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Biopunk and the Films of David Cronenberg #cyberpunk

We’ve talked about some of the offshoots of cyberpunk, like transrealism and the recent solarpunk. And then, of course, there’s perhaps the most well-known of cyberpunk’s offspring, steampunk. But one of the more interesting and relevant of c-punk’s kids for me has always been biopunk, or ribofunk, as it was originally called when sci-fi author Paul Di Filippo first articulated the idea. Ribofunk was described by Paul as:

Ribofunk is speculative fiction which acknowledges, is informed by, and illustrates the tenet that the next revolution–the only one that really matters–will be in the field of biology. To paraphrase Alexander Pope, ribofunk holds that: “The proper study of mankind is life.” Forget physics and chemistry; they are only tools to probe living matter. Computers? Merely simulators and modelers for life. The cell is King!

Di Filippo has as excellent collection of ribofunk/biopunk stories in his Ribofunk collection.

When we talk about cyberpunk films, we tend to talk about films like Blade Runner and The Matrix, or the anime of Akira, but for my money, two of the most overlooked films of the genre are David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and Existenz.

Although they have many of the tropes we recognize from cyberpunk (hackers and high-tech low-lifes, elements of noir, virtual reality, techno-surrealism, body dysmorphia, a war of control over people’s minds), Cronenberg’s films are often not seen as part of the genre because they are so ribofunky. He is the master of the “body horror” genre and he brings the icky and squishy in spades in these two films. And he addresses one key cyberpunk topic in his films perhaps more directly than any other artist, something I characterized in my 1993 cyberpunk manifesto with the quote: “Our technology is getting smaller and smaller, closer to our skin, and soon it will disappear inside of us.”

Videodrome was released in 1983, on the heels of Blade Runner and before the release of Neuromancer. It concerns the brainwashing and mind-controlling of the masses through the use of hallucination-inducing, ultra-violent TV programming. The main theme of the film is how modern media is blurring the lines between fantasy and reality to the point where we will no longer be able to tell the difference and evil forces will use that fact to control us. We may have already arrived here.

While Videodrome is clearly only cyberpunk-adjacent, 1999’s Existenz is far more mainstream in its c-punk concerns, though it addresses these through a biopunk aesthetic. The film deals with virtual reality, advanced biotechnology, hackers, video games, and Luddite forces hellbent on destroying new technologies.

Wikipedia:

In the near-future, biotechnological virtual reality game consoles known as “game pods” have replaced electronic ones. The pods present “UmbyCords” that attach to “bio-ports”, connectors surgically inserted into players’ spines. Two game companies, Antenna Research and Cortical Systematics, compete against each other. In addition, the Realists fight both companies to prevent the “deforming” of reality.

Antenna Research’s Allegra Geller, a world renowned game designer, is demonstrating her latest virtual reality game, eXistenZ, to a focus group. A Realist named Noel Dichter shoots Allegra in the shoulder with an organic pistol he smuggled past security. As Dichter is gunned down by the security team, security guard and publicist Ted Pikul rushes to Geller and escorts her outside.

Geller discovers that her pod, which contains the only copy of eXistenZ, may have been damaged. Pikul reluctantly agrees to have a bio-port installed in his spine so they can test the integrity of the game together. Allegra takes him to a gas station run by a black-marketeer named Gas, who deliberately installs a faulty bio-port. He reveals his intention to kill Geller for the bounty on her head. Pikul kills Gas, and the two escape to a former ski lodge used by Kiri Vinokur, Geller’s mentor. Vinokur and his assistant repair the damaged pod and give Pikul a new bio-port.

If you’ve not seen these films, and you’re interested in understanding the full bandwidth of cyberpunk (and its ribofunky offshoot), you owe it to yourself to check them out.


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1 Comment

  1. As much as i genuinely love Cronenberg, eXistenZ was one of the worst, stupidest, most laughably unbelievable and ludicrous movies I have ever seen in my life. Thankfully it didn’t tank him, but you’ll notice he has steered fairly clear of body horror ever since. I was afraid he had really jumped his shark with that one. I still find it hard to believe anyone ever took it seriously enough to work on it and even release it. They even promoted that turd.

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