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The Movies/TV 8 Ball: The Top 8 Tech Noir Films

October 3, 2017 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Blade Runner

Top 8 Tech Noir Films

Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!

One of the most highly-anticipated films of the year releases this Friday. Blade Runner 2049 releases in theaters, some thirty-five after the release of the original. The Denis Villeneuve-directed sequel is picking up some major buzz from critics and is easily going to top the weekend. I’m excited for it because it plays into two of my favorite genres: sci-fi and noir. Better known as tech noir, the amalgamated genre has been a thing since before the very term itself was coined. This week, we’re going to look at the best entries into that particular sub-category.

Caveat: Tech noir is defined as a noir film that takes place in a future, often (but not always) dystopian setting. The two genres tend to be a perfect match, as they both generally deal with morally-compromised characters and dark emotional themes. For the purposes of this list, I was looking at films that had a fairly equal balance of both science fiction and noir. That left some films out like The Matrix, which only lightly dabbles in noir, or Kiss Me Deadly which was far less sci-fi than those that made this list. There’s always a lot of debate on what counts as noir itself, much less tech noir. But in general, that equal balance was my guiding light.

Just Missing the Cut

Alphaville (1965)
The City of Lost Children (1995)
Soylent Green (1973
Total Recall (1990)
Brazil (1985)

#8: Twelve Monkeys (1995)

First up on our list is one of the many great tech noirs to come out in 1995. Terry Gilliam had dabbled in the subgenre before, installing some noir elements into his absurdist film Brazil. Twelve Monkeys was the film that saw Gilliam do a full-on dive into the sci-fi noir pool. Initially set in a post-apocalyptic future, Bruce Willis’ convict James Cole is sent back in time to stop a virus that destroyed civilization. Once he ends up there, he is quickly deemed to be insane and confined in an asylum.

Twelve Monkeys has great performances and a hell of a script, but Gilliam’s direction gives it that final touch of noir brilliance. Cole is far from a morally perfect protagonist, and all of the characters lie somewhere within the grey areas of morality. Gilliam’s use of light and color are textbook noir and the complicated plot keeps the viewer guessing about everyone. Twelve Monkeys remains one of my favorite time travel films, boasting a powerful story that fits it perfectly within the tech noir landscape.

#7: Gattaca (1997)

A plot that pits a morally grey protagonist against a corrupt system is one of the hallmarks of a noir film. Gattaca sublimely uses that basic set-up to tell a socially relevant tale about genetic manipulation and eugenics. But the vague premise is far from the only thing that makes Andrew Niccol’s 1997 film one of the better sci-fi noir movies. Niccol puts classic noir fingerprints all over this film, from the costumes to the complex moral questions. The film tells the tale of Vincent, a man who wants to become an astronaut but can’t due to his genetic flaws. In order to bring his hopes to light, he enters into a deal with a paraplegic (Jude Law) to have access to his DNA.

Gattaca didn’t resonate with audiences when it released, and it was deemed a financial flop. But critics deservedly loved it and its estimation has only grown greater in the last two decades. It’s full of the kinds of visual flair that make up the best noir films. Hawke and Law play off each other quite well, with Uma Thurman also doing great work as Vincent’s co-worker/love interest. It’s a film full of thought-provoking drama and brimming with suspense, enhanced by Niccol’s use of noir motifs.

#6: Dark City (1998)

Is there a science fiction film that looks more noir than Dark City? Well, yes actually. But we’ll get to that once we hit #1. That said, in many ways Alex Proyas’ dark science fiction fantasy is perhaps the most open about wearing those influences on its sleeve. Proyas became recognized as a director with real vision thanks to The Crow, but Dark City is where he really came into his own. Much like Gattaca, this film disappointed at the box office. But most of those who did see it loved its style and daring plot twists. Needless to say, that included me.

To describe Dark City’s plot gives away a lot about it, so for those who may not have seen it I’ll keep things simple. Rufus Sewell plays John Murdoch, a man with amnesia who wakes up being accused of murder. John goes on the run, learning that the inhabitants of his city tend to wake up with different identities. Pursued by ominous authorities known as Strangers, he he tries to find the truth and realizes it’s far stranger than even he suspects. Proyas inserts a lot of classic noir elements here — the smoky nightclubs, the suspicious aides to the hero, the powerful hunting the hero down. Not everyone loves the finish, and I understand that, but it completely works for me. It’s a daring film, but one whose ambition works far more than it fails.

#5: Ghost in the Shell (1995)

As one might expect, there tends to be a lot of overlap between tech noir and cyberpunk. Both genres touch on similar themes and are noted for their strong visual palettes. Ghost in the Shell is the best example of a film that fits firmly in both niches. We are, of course, not talking about the 2017 Scarlett Johansson film, which is a mess. Instead, this is the 1995 anime from Mamoru Oshii, which tells the story much more effectively with just as strong of a look.

