Neon Noir: The Origin, The Evolution, The Films

The Evolution of Neon Noir

film noir
I too find plume of steam to be interesting.

The Neon Noir is an organic evolution of the film genre that stemmed from the original, film noir. Film noir started in the 1930s heavily influenced by German Expressionism. In a film noir, you’ll typically find common indicators such as chiaroscuro lighting, cigarette smoke, and city settings that give dark and ominous tones to the genre. And let’s not forget the centerpiece of the movie, a “hard-boiled” detective whose bleak and jaded outlook of the world reflects the reality we live in.

Neo Noir And Its Essence

Owning an apartment across the giant billboard must suck.

At the end of 1950s, we’ll see film noir getting an upgrade, to what will be known as neo-noir. This is in part with Technicolor making its debut in films, and film noir gets a splash of color, breathing new life in the genre. Neo-noir is a more formless genre that sprawls across more films. Even The Big Lebowski is considered to be under the neo-noir genre. Also known as the revival of the original film-noir, some of the general themes that revolve around neo-noir are revenge, violent crime, sex, paranoia, anxiety to name a few. This is in part of how the film industry in America evolved from restrictions of not being able to show these negative aspects on the silver screen due to concerns of decaying the general’s public moral.

Introducing Neon Noir

Courtest of Sean Foley.

So, now we have an unfiltered genre that exposes the grimy parts of our reality. What else is missing? If you remember watching any of the neon-noir titles, then you’ll remember the isolation, longing, the absolute existential dread. Now, existential on its own can be too broad, but pair it with dream-like sequences in how the movie is captured, and you have a beautifully framed of existential loneliness that is channelled through a jaded character traversing through urban isolation and unfamiliar faces. Enter neon-noir, the brother of neo-noir.

While the neon-noir movies can be loud with the big and giant machinations of the future, with neon colors painting the screen of your TV, the focus still remains on how the main character interacts with the world around him. And let’s not discount the violence, with characters walking the moral fence. In most neon-noir movies, you’ll find the main character struggling with being stuck in moral ambiguity. Or perhaps questions the one question that some of us will die without answering. What is MY PURPOSE?

In this article, I’ll list down movies that revolve around the neon-noir genre or comes close to it. I think the neon-noir genre resonates more now than ever since we’re all trapped indoors and are dealing with some more of solitude with no actual way to reach catharsis in a healthy way. And referencing back from a great line from Fight Club which I’m about to heavily paraphrase, we never had a Great Depression. no Great War, no real struggles. Our struggles are more of an internal war. Within our souls. And trapped with us are the aspirations of our parents that do not conform to this new era. Perhaps a bit of perspective would give some solace about the whole damned situation that’s happening in the world today. Without further ado, let’s hit it.

Blade Runner 2049

Neon? Check. Signs of violence? Double check.

If you’re a fan of the cyberpunk genre, then you’re definitely a fan of the neon-noir genre, as both genres shares a similar vein in terms of themes and stylistic choices. Blade Runner 2049 is the sequel of the (year) release of the legendary status that has defined the Cyberpunk and the neon-noir genre over the years. It also popularized neon aesthetics that you would usually see in a movie of the same genre.

Blade Runner 2049 takes place some time after the first the events of the first movie, where replicant (NAME) played by Ryan Gosling who’s a replicant that works for the authorities where he hunts his fellow Replicants that are due for retirement when they become unstable. The premise is a nod to a very interesting fan theory where the original Blade Runner played by Harrison Ford to be himself a replicant.

Every weeb’s ultimate fantasy.

Blade Runner portrays a deafening loneliness that’s drenched in neon colors. Instead of a badass detective, you get a lone wolf replicant, shunned by his fellow colleagues and the outcast of the precinct. His attempts to build a connection with Joi, a digital companion is somewhat endearing.

The movie perfectly follows the journey of someone who’s ultimately, the side character in the bigger picture. A tool that was necessary to push the story forward. It’s always been someone else’s movie.


Mads Mikkelsen, and the overacting bunch.

Polar is a prime example of “stylish cinema” that defies expectations. From the intriguing poster featuring Mads Mikkelsen donning an eye patch, reminiscent of Transpoiting’s edgy aesthetic, one might anticipate a similar tone. However, what unfolds on the screen is an explosion of unbridled violence that relentlessly shadows the main character.

Set in rural parts of America, our main character is in his retirement phase of his life after years of living as a contract assassin. Don’t expect too much from the movie storywise. It’s basically a spin-off title from the buzz created by John Wick. An assassin organization, an old wolf trying retirement for a change, a girl with a troubled past, and a bunch of upstart bunch of assassins trying to gain favors from the new boss.

Honestly, the whole movie was carried by these two.

