The Max ’80s Sci-Fi Action Thriller That Ushered In A Major Star

By Jeffrey Rapaport | Published

Jean-Claude Van Damme

Sci-fi action films defined the 1980s, and the decade delivered some serious heavyweights: The TerminatorBlade Runner, and Aliens, to name a few. Criminally underrated, though, is 1989’s Cyborg, directed by Albert Pyun. Equal parts compelling and wonderfully corny, it’s a martial arts cyberpunk film epitomizing the maximalist aesthetic of the decade. Moreover, it heralded the rise of Jean-Claude Van Damme as a significant action icon. 

The Mission

The story begins in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a deadly plague known as the “living death.” A crew of surviving scientists at the CDC in Atlanta desperately labor for a cure to save humanity. However, they lack one key ingredient—vital information from a computer system in New York City. A volunteer to undertake the difficult mission and retrieve the info, Pearl Prophet, receives the necessary surgical augmentation to become a cyborg (naturally) and take on the job. Though she and her bodyguard, Marshall Strat, successfully retrieve the intel, their mission attracts the attention of nefarious antagonist Fender Tremolo and his gang of pirates. These baddies pursue Pearl in hopes of stealing and monopolizing the cure.

JCVD As Gibson Rickenbacker

Pearl seeks the help of a mercenary—or “slinger”—for protection, encountering Gibson Rickenbacker (Van Damme), who is just the man for the job. Soon, Fender’s pirates ambush the pair, resulting in Gibson sustaining a severe injury and Pearl’s capture. The pirates wreak more havoc, then head to Atlanta with their captive, Pearl. Gibson pursues them, driven by revenge–surmounting a slew of dangers and obstacles in Cyborg’s terrific fight scenes. More fantastic and iconic action sequences follow, all enriched by Van Damme’s signature charisma and style. All culminating with a showdown in Atlanta, with humanity’s very existence at stake. 

Cyborg Made Van Damme A Blockbuster Movie Star

Van Damme’s portrayal of Rickenbacker marked a significant milestone in his career. The performance, blending martial arts prowess with capable acting, resonating strongly with audiences. The role showcased the best of what Van Damme had to offer, positioning him as a leading action star and paving the way for a slew of successful titles in the years to come. 

Chuch Norris Was Intended For Van Damme’s Part

chuck norris

Cannon Films produced Cyborg, shooting it in Wilmington, North Carolina, on a modest budget even for the era: $500,000. The film’s production history is intriguing in its own right. Cannon had committed to filming a He-Man film, Masters of the Universe, and a live-action Spiderman film at the same time. However, financial woes led to the production company canceling both superhero projects. Having already sunk a pretty penny into each aborted effort, they threw what little they had left into Cyborg, hoping to recoup their losses. Director Pyun initially envisioned Chuck Norris as Cyborg’s star, but after seeing Van Damme’s immense success in Bloodsport, co-producer Menahem Golan cast him instead.

Cyborg’s Impact On The Sci-Gi Genre

Screened today, the movie provides a refreshing antidote to the excess of Marvel films and CGI inundating viewers. Almost like an indie film, the bare-bones, low-budget aesthetic facilitates a genuine, authentic feel. The fights between Van Damme and the villains seem legitimately physical and are all the more gripping.Plus, the film’s dark, gritty aesthetic and brutal dystopia—evoking Escape From New York, another ’80s banger—commands attention even from today’s viewers. Although Cyborg garnered decidedly mixed critical reviews upon its release, its influence and impact on the sci-fi action genre is nonetheless substantial. Financially, the movie debuted at number four at the American box office, then grossing over $10 million (thus cementing its status as a financial success).

Musical Influence

It inspired two sequels: Cyborg 2 (1993) and Cyborg 3: The Recycler (1994). Admittedly, these films bore little relation to the original and failed to achieve the same success.  Also, interestingly, the characters’ names in Cyborg are all creative nods to iconic musical instrument manufacturers. For example, Gibson Rickenbacker is a reference to both Gibson and Rickenbacker guitar brands; Fender Tremelo, the antagonist’s name, is a shout-out to the Fender guitar brand and the tremolo arm attachment to guitars. While Pearl Prophet references Pearl drums and the Prophet 5 synthesizer. The film also made a significant mark beyond cinema—particularly in music. For instance, American rapper Method Man sampled lines of dialogue from the movie for his album Tical 2000: Judgement Day. 

Cyborg Is Streaming On Max

Jean-Claude Van Damme

Ultimately, Cyborg embodies the wacky, more creative, and risk-taking climate of movie-making in the 80s, when a production company could haphazardly try and fail to shoot a Spiderman movie, then earn a considerable profit gambling on a low-budget original action film.

The film is a worthy companion piece to canonical standards of the era like The Warriors and Escape From New York, but it stands admirably on its own–if only for helping to make Van Damme a household name.