Steampunk is going mainstream. If you’re just hearing about this now, it might feel like this increasingly ubiquitous Victorian-themed sci-fi genre just suddenly spawned out of some dark corner of the counter-culture netherworld. If you’ve been paying attention, though, you know it (often literally) exploded on to the big screen decades ago.
Yes, the gears- and goggle-loving stepchild of cyberpunk was born in books, but only a film can offer the full, dazzling, CGI-fueld visual experience. Here are the top 11 examples of shiny steampunk splendor on the silver screen.
1. Metropolis (1927)
The term “steampunk” was coined in the ’80s to describe an increasingly popular style of science fiction that wasn’t exactly new. Many say the first film example was 1927’s Metropolis, the first sci-fi film (and most expensive sci-fi film) ever made. This moody piece of German Expressionism imagines a spectacularly dystopian future, complete with mad scientists and steam-powered ships, trains, and power plants. (Sticklers, though, insist this is actually an example of “dieselpunk” – like steampunk, but about a century more advanced.) The manga series based on the movie was turned into an anime film in 2001.
2. The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958)
Some of steampunk’s biggest influences are the fantastical machines and air and underwater adventures of Jules Verne – and this movie samples from them all! Cobbled together from the animations of Czech artist Karel Zeman – who later inspired Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, and others – the film turns Verne’s most popular stories into one epic Ulyssean adventure. There’s not a lot of steam, but there are airship towers and underwater bicyles!
3. Castle in the Sky (1986)
Edging out Howl’s Moving Castle as Hayao Miyazaki’s (and Studio Ghibli’s) most steampunk anime, the industrial-era action is anchored by a series of air battles based on anachronistic technology. The gritty animation makes liberal use of the polluting smoke of coal power to paint the scene. And, naturally, no one leaves home without their trusty goggles.
4. The City of Lost Children (1995)
This French cult classic tells the story of a mad scientist, a failed genetic experiment, who uses fantastic contraptions (and burly men who wear fantastic contraptions) to kidnap children and steal their dreams. As the villain, Krank, lives on an oil rig, some say this is better labeled dieselpunk, but the Victorian-esque setting, costumes, and designs put it on firm steampunk footing.
5. Wild Wild West (1999)
This is pretty much the epitome of the American Western steampunk sub-sub-genre. More fun and frothy than substantial or, you know, particularly good, this movie adaptation of the ’60s TV series features a flying bicycle, a giant mecha-spider, and one seriously tricked-out train.
6. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
If this techy fantasy frolic reminds you of a Jules Verne adventure…that’s because the graphic novel on which it’s based is, indeed, a reimagining of Jules Verne’s (and H.G. Wells’ and other Victorian-era writers’) stories. The movie’s basically about a team of 19th-century Avengers playing with a mixed bag of retro-futuristic tech.
7. Steamboy (2004)
As the title makes clear, it doesn’t get any more steampunk than this. Never a hit in the US (poor marketing?), it remains one of the most expensive Japanese animated movies ever made. The story plays out in Victorian England, and you can expect all the genre trappings, from quirky contraptions to dastardly villains and, yes, a whole lotta steam.
8. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
OK, haters, let’s get this out of the way: the aesthetic is more WWI than Victorian, which I suppose technically makes this pick more dieselpunk than steam…but its shiny machines, airship-and-google obsession, and hopeful sense of adventure are so very steampunk anyway. How could we skip this one? It’s just so pretty…
9. The Golden Compass (2007)
Speaking of visual stunners…the film version of the first book from Philip Pullman’s excellent His Dark Materials series is a doozy. Set in an alternate world where technology evolved to favor airships and steam power, it’s pretty much the very definition of the genre. Unfortunately, