Cyberpunk: Edgerunners (Review)

Source: Opening, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners

By: Beata Garrett | @clearsummers

If you’re not quite sure whether to watch Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, the new Netflix anime based on a video game, Cyberpunk 2077, I would say it is worth it. It’s a messy experience, with interesting themes and storylines that are sometimes dragged out for too long or cut too short. Looking back on my time with this show, I can’t say I loved it or even liked it, but it certainly does try and I appreciate what it does. This review won’t discuss how it connects to the video game as I haven’t played it.

Disclaimer: This post and the show contains depictions that may be triggering for some readers. Content warning for murder, body horror, and gore. By clicking “Read More,” you understand that you may encounter such content. Reader discretion is advised. This discussion also contains spoilers for all of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners.

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Cyberpunk: Edgerunners follows David, a young boy facing expulsion at his elite school for overloading their system with a backstreet cyber implant. This is a fantastic and promising start as it gives us a sense of the wealth inequality common in this neon city, the consistent upgrades and arms race to acquire more technologically advanced equipment, and the all too depressing choice many characters in cyberpunk media are forced to make between survival and morality.

The show’s strongest moments build upon these motifs, either visually or through dialogue. The opening itself has a wonderful moment near its end wherein we see David facing a figure covered in which the city’s scenery rushes within it. One of the biggest antagonists of the series is not one individual, but a corporation: Arasaka, a conglomerate that is everywhere and which the characters may steal from, but will never defeat. For all intents and purposes, Arasaka is the city, and its technology seeps into the daily life of its residents, constantly reminding us and David that there’s not much he can do to change his life and control it.

David’s breaking point is when his mother, Gloria, dies after the two get caught in a shootout. Ambulances come and drift over their bodies, focused on prioritizing those that pay for insurance. It’s a chilling reminder of the poor healthcare that exists in various countries (I live in the USA, so this is something I think about a lot). Cyberpunk: Edgerunners presents many ways in which the marginalized are exploited and whose value is seen in what they can do for the elites. The loss of Gloria means David will be unable to return to school and be homeless as they’re already behind on rent. At one point, Gloria told David that she dreamed she would see her son reach the top floor of Arasaka, a now ludicrous-seeming future. 

It’s no wonder then that when David discovers a powerful implant called the Sandevistan that his mother had, he uses it on himself instead of selling it. Despite a back alley doctor’s warnings that it’ll poach his brain, David chooses to have one moment of feeling powerful instead of paying the school so his expulsion is revoked or paying his contemptuous landlord. David proceeds to fight his bully, a son of an Arasaka executive, and sends the son to the hospital in one of the coolest action scenes in the series.   

This incident draws the attention of Arasaka, who asks the principal to revoke David’s expulsion if he apologizes to the bully. Instead of choosing the life that Gloria imagined for him, one that would require him to sacrifice a portion of his dignity, David refuses. He eventually takes a route that actively goes against Arasaka by joining a group of edgerunners, mercenaries who hack and shoot their way for big payouts. 

By far, the most profitable part of an edgerunner’s job is acquiring various forms of data. On the surface, these edgerunners seem to have it better on the surface, but that being an edgerunner has deadly consequences in its own right. At first, their jobs are glorified and it appears that David is living the good life, but we see that edgerunners cannot escape the same technological grind that is forced upon other residents of the city. This is emphasized by somber moments in which, after the brightly colored violence of a raid or mission, the characters take time to come down from the high. 

Lucy, David’s lost interest and the girl who brought him into the group of edgerunners, drops a pearl of wisdom on him at one point.  

Source: Episode 4, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners

Lucy’s statement that “You don’t make a name as a cyberpunk by how you live. You’re remembered by how you die” (Episode 4, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners) was excellent, and I wish we had more moments like this between the two. The romance is by far the weakest aspect of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, and its treatment of female characters leaves much to be desired. The camera takes every opportunity to travel up and down their body and they’re often presented nude when they absolutely do not have to be, but gosh forbid if they are nuanced or interesting.

However, what is interesting is how the line between flesh and technology become increasingly blurred. This has been a theme that cyberpunk as a genre holds much potential for, and Cyberpunk: Edgerunners portrays this nicely if not in a particularly original or creative way.  

At the halfway point, David is forced to take over the group when the leader dies. Maine’s demise is a tragic death that foreshadows David’s own descent into instability as Maine finds himself breaking down and turning into a “cyberpsycho.” We know nothing about Maine at this point, but there’s a sense of futility and great loss as he sees himself as a young man running in a desert. 

David’s breakdown later isn’t surprising since the story builds up to it by creating tension with David and other members of the group, who see him heading down a dangerous road. It strains his relationship in particular with Lucy, who is hiding her own secret history with Arasaka from him. At the end, the two find themselves both in danger as the corporation closes in and forces David into a cyberskeleton, a dangerous project in which David’s resilience to the side effects of implants makes him very suitable.

When David is on the verge of losing his mind after connecting to the cyberskeleton, it’s his friends and Lucy that keep him sane. He manages to reach the top floor of Arasaka, just like his mother wanted, and it’s satisfying to watch the gory justice that is dealt out. However, it barely makes a dent in Arasaka – it’s one moment of defiance that burns out quickly and ends in David’s death. 

Source: Episode 10, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners

While I didn’t necessarily care about this death and wish we knew more about David and had seen more of his growth throughout the show, I did find it fitting. The end is poignant and hopeful as Lucy takes her share of the money David left the group and travels to the moon. During their initial meeting, Lucy had entered a simulation with David of being on the moon, but she finally gets the chance to experience the real thing. Illuminated by light from the sun, Lucy closes her eyes and smiles, remembering their time together and feeling alive. It would be much more meaningful if I had grown to care about these characters, but the emotional impact is still there.

Cyberpunk: Edgerunners has heart to it despite the messy storytelling it falls into. While it doesn’t flesh out its characters or world as much as they deserve, it has interesting things today. The show fumbles at times, unsure of which direction to go into as a ludicrous amount of things happen every episode, but it was certainly a ride. Not one I would take again, but one that I can’t bring myself to regret.

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