©2019, by M. Keith Booker
Even such early films as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) contained strong film noir elements, partly because they both had directors who also worked in noir. But it was with the groundbreaking Blade Runner (1982) that the phenomenon known as tech noir was truly established (though it would not get its name—a reference to a dance club that appears in Terminator in 1984—until a bit later). When making this film, Ridley Scott reportedly declared that he wanted to make a film set forty years in the future with the ambience of a film set forty years in the past. To get the 1940s flavor of the latter, Scott leaned heavily on film noir as a visual and thematic model. The result was what one might consider the first (and still greatest) film of the genre that has come to be known as “tech noir,” also sometimes called “future noir” or “science fiction noir.” On the other hand, Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave dystopianfilm Alphaville (1965) might be considered the first tech noir film, and other dystopian films—such as Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973)—exhibit tech noir characteristics as well, but the genre reached its fully defined form only with Blade Runner, which has heavily influenced every other tech noir film since.
In general, virtually any film set in an urban future marked by violence, crime, and corruption might be considered an example of tech noir, especially if it includes some of the other typical characteristics of film noir, such as moral ambiguity, play with light and shadow, and the presence of certain specific character types, such as the femme fatale. As a subgenre of science fiction, tech noir has a great deal in common with cyberpunk, of which Blade Runner was a key forerunner, though cyberpunk tends to put more emphasis on motifs involving virtual reality. Thus, many cyberpunk films can also be classified as tech noir films, especially those that involve crime or detective-story plots, such as Strange Days (1995) and Johnny Mnemonic (1995). Films such as Dark City (1998) and The Thirteenth Floor (1999) are even more overt in their combination of such plots with visuals that are explicitly borrowed from film noir. Other films, such as StevenSpielberg’s Minority Report (2002), clearly fit within the realm of tech noir, but are only marginally cyberpunk, while a film such as The Matrix (1999) is one of the central examples of cyberpunk but is only marginally tech noir. Generic boundaries for both tech noir and cyberpunk are clearly blurry, which is typical of works of postmodernism, a category to which both subgenres clearly belong.
More recent examples of tech noir include such films as Gamer (2009), Dredd (2012), and Hardcore Henry (2015), all of which are marked by excessive, sometimes cartoonish, violence, which seems to be a recent trend in tech noir film. Science fiction films such as Total Recall (1990), Gattaca (1997) and Looper (2012) are also clearly related to film noir but involve somewhat less violence. Perhaps the most unusual recent example of tech noir is the 2019 thriller Serenity (2019), directed by Steven Knight. Featuring an A-list cast headlined by Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, and Diane Lane, this film plays out for most of its runtime very much like a typical neo-noir film, in which Hathaway’s femme fatale attempts to convince McConaughey’s fishing boat captain (who is her former lover and the father of their son) to murder her mob-connected abusive husband. In this, the action on steamy Plymouth Island links back to a number of Florida noir films, from Key Largo (1948) to Body Heat (1981). However, it is impossible to say for sure just where Plymouth Island is located—even for the characters in the film who live there. Indeed, such odd details accumulate until it eventually becomes clear that the action is taking place inside a computer simulation generated by the thirteen-year-old computer whiz son of the characters played by Hathaway and McConaughey, trying to cope with the difficulties of his dysfunctional family life. McConaughey’s real character, as it turned out, was killed in action in Iraq, but all turns out well: Clarke’s abusive gangster winds up dead in both the simulation and real life, while the boy ultimately joins his father in the simulation. Deeply flawed and problematic in all sorts of ways, this film nevertheless indicates that Hollywood is still trying hard to find ways to make the tech noir formula click.