Shape: Lines and Curves in Cyberpunk Film and TV

Alexander Rosenthal '08, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University (Spring 2005)

Lines and curves form the most basic subunits of all shapes, and in cyberpunk film and movies the contrast between line and curve takes on a very specific meaning. These visual media build up the association of the natural with the curve, and the artificial with the line. Curves exist all throughout nature, from the Archimedean spiral of the mollusk's shell to the double helix of DNA to the sphere of the earth or any heavenly body. Straight lines, however, while present in nature, often give a much stronger association of the artificial, the manmade, found for example in the square screen of most computer monitors or the New York City's skyline viewed from a distance. Cyberpunk TV and movies use this association to create a separation between man and machine or challenge that separation.

Max Headroom

Edison Carter max headroom

Straight lines dominate the city environment of Max Headroom, but the strongest contrast between curves and lines comes across in the portrayal of Edison Carter versus that of Max Headroom. Edison Carter, obviously a human, has all the curves the human form carries with it. Max Headroom, though played by the same actor, Matt Frewer, and representing Carter's alter ego, has clear lines in his visage. Three factors contribute the most to this: Max's high, angular cheekbones, his hair parted by alternating black and blonde lines, and the graphical parallel lines that create the backgrounds wherever he appears. This gives Max a definitely humanoid, though not-quite-human appearance. These lines mixed with the curves in Max's face help blur the line between human and machine, and where Max falls in the middle of this dichotomy.

Blade Runner

Tyrell Corporation people on street

Blade Runner further blurs the line between human and machine, because no visual distinction between human and replicant exists. In the movie the humans want to make sure to kill the replicants in part because the replicants can blend into the society so well. Should the replicants rise up against the humans, as they had on a space colony, without any means of instantly distinguishing human from replicant the humans wouldn't stand a chance against their genetically superior counterparts. Though the movie does not employ lines and curve to distinguish humans from their replicant creations, the strongest contrast between line and curve stands out in comparing humans to the city. The camera shots flying through the cityscape between scenes show an environment entirely dominated by the straight line, from the square advertisement screens to the tilted architecture of the Tyrell building. The shots of city streets, on the other hand, abound with curves, such as the human bodies and the umbrellas with which they block the constant rain. Shape here sets off humans from the city they have synthesized for themselves.

Bubblegum Crisis

knight sabers battle suit

Bubblegum Crisis, combines the uses of lines in Bladerunner and Max Headroom. As anime, a drawn medium, Bubblegum Crisis has the most control over shape and precisely when and where to use a line or a curve. This show borrows much from Bladerunner, including its architecture, as the resemblance between the Tyrell building and Genome Research Complex shows, and the distinction between the lines of the city and the curves of humans carries over. Also, just as in Bladerunner, humans cannot be distinguished from their artificial counterparts, in the case of Anri and Sylvie in episode 5. However, like in Max Headroom, lines and curves show the difference between man and machine when the armored battle suits make their appearance. The curves of the humans and androids within these suits stand in sharp contrast to the artificial, straight lines of the suits enclosing the humanoids within.


1. What else do lines and curves communicate to viewers in all visual media?

2. Do specific shapes -- squares, cubes, triangles, circles, spheres -- have meaning of their own?

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Last modified 22 March 2005