Ultimately, Polar is about needless violence and sex. Is it nuanced? Not really, no. All the nuanced elements in the movie is carried through the performance of Mads Mikkelsen and Vanessa Hudgens. Wouldn’t be expecting nuance being portrayed by the guy from Jackass who died while getting head. The rustic small town in Middle America vibes was well executed, with the cumbersome daily routine carried out by the two stars. The isolation and the simple folksy routine which defines the small town vibes sets up the new environment that our superstar killer gets in. Polar is one of those movies that you just sit and enjoy for an hour. A no-brainer movie that might relate to you in some way.

John Wick

John WIck.
It’s not the bullet that kills.

Do I even have to talk about the plot of the show at this point? It’s part of every medium of popular culture. Man loses wife, wife gives him a puppy as a gift before a passing. Man bonds with puppy and before the puppy even gets potty-trained, it gets killed by some Russian shit bags who robbed the man.

Motivated by pure rage, driven to exact revenge, John Wick is basically revenge porn on ecstasy. Yes we still got the flashy fights, but we got it in the form of a professionally executed dance of death. John Wick executed real-life gun katas that were actually used in real life (sorry Christian Bale), paired with a couple of jujitsu takedowns and finishers. You get a gritty and realistic fight scene. And let’s not forget about the gory scenes of henchmen desperately holding back the inching knife with all their strength before it slowly but surely pierces through their chest.

John WIck 1 in battle.
Shelter animals have this as a poster.

Amidst of the violence and explosion, we’ve gotten a taste of John’s sweeping loneliness as grief of losing a loved one sets in. And then a tiny hope of reprieve arrives, which is swiftly taken away from him. While we’re gritting our teeth with every violent death experienced by henchmen and other professional assassins, we find ourselves getting pumped with every successive kill and with wound sustained by John, we flinch from mounting fear of the worst.


Jesus and his 5 above average gym rats.

When it first came out, Watchmen wasn’t the typical superhero movie that one would expect, especially when it was released during the great revival of the superhero genre. And if you’re not familiar with the comic books, you have absolutely no idea what’s about to take place.

The premise of Watchmen revolves around a dystopian and alternate timeline during the Cold War era where a murder of one of their superhero compatriot has taken place. As the chess pieces follow the bread crumbs leading to a much more ominous plot, the superheroes finally met the edge of their moral fabric. Torn between maintaining or upholding the truth.

Dr Manhattan, Watchmen
How I feel when I hit my funny bone.

Violence, Retro futurism, highly contrasted colors paired with highly stylized fight scenes, Watchmen is the perfect introduction to the world of neon-noir. It talks you into the far recesses of a complex concept such as justice. Unlike a lot of superhero movies out there that’s more focused on crowd pleasing storytelling of fighting criminals and upholding justice. Eventually, the heroes in Watchmen will find themselves teetering at the edge, having to choose – upholding high standards of morality or decisions made for the greater good no matter how it was done.

Watchmen explore an interesting facet of the superhero genre, putting them into somewhat of believable situations. We don’t get giant alien invasion, instead we get to see a godlike being sent to Vietnam to end the war. Such a Nixon thing to do.


Drive Ryan Gosling

Drive is somewhat differentiate itself from the rest of the entries on the list. Sure, there’s violence, but it was motivated by romance but still maintains its roots as a gritty film. The main character, played by Ryan Gosling (huh, I’m seeing a pattern) is named Driver who wears different hats depending on the situation – a mechanic, stunt-double and driver, and in his spare time, a criminal-for-hire getaway car driver. He meets his new neighbor, Irene and grows close to her as well as her kid, Benicio.

Ultimately, Drive is about a man who lives a double life, and he tries to live those two lives separately. You’ll quickly notice how the scenes of crimes are painted with a gritty brush, and while the Driver spends time with Irene and Benicio, the tone and the scenes are set up in a somewhat cheerful, with a sunny disposition.

Drive with Ryan Gosling.
You wish you’re this cool, don’t you?

Unfortunately, a set of circumstances forces the Driver to make decisions that ultimately clashes his ideal life with the one that he keeps in the shadow. With his intentions of saving someone he loves from the clutches of the underworld, a world that he knows too well. His exploits slowly pushes him to the edge, and finally we’ll see him committing the ultimate self-sacrifice. He left his selfish romantic desires and became a symbol of hope to the ones he loves.

List Goes On

There’s a lot of movies out there that clearly brings the neon-noir element front and center. A lot of anime out there also dabbles heavily in the neon-noir genre that’s paired with a cyberpunkish or dystopian setting. All in all, the genre that was once thought to be a series of violent pulp movies, which is true to some extent even today has seen it evolved alongside the technology used in making films. The genre persists because there’s still a need to address certain human experience that can only be told from someone who’s out of the system.

A jaded lone wolf who has an overwhelming loneliness that blankets every aspect of their life. Wearing a mask acceptable to society. And then sometimes, comes an opportunity. A gesture of hope. It might be taken from them as fast it was given, but the cathartic closure in every movie is something some of us could use from time to time.



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