Steampunk in cinema
Before we dive into the world of steampunk cinema it’s important to understand what steampunk is in terms of aesthetics, philosophy, and history - in the context of a cultural movement.
Steampunk, as we know, incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. But why are authors and directors so influenced by this period? Besides looking awesome (with that dark industrial vibe) there must be some other reason...
Steampunk is a throwback to the industrial revolution – one of the biggest events in the history of mankind. Because of the past inside the future. Because life was so much more idealistic and romantic back then. People had just quantified what they are capable of and this broke every concept of limits.
Life today accepts everything so casually that there is not much hype about anything, while back in the days of the Victorian era, people were so much more enthusiastic about the new opportunities. Can you imagine a world without electricity, without engines?
The steampunk aesthetic first appeared in the 80s, but its characteristics can be found in a lot of works even from before that period - people have always been intrigued by the possibilities the future will offer. Some of the biggest classics in modern literature have steampunk elements: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Jules-Verne’s Captain Nemo or any of Lovecraft’s heroes.
In summary, steampunk is a bizarre and complex subculture which includes the concept of time as an illusion, analyses the importance of the possibilities and the immense horizons of the human mind and ideas. Pretty romantic idea indeed, especially for those of us who live in a time devoid of purpose.
After reaching the roots of the steampunk aesthetics and its philosophical meaning as a bridge and tribute to the past, let’s get to the point.
Yes, steampunk was born in books, but film gives an entirely different visual experience. The art of moving images was an incredible invention at the end of the 19th century and can rightfully be called the most recent form of art. What better medium to express the steampunk concept (or any complex philosophical idea) than such a complex art form? And is there a more important ingredient for the invention of the steampunk fashion trend?
While thinking about cinema as an art-form, it’s impossible to classify any film as just steampunk or just anything else for that matter. Rather, a movie can touch upon some of steampunk’s main topics - the achromatic, the Victorian era, the dissatisfaction with the present or of the future, etc. Anyways, we're going to present a few movies fitting the steampunk definition.
Time Bandits (1981, Terry Gilliam)
One of Gilliam’s first movies as a director after having done Monty Python is Time Bandits, the first film in his Trilogy of Imagination. It's based on a peculiar idea of his own and exemplifies Gilliam’s talent to tell eccentric and dark stories. In his own words he wanted to explore the “craziness of our awkwardly ordered society and the desire to escape it through whatever means possible.” The film has many steampunk elements and a combination of sci-fi and dark fantasy as we follow an 11-year-old boy who accidentally joins a band of dwarves looking for a treasure to steal and traveling through different eras. It's definitely one of the most important films in the genre.
The Adventures of the Baron Munchausen (1988, Terry Gilliam)
And we can't not mention another of Gilliam's films - this time the third one in his Trilogy of Imagination, emblematic and strange (as always). It's magnificently carried out and follows Baron Munchausen’s travels around the world of his stories. As you may know, Baron Munchausen is an 18th-century traveler who meets a lot of strange things in his adventures and fights them with his intelligence and communicational skills. He flies to the moon, becomes friends with its king etc. And so, it is an interesting experience that combines fantasy and science fiction during a specific period (the basis of any good steampunk work).
Howl’s Moving Castle (2003, Hayao Miyazaki)
We all love some Hayao Miyazaki, and this adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ novel is one of his best and features the most steampunk elements. It's impressive, visually stunning and the story is both beautiful and complex. The steampunk elements are highly noticeable here (the castle itself is a steampunk monument), and while they don’t drive the story, they form an important part of it. The film was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Film in 2003 and remains one of the most famous works of its director. It is a very interesting experience that can be watched, discovered and enjoyed by all kinds of audiences.
Hugo (2011, Martin Scorsese)
Far from the usual expectations for a Scorsese movie (full of social issues and violence), this one is a sentimental journey into cinema itself. It follows the story of young Hugo Cabret, who lived in a Paris railway station in the 1930s and discovers a secret that leads him to meet director George Méliès. As to the steampunk concept, it’s not driving the plot, but it is an important part of the film.
Brazil (1985, Terry Gilliam)
Lastly, let's tie it all together with Gilliam's second movie in his trilogy - Brazil. This is one of the most complex movies in cinema and definitely fitting for this list. It is believed to be an important early cinematic influence that helped codify the steampunk aesthetics. It takes place in a dystopian world and the bizarre plot and setting follows the adventures of a low-level government employee who needs to find a strange woman appearing in his dreams. Like his other films, its both satirical and a reflection of society today. What exactly happens and the philosophical meaning behind it is a decision that everyone should make for themselves.
We hope you enjoyed our list! Stay tuned for more interesting steampunk updates and news.