way. It’s increasingly difficult to make a futuristic dystopia nowadays that doesn’t share with or steal a visual cue here and there from cyberpunk–WHtM, for instance, has a fleeting interest with holographic screens, industrial slums, and police states. However, I like to think that cyberpunk has at least a modicum of nuance when it wants to. What Happened to Monday makes subtlety trip and somehow stab itself in the throat with a knife–and yes, that happens to some nameless grunt in this movie. It feels less like a sci-fi film and more like a platform for Noomi Rapace to display her range as an actress–which, as much as I enjoy her work otherwise, she absolutely fails to do. None of her characters have depth beyond “butch”, “leader”, or “party girl”, and there is no room for exploration of these characters before the movie’s main action occurs. And, as I was getting at before, Rapace’s attempts at becoming an action star is, more often than not, pretty damn silly. Although, if it’s not abundantly clear already, I had to make myself to stop halfway through the movie, so maybe it’s got its redeeming qualities in there somewhere. If you’re adventurous enough to watch it, you’ll have to let me know.
What Happened to Monday – 3/10
Infinity Chamber (2016)
After waking in a solitary, automated prison cell (I know, this sounds like a retread of OtherLife already) with no knowledge as to how or why he’s been brought there, Frank Lerner suspects that the only person he has contact with, a voice attached to the cell’s camera that calls himself Howard, is pretty good at passing the Turing test. Frank also begins to realize that, as he loses focus on his surroundings, a nearby machine activates that causes him to relive his last day of freedom. Cut off completely from the outside world and desperately proclaiming his own innocence, Frank begins to hatch an escape plan in both waking reality and the world inside his mind, which, once he becomes lucid, he can bend to his own will. This, he soon learns, is a method by which the totalitarian powers-that-be extract information from the cell’s occupants. Similarly, he comes to the conclusion that Howard’s only function as a sentient computer is to keep the chamber’s occupants alive while they are being processed. As time goes on, the simulations become more and more complex, and the lines between reality and fantasy become so blurred that it would make Philip K. Dick’s head spin.
Like many independent thrillers that feature a minimal cast of characters and sets, almost to the point that they could be adapted into a stage play if so desired, Infinity Chamber is the exploration of a relationship between two characters and in so doing brings forth truths about a central concept. In this case, it’s the concept of isolation–Frank yearns to be free from isolation, whereas Howard fights his own isolation by refusing to let Frank, the only person he has ever known, leave. About halfway through the film, Frank recounts how his terminally ill father came to terms with his own death before being put on a life support machine, thus robbing him of his peace. Similarly, after an explosion from the outside seems to have temporarily shut down Frank and Howard’s cell, Frank speculates that perhaps the attack was a global nuclear event, leaving nothing behind. Frank still fights for his freedom, even if this freedom might mean his death.
My overall takeaway from this is that Frank sees isolation as a state of being without anything, and Howard sees it as being with nothing. As the film progresses, Frank begins to interact more fully with a barista named Gabby (whose nature and oftentimes off-the-mark dialogue, unfortunately, represent the weakest part of the film) from his final memory in the real world. As they engage with each other more and more, though she’s merely an apparition, Frank begins to develop a relationship with Gabby and it soon becomes clear that OH NO SPOILERS “Gabby” is a sub-persona Howard has invented–whether or not he is conscious of this remains uncertain by the film’s end. Ultimately, in a Ubik-like twist, the question of which events in the movie are “real” become irrelevant, but the dichotomy between the not-having, tech-laden comfort of modern society and the needs-getting drive of the individual becomes clear. While Infinity Chamber doesn’t feature a fully-fleshed dystopian world reminiscent of most cyberpunk (well, except for perhaps one or two examples), it’s this theme that will keep you nerds in your seats.
The tl;dr version: its Hard Candy meets Source Code. Check it out.
Infinity Chamber – 7/10
Did you think this was over? Of course not, silly, there’s much more where that came from. But, just in case the above films aren’t enough to tide you over, make sure you check out our reviews on other cyberpunk films that may or may not be found on Netflix (depending on when you’re viewing this article).
Narcopolis (2015) – not on NF as of the date of publication of this article, will likely return
The Machine (2013)
Advantageous (2015) – review coming soon
Don't quit your day job
It’s interesting that you rate movies that are objectively horrible on their own metric the curtsy of their own review, while devoting the Aeon Flux section to shitting on it for not being true to the source material.
When you review media, try reviewing it for what it is, not what it isn’t.
Here’s a question for you: would you classify Aeon Flux as a good movie?
We actually have a rubric for rating materials based on different categories: up to two points each for cyberpunk themes, visuals, acting, production value, and writing. In my opinion, the story is uninspired and generic, the production value feels half-assed, the acting is cheesy at its very best, and there’s hardly anything cyberpunk about it. It is flavorless and uninteresting. That is what it is to me.
Don't quit your day job
By comparison to other movies on this list, based on quality and content, Aeon flux would be at least a 4. “low rating” doesn’t shock me, it’s not a fantastic movie. But 1/10? You’re a joke.
Isaac L. Wheeler (Veritas)
I agree, 1/10 for Aeon Flux is a bit unfair. I think I agree that 4/10 is more on point.
I’m surprised, no Black Road or Kill Command weren’t reviewed first? Black Road’s a bit low budget, the only real evidence of VFX being the poorly-rendered border crossing in to Jefferson Free State, but I thought it was a decent piece of cyber-noir and managed to present some interesting concepts despite that. Kill Command is also low budget, but better CGI, and has some legit disturbing scenes in it.
I’ll be covering those in part 2. I hadn’t watched Black Road until just recently, and I was hesitant about Kill Command until I finished writing this article due to its lack of a punk element, but upon a second viewing I realized the cyberpunk elements are too significant to ignore.
great site. aeon flux sucked and absolutely deserves a 1/10 for missed potential