Ghost in the Shell is part of a cult subgenre whose lineage stretches back to the 1920 s and whose visions have never seemed so prescient

Code streams across a computer screen; hackers bark at each other in techno-jargon and hammer at keyboards; the real world seamlessly switchings into the virtual, and back again. This is the sort of scene that is instantly recognisable as a cyberpunk movie, the subgenre of sci-fi that meshes together technology and counterculture of which Ghost in the Shell, the live-action remaking of the Japanese anime classic, is the latest high-profile example.

It is little surprise that cyberpunk has proved irresistible for many film-makers over the decades since the term was coined, by the author Bruce Bethke, in the early 1980 s. With its visions of postapocalyptic futures, advanced technologies and virtual realm, they get to pack their cinemas with visual consequences to sweeten the( red) pill, while wrestling with weighty existential topics.

Yet, for all its enduring popularity which owes so much to Ridley Scotts 1982 classic Blade Runner cyberpunk has often proved a tough nut to crack on the big screen. Even the author William Gibson, a founding father of the genre on the page, struggled to bring its dystopian charms to the cinema. Gibsons first significant foray into cinema came in 1995 with Johnny Mnemonic an adaptation of his short story about a data courier with a chip implanted in his headand was an confused and poorly received flop, even if it did feature clairvoyant dolphins. Gibson described the movie as two animals in one skin constantly pulling in multiple directions.

Maverick
Maverick the 1982 film Blade Runner, with Harrison Ford. Photo: Allstar/ Warner Bros

He had identified a problem that would beset many cyberpunk cinemas thereafter. A decade before Johnny Mnemonic was released, Gibson had written Neuromancer, a genre-defining fiction that thrust readers into a noirish dystopia. Neuromancer, published in 1984, came at a time of change. Computers were yet to become ubiquitous, and a strange subculture of phreaks and hackers was brewing. Slowly, governments were realising that the kids tinkering in their bedrooms with soldering irons and motherboards could be capable of interrupting the status quo. Technology was becoming imperil, and even political. In short, great material for screenplays.

However, the resulting movies over the last two decades have varied in quality, to say the least. The biggest make at the box office has been the Wachowskis Matrix trilogy for which a controversial reboot is being planned. Then there are curios, like Abel Ferraras New Rose Hotel( based on another Gibson novel ), which starred Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe and Asia Argento. Theres Wim Wenders postapocalyptic odyssey Until the End of the World( five hours, if you manage to see out the directors cut ), and Kathryn Bigelows Strange Days, a critically divisive cinema that explored the impact of virtual reality. More recently, weve had Carleton Ranneys lo-fi slow-burner Jackrabbit and David Cronenbergs unsettling short, The Nest. Cyberpunk has come to the small screen, too: Mr Robot is a modern incarnation, as was the TV reveal Orphan Black.

Metropolis.
Metropolis. Photo: Moviestore Collection/ Rex

In truth, cyberpunk themes existed in cinema long before the phrase did. Fritz Langs 1927 film Metropolis envisaged wealthy upper-class, oppressed mass and a unnerving fusion of woman and machine all themes explored in the remaking of Ghost in the Shell. That pedigree can be traced through to Blade Runner, based on Philip K Dicks 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep ?, which was set in a smog-filled futuristic LA, dominated by the Tyrell Corporation, where Harrison Fords retired cop huntings replicant cyborgs while musing on humanitys metaphysical quandaries.

A turning point for cyberpunk in cinema came from an in 1988, with Katsuhiro tomos landmark anime Akira. A fusion of rebellious youth culture and groundbreaking animation, its narrative of teenage biker gangs in a postapocalyptic Tokyo became an international cult hit. The movie paved the way for a wave of animations for adults that peaked in 1998 with Ghost in the Shell. That films apprehending visuals, existential questions and a pared back, cat-and-mouse narration was unlike anything audiences had watched before.

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Watch the trailer for Akira on YouTube

Crucial to cyberpunk is a countercultural take over social issues, albeit often viewed though a Hollywood lens. As Iain Softley, the director of the tongue-in-cheek 1995 thriller Hackers, says: As far a cyber culture is concerned, it is this mixture of technological culture with underground motions. That appeals to younger audiences and that is also the appeal for film-makers.

Hackers, he says, was never about these new technologies. It was about the popular culture that it generated.

Angelina
Angelina Jolie and Johnny-Lee Miller in Hackers. Photo: Allstar/ United Artists

But how do film-makers ensure that the genre remains cutting edge? The remake of Ghost in the Shell, directed by Rupert Sanders, will be the first big-budget outing for cyberpunk since the Matrix films. Guillaume Rocheron, who worked on the movie as a visual consequences supervisor, says that while the original animation was a key source, the makers took a lot of inspiration from glitch art, various art installings inspired the architecture.

Rocheron explains that the films solograms( Solid volumetric projections of people and advertisings you see in our city shots) necessitated them to develop a new camera system. This is a common feature of cyberpunk cinemas: the pioneering of visual impacts technologies to make new world, such as the bullet-time technique that was developed for The Matrix.

In todays increasingly technology-driven world where our run depends on connectivity, our leisure on social networks, our economy on digital information cyberpunk remains most pertinent than ever. News headlines are dominated by email hacks, the growing clout of mega-corporations, and rapid developments in AI and virtual reality. Cyberpunk remains a genre that pushes the boundaries, opening audiences eyes to the intersection of technology and humanity and the blur lines between artificial and organic intelligence. The questions about what induces something real and who precisely is in control are left to us to work out.

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