Seeing a lot of top hats with watch gears glued on them on Etsy lately? Wondering why women are walking around in bustle skirts, leather harnesses and brass goggles? You, like many, are confused by steampunk. That’s ok. Steampunk is a weird animal. I’ll describe it for you.
Just like The Jetsons represents the 1960s vision of the future, steampunk is the Victorian era vision of the future. The concept of advanced steam powered technology was first developed in the 1800s by writers like Jules Verne. Verne is the reigning idol of steampunk. Many of the films on this list are French. His concepts have endured in literature, movies and video games, but the word steampunk wasn’t coined until the 80s.
The genre is all about the aesthetics of gears, rust and contraptions blended with Victorian clothing and architecture. Because steampunk is so inherently visual, these movies make a beautiful treat in the home theater. Enjoy!
A rare children’s movie from Martin Scorsese, “Hugo” tells the story of a 12 year-old orphan who lives in hiding in a Paris train station. Before he died, Hugo’s loving father showed him an automaton he was fixing. Hugo steals parts from a toy maker to continue his father’s work. The central tension in the film is the mystery of the automaton and Hugo’s need to evade the many authority figures who would send him to an orphanage.
Shot in 3D, “Hugo” is a great film for anyone who has invested in a 3D film or projector. It has plenty of swirling gears, steam and neo-Victorian imagery to delight your inner steampunk. The film contains many reverential references to early French film-maker and surrealist special effects pioneer George Méliès.
The City of Lost Children
It won’t surprise you to learn that Jean-Pierre Juenet, the director of Amelie, has made films in the whimsical steampunk genre. He made The City of Lost Children with Marc Caro. Ron Perlman (Hellboy) stars as a sailor who must save his little brother from a deranged inventor who kidnaps children and uses his odd machines to steal their dreams.
This is not a children’s movie. It is dark, spooky and scary. This film earned its status as a cult classic with other-worldly visuals. At heart, City of Lost Children is an experimental romp through late 1990s special effects.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire
If 2000 Leagues Under the Sea and Avatar had a baby, it would be Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Milo Thatch, voiced by irrepressibly charming Michael J. Fox, finds an ancient journal that could lead to the lost city of Atlantis. He sets out in a very Jules Verne-looking submersible to find the city. They find the city and a race of scantily clad mystical inhabitants with blue tattoos. Far from Disney’s most popular animated feature, the distinctive graphics inspired by comic artist Mike Mignola have earned this film cult status. It’s a great, kid-friendly steampunk film and a visual treat for adults who are ready for a break from the typical Disney film. There are no songs.
Howl’s Moving Castle
Oh, boy. This movie is amazing. If you haven’t seen it, get excited. Howl’s Moving Castle has the stunning animation we expect from director Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, the people that made Spirited Away. The story comes from a whimsical fantasy novel by British writer Diana Wynne Jones. A young girl cursed to look like an old woman goes to work in a magical moving castle. She falls in love with the proprietor of the castle, a handsome, womanizing sorcerer. The animation of the moving castle is so beautiful ; you’ll have to see it to believe it. This movie is pure magic, great for kids and the young at heart.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
A fantastical account of the fictional adventures of a real life Baron, this movie has everything: airships, time travel, period costumes, space travel, undersea adventures and Uma Thurman appearing as Venus rising from the foam. Directed by Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and starring other Monty Python members, the film has the absurd rowdiness we expect from a Monty Python movie. It’s an fun, hilarious romp.
A young inspiring inventor receives a package from his grandfather. It contains a new energy source that could revolutionize the steam-based energy economy in alternate-reality England. The boy, Ray, must keep nefarious enemies from stealing his grandfather’s gift and harnessing its power for evil. This movie is made for diehard steampunk fans. If you delight in airships and neo-Victorian imagery rendered in 1,000 shades of brown, you will love it. For the casual steampunk fan, the convoluted storyline makes this movie a bit dull.
Adapted from an award winning fantasy novel, The Prestige features a star-studded cast with Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson and David Bowie as Nikola Tesla. Two ambitious young magicians are close friends until an accident on stage comes between them. Each strives to outdo the other with innovative—steampunk—magic inventions. The cinematography is beautiful and the plot is effectively dramatic.
A tiny creature—part rag doll, part automaton—wakes up in a rusted out, post-apocalyptic world and that’s all I am going to tell you, because I don’t want to spoil the excellent sense of mystery and awe in this film. Tim Burton directed this film, so you can expect to be stunned by the computer animation. Burton steps away from his usual Gothic style into the beautifully tarnished world of steampunk. 9 is definitely worth seeing.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec
Adapted from a French comic book about a plucky adventurer, this film has all the energetic entertainment value of other comic inspired movies, but with the sophisticated aesthetic and script of an excellent French film. Lovely explorer Adele Blanc-Sec sets out to Egypt in search of ancient secrets. From there on, this quirky comedy delivers dinosaurs, mummies, hilarity and incredibly stylish costume design. You will love it.
Wild Wild West
This major Hollywood features plenty of celebrities and steampunk cred. This Will Smith vehicle also stars Salma Hayeck, Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh. While the theme song reached number one, the movie was a box office disappointment. However, it has enough odd gadgets to make it one of the most definitively steampunk movies that Hollywood has ever produced.