Like many tech noir films, Ghost in the Shell explores some heady themes. In this film’s case, it’s exploring the nature of sentience and what makes a person. That’s the kind of subject matter that noir is practically tailor-made to tackle. Major Motoko Kusanagi is very much the typical noir protagonist, but given a new twist. As the viewer, we often can’t trust such a hero because they walk too close to the line between good and evil. In Motoko’s case, it’s because we’re not sure how real her reality actually is. The film makes great use of darkness and light, and the shadowy Puppet Master makes for a fantastic adversary. It’s a dark, intoxicating film that excels the more it leans into its genre trappings.

#4: Strange Days (1995)

Cards on the table here, folks. If this list was simply about my favorite tech noir films, Strange Days would be #1 with a bullet. Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 turn-of-the-millennium film is a thrilling movie that I really, truly love. Set on the eve of the 21st century, the movie imagines a world on teetering the edge of chaos, where memories can be downloaded and experiences by others. Ralph Fiennes plays Lenny, a former cop and now dealer in black market memories who gets caught up investigating a conspiracy due to his connection to an old flame.

Everything about Strange Days screams tech noir. Fiennes is slimy and disreputable as Lenny, but actually cares underneath and Fiennes makes him captivating. You have Juliette Lewis playing the femme fatale, Angela Bassett kicking ass as Lenny’s friend who helps him out and Tom Sizemore as another friend whose motives you can’t quite be sure of. It’s a gritty, dirty film that feels more visceral and real than most science fiction, perhaps due to the near-current setting. The twists and turns are predictable if you know noir plot structure, but are executed well. Strange Days should get a lot more love than it does, particularly within this subgenre.

#3: Minority Report (2002)

Stephen Spielberg isn’t really someone I necessarily ever expected to jump into the noir pool. That’s not to say I dislike him, of course. Spielberg is one of the greatest directors of his or any other generation. But he’s always had a bent toward either heavy adult dramas, or family-friendly sci-fi. Sure, he did Jaws and Poltergeist but those were more pulpy (in a good way) than genre-crossing. Frankly, I always expected Lucas to lean more into noir. But Spielberg surprised me when he teamed up with Tom Cruise for Minority Report, one of the absolute best tech noir movies.

Like anything he’s done, Spielberg tackles the genre with style. He works off a script loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s short story here, presenting a tale that functions as both a VFX-heavy blockbuster and a thinking sci-fi film. Tom Cruise excels as John Anderton, the pre-crime officer who finds himself accused of a murder-to-be. That’s where the film really takes off, with Anderton on the run and trying to get to the bottom of a conspiracy. Spielberg has specifically acknowledged the film’s genre roots. He said that he used The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon as inspiration, and it shows. The high-contrast look of the film is very noir, and the entire cast nails their roles. It’s really hard not to appreciate this film for its work in the subgenre.

#2: The Terminator (1984)

I mean, just look up at that picture. The Terminator literally contains the first official use of the term “tech noir,” specifically as the name of a nightclub in the film. Most of the films in James Cameron’s franchise play as straight sci-fi action films. However, The Terminator is the exception. Cameron launched an iconic character when he made this sci-fi thriller about a cyborg and human resistance fighter sent back in time to assassinate/protect the mother of the future resistance leader.

There isn’t much you can say about this film’s virtues that isn’t cliché at this point. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton are all great, of course. Meanwhile, Cameron keeps the tension high in what is a pretty perfectly-paced viewing experience. His Los Angeles absolutely fits within the tech noir palette, full of deep shadows and seedy neon clubs with neon signs. The Terminator is perhaps the most accessible of the science fiction noir films, making it a great way to introduce movie novices into the genre. It’s a hell of a movie, and almost the best tech noir films ever made.

#1: Blade Runner (1982)

Obvious pick is obvious. When anyone mentions the terms “sci-fi noir” or “tech noir,” Blade Runner is the first film that comes to mind for everyone. And with good reason, too. Ridley Scott’s 1982 film is an absolute masterpiece, both of storytelling and of style. Scott adapts another Phillip K. Dick story (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) in creating one of the most appreciated future-set noir films ever.

Harrison Ford is, by all measuring sticks that matter, the classic noir hero. He’s a former cop-turned-bounty hunter living in a gritty, scummy take on future Los Angeles. He’s cynical and self-involved, but comes out of that when he goes on the hunt for four rogue replicants. Ford’s work is the best of his career, supplemented nicely by actors like Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah and more. Blade Runner’s world very much feels like what would have happened if the Los Angeles of Maltese Falcon or Chinatown continued through to the modern day. It’s one of the all-time great science fiction films. And when it comes to tech noir, it’s #1 without question.

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.