With the new film “Blade Runner 2049” out this weekend I wanted to try to find lists to help focus on the movie’s theme. So I decided to look at movies within in genre, a personal favorite of mine called “tech noir”. These are neo noir films, which if you couldn’t tell are movies that utilize classic film noir elements with a modern edge, that are specifically grounded in science fiction. Considering the significance of this week’s upcoming soon-to-be hit sequel the outcome of this list might be a bit predictable, but all the same here they are: my picks for the Top 10 Tech Noir Films.
For this list I looked at any film that is officially or unofficially considered to be tech-noir. Some of these may be debatable, but all of them have been labeled as tech-noir at some point in the past. I chose ten movies I, personally, thought shined as examples of tech noir filmmaking utilizing color, sound, and classic noir themes to tell the story. Movies that are more fitting of fantasy noir and future noir films, which are not always science fiction, were not included in this list and will be explored another time. For now I simply chose the best neo noir science fiction films.
So, what is your favorite tech noir film? Let me know in the comments below and be sure to check out “Blade Runner 2049” in theater this weekend.
Forget the original Sylvester Stallone driven” Judge Dredd”. This more modern take on the famed comic book judge of the future was a much better representation of the attitude and darkness that permeated the source material. Karl Urban took on the iconic character, bringing an attitude and confidence to the role that truly captured the no-nonsense Judge Dredd to the fullest. A blend of science fiction, action, and dystopian concept “Dredd” could easily be billed as either a tech noir or future noir film, but it works for this list. It’s filled with great cinematography and set pieces, a dark and brooding atmosphere, and bends the lines of right and wrong as we see that even in this futuristic world where justice has been essentially been privatized the men and women in charge are still highly corruptible. It also contains a great villain in Ma-Ma who serves as a drug lord and isn’t afraid to gun down anyone, citizens or judge, to keep her business afloat. “Dredd” flew under the radar and became a cult classic, but it perfectly captured the tech noir theme in a way no other comic book adaptation has ever even tried to accomplish.
This 1965 offering is the oldest entry on this list and is only considered part of the tech noir genre in hindsight, but it’s a fascinating film to add to this list none the less. “Alphaville” follows a secret agent who heads to the titular space city of Alphaville to hunt down a missing person and free the city from an abusive ruler. This film was ahead of its time in terms of its content and themes and actually avoided many science fiction tropes that would become permanent parts of the growing genre over time. What makes this film truly unique, even if it was more a product of the time, is that the city of Alphaville looks and feels like a real place with little, if any, sci-fi alteration to it’s real-world backdrop of Paris. Shot in black and white, this French film still stands up today and harkens back to the feel and form of noir thrillers of the past in both style and substance with a science fiction edge adding a unique flair that helped it standout as a highly original cinematic offering for its time.
8. “Minority Report”
What if we could stop crimes before they happen? That’s the theme behind this modern tech noir classic starring Tom Cruise as a police chief who, through the film’s technology, can detect crimes before they occur and bring the subjects to justice before a victim has to suffer. When Cruise’s character becomes the target of investigation as the subject of a premonition he goes on the run to clear his name. “Minority Report” takes place in a dark setting and an interesting future that is bound to make any viewer contemplate whether knowing the crime ahead of time is a worthy cause for prosecution. Is it right to arrest a criminal before they are proven guilty by actually committing the act? More than that “Minority Report” is filled with great technological wonders to behold, some such wonders that have actually come to life in the real world, and contains all the great makings of a classic noir with a modern flair. One of 2002’s most beloved films critically, “Minority Report” won a Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film among other accolades which solidified it as a classic in the world of science fiction and made it a tough act to follow in terms of more recent tech noir offerings by taking the genre in a new, creative direction. Specifically designed to emulate the feel of a noir film without actually delving into everything that is film noir, “Minority Report” is a fun adventure into an interesting future that, if you haven’t seen it yet, you should certainly check out.
Not every tech noir film has to be rooted in crime. Take “Gattaca” for example. This 1997 modern classic contains many common film noir tropes and styles, but combines it with a more positive and thought provoking message of right and wrong as we are thrust into a world where genetically perfect children can be produced, leaving those born naturally and with imperfections to be labeled as lower level members of society. Ethan Hawke plays Vincent Freeman, a man who just wants to explore space and “buys” the identity of a handicapped former athlete to trick his way into working for the prestigious Gattaca Aerospace Corporation. The film sees Vincent have many close calls with the law as his secret is nearly revealed many times and while it may not be a conventional neo noir setup, this thought provoking science fiction classic of the 90s doesn’t forsake it’s cinematic roots instead utilizing classic filmmaking styles and approaches to focus on powerful themes with a science fiction backdrop to tie it all together. “Gattaca” embraces the noir style and themes but tells its own story, making for a great blend of originality and old-school techniques that create a very complete film experience.
