Some of the Best Cyberpunk Lives in the World of Short Films
While Black Mirror might have made the idea of short and bleak sci-fi popular, the show is not the first to have come up with the idea of cyberpunk short stories. Whether you’ve just finished the show or never really liked it in the first place, I’ve got good news for you. There’s a lot more out there.
Short films, just like short stories, have always been an avenue for indie filmmakers to express themselves without having to devote a lot of resources to a 90-minute film. Not only that, but many shorts tend to deal with concepts which might not be suitable for a feature-length runtime. Instead, they are made into shorter films to avoid outstaying their welcome.
Despite the popularity of the format, I’ve always found it quite hard to discover new shorts, especially cyberpunk and sci-fi shorts. Not only do shorts lack attention from critics and reviewers, but also they’re frequently uploaded for free on platforms such as Vimeo and YouTube, meaning they might be hiding in plain sight behind a search algorithm or uninviting thumbnail. For this reason, I’ve decided to make this list of shorts that I personally enjoyed, and which I think you should give a bit of your time.
Let’s start this list with an unambiguously cyberpunk short: Breaker. If you asked someone to name the most common cyberpunk movie tropes, chances are this short will have all of them. Tokyo setting? Check. Garishly unique costume design? You betcha!
The plot, set in a single night in Tokyo, features a hacker mercenary facing a uniquely difficult challenge that eventually overruns their mind. Considering this is an independent film, it’s amazing how well the short manages to balance all the aspects of what makes a good film. Rather than placing all of its eggs in one basket, Breaker delivers a very professional overall experience. I almost wish this had been expanded into a short series; it just leaves you wishing for more.
When it comes to the horror genre, people usually think of creepy predators or supernatural monsters. However, Slaughterbots takes a different approach and presents us with the morbidly believable reality of AI weapons.
The plot of the short might not be gripping, but plot is not the focus. Instead, Slaughterbots introduces the titular AI weapons with the usual tech-talk, and things quickly spiral out of control from there.
While this reality might look far off, real-life organisations are already worried about the implications of creating automatic weapons without a pilot. For instance, the U.S Department of Defense has already published a code of ethics regarding the use of AI. That makes me wonder how this field will look in a few decades.
If you are the kind of person who thinks indie films cannot have great special effects, this short is compulsory viewing for you.
Hyper-reality is a cyberpunk short by Keiichi Matsuda that cleverly explores a world in which superficially looks no different than ours. This cyberpunk dystopia is entirely contained within an augmented reality built on top of our world, integrating itself in everything from public transport to personal identity.
When the short first came out in 2016, augmented reality was dominating the headlines of the tech world. Google Glass was being shunned by many privacy-focused individuals, while the Hololens was displayed in E3 the year before. Now, with Google purchasing the smart-glasses company North and rumours of Apple Glasses being released sometime soon, it seems like AR is ready to make a comeback. Hopefully, Hyper-reality was taken as a warning by these tech megacorps rather than an instruction manual for the ideal AR ecosystem.
Brought to you by the creator of Hyper-reality, Merger deserves its own mention due to its unique presentation. Using the same kind of amazing visual effects as Hyper-reality, this short explores the life of a corporate worker in a world with much more advanced automation, all through a 360-degree video of her desk.
As with Hyper-reality, the plot itself is interesting, but obviously limited by its four-minute runtime. Instead, the main focus is on the immersive experience you get from experiencing Merger. If you have a VR headset, make sure to use it for this short so you can explore the video as naturally as is possible. Otherwise, don’t forget that you can navigate 360 videos using WASD.
World of Tomorrow and World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts
Looking at the title, style, and plot synopsis, it makes sense at first to believe that World of Tomorrow is an educational children’s cartoon of sorts. In reality, these shorts by Don Hertzfeldt are the very definition of never judging a book by its cover.
Without spoiling the plot too much, these shorts follow the adventures of Emily as she visits a faraway future with her own clone of future Emily. Usually, the things described by future Emily would be seen as excessively bleak and mentally exhausting. However, the strange contrast between a child’s view of the future and her mature clone’s perspective make this world worth exploring.
By the time I was done watching the first installment, I was overrun by a strange mix of emotions ranging from ennui to joy. This is probably why the short has earned numerous accolades including an Oscar nomination. Because of its tendency to evoke an intense emotional response, I’d recommend a small break before watching Episode Two, which is also incredibly good and maybe even better than the first. I am bundling both parts together as a double feature because of their very similar topics and plot styles, but please, make sure to give each of them the individual attention they deserve.
The Brain Hack
Okay, I have to admit that The Brain Hack blurs the line between what counts as cyberpunk and what is just great science fiction. However, I still believe this one worth including, as it has many elements most cyberpunk fans will surely love. For instance, it portrays the use of technology to alter the human brain as well a good conspiracy. Just make sure you aren’t sensitive to flashing lights because this short has a lot of them.
Out of all the shorts on this list, The Brain Hack feels the most indie. It doesn’t have ambitious action scenes or amazing AR special effects. However, this sort of helps to sell the concept of the short, which is two college students attempting to decipher the secrets of the human brain.
As someone familiar with neuroscience, I find the film’s concept fascinating, even if some of its ideas are definitely more fiction than science (a part of the brain devoted to religious devotion?!). However, it still poses some pretty interesting questions regarding how we define perception and the implications of understanding our brains more deeply.
Honourable Mention: Venus
While the short film Venus is not yet released at time of writing, it’s a very promising entry. We’ve previously discussed the short and its Kickstarter campaign, but production has been delayed due to the pandemic. Make sure to keep an eye both here and on their social media for updates.