6. “The Matrix”
Many do consider this 1999 classic to be a tech noir film and I’d have to agree, thus its inclusion on this list. Following a computer hacker played by Keanu Reeves who finds himself “unplugged” from a computer-made alternate reality to pacify the remainder of the human race, “The Matrix” presented a world where the stakes were high and possibilities were endless. While it lacks some of the crime and blurred right-versus-wrong aspects other noir films are known to embrace, it’s the imagery and setting that truly shine with this movie as both the computer generated world of the Matrix and the real world outside the computer have a dark a dreary feel to them and the mystery elements and character design are also worthy tributes top noir films of old. It might not be the most faithful offering to embrace the tech noir style, but “The Matrix” is still a solid addition to the genre and it would be a crime for me to leave it off a list like this. While its sequels somewhat betrays in noir feel in favor of more action and bumping up the science fiction elements, the first “Matrix” film was a masterful work of storytelling that combined the new and the old to create something truly unique.
5. “Dark City”
Not to be confused with the actual noir film of the 1950s that shares the same name, 1998’s “Dark City” is among the most iconic tech-noir films around, and for good reason. In a world where night never ends a man with amnesia awakens to find he is accused of a murder and sets out to clear his name, pursued by authorities and a mysterious group called “The Strangers” as he seeks answers to his past. Beautifully shot and exceptionally dark, “Dark City” perfectly captures the feel of a classic noir film while also serving as a well crated modern science fiction epic at the same time. Often considered a trend setter and a precursor to films like “The Matrix” that combined noir themes and style with more out-there science fiction concepts, this movie worked in some great genre mind benders to build on its already intriguing mystery and incorporated its noir inspired design and setting perfectly. Well timed revelations and seemingly endless twists and turns add to the mystery and suspense in a way only great noir films manage to pull off.
The newest film on this list, “Looper” was certainly a unique movie involving time travel, hitmen, and a dystopian future none of us would probably enjoy living in. Another film that could be considered future noir as well as tech noir, “Looper” stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis and the younger and older forms of protagonist Joe respectively. When the older Joe is sent back in time to be killed by his younger self, a process called “closing the loop”, the older Joe escapes leading to a manhunt by the younger Joe before both men are killed by authorities and before the older Joe kills a child who becomes a dangerous crime lord in the future. As mind-bending as it is intriguing, this film has it all. It’s got great atmosphere and setting. It’s got an engrossing story and touches on some pretty powerful themes. And, of course, it has some interesting science fiction elements that make it a pretty neat and unique take on what’s yet to come for humanity. “Looper” was an instant modern classic when it hit theaters in 2012 and it’s not hard to see why as it actually FEELS like a classic noir film, even if it might be a bit too bright and colorful to perfectly emulate the genre of old when it’s all said and done.
3. “Ghost in the Shell” (1995)
The only animated film on this list, this Japanese classic was directly influence by early tech noir films of the day, two of which have yet to be listed off here. While the 2017 live-action version tried to capture the same imagery and feel of its animated source material, you can’t beat the classic which saw a cyborg cop and her partner try to hunt down a dangerous hacker. Beautifully rendered in classic anime-style animation, “Ghost in the Shell” captures the feel of the noir genre better than many of its predecessors and contemporaries due to the medium alone. The dark design of the future and the seemingly contradictory intensity and calm of the main character, Major, are perfectly presented in animated form and, as we learned this year, there’s just something about the style of the animated original that can’t be emulated in real-life. It’s crime thriller story is straight up pure classic film noir and its characters and design are obviously rendered with noir influences in mind. While there have been many who have tried to recapture the magic of past tech noir thrillers, “Ghost in the Shell” not only emulated past films, but built on them giving us one of the most iconic Japanese animated movies of all time and a near perfect science fiction experience.
2. “The Terminator”
Before we get to our probably obvious #1, we have a film that took the tech noir concept and made it truly popular in 1984. While most entries in the “Terminator” franchise are more action packed, colorful, and lean heavily on the science fiction aspect more than anything else it’s important to remember the original movie was a defining tech noir classic. You’ve got it all, a hardened hero from the future, a dangerous and seemingly indestructible enemy, an amazing soundtrack, and, most of all, much of the movie happens in the dead of night giving the city setting its own more futuristic feel as the terminator hunts down his target. While more modern entries in this franchise have since ditched the noir backdrop the original leaned on, that actually kind of gives “The Terminator” its own identity as a dark and gritty entry in science fiction. This film, and its director james Cameron, also deserve credit for coining the term “Tech Noir” which was first used on a night club in the movie. While my #1 may have established the tech-noir genre, “The Terminator” made it cool and few films in the genre could top this film as an iconic classic…but still there is one undeniable classic that does…
1. “Blade Runner”
I know, it’s the obvious choice, but come on was there ever any doubt? Could there be a better #1 for this list? “Blade Runner” Wasn’t just an absolute perfect example of neo noir and tech noir, it was the film that defined what a tech noir movies could and should look like combining futuristic technology, a great mystery tale, well-paced storytelling, and a dark atmosphere to essentially take your typical film noir and science fiction tropes and adapt both into a perfect blend of genres noone thought could work so perfectly. While there were films, like “Alphaville”, that tried to blend film noir and science fiction before, this was the first to truly fully embrace the style and popularized tech noir as a legitimate genre unto itself. “Blade Runner” was meant to be a tribute and advancement on the neo noir film approach and it succeeded in almost every way. While the movie has seen its share of alterations over the years, adding to its story and lore through different cuts and recuts, it still holds up today for its great effects, its classic musical score, and its themes about humanity and the line between right and wrong. It truly is the film all others on this list could only hope to become and that makes it a great choice at the greatest of them all in the tech noir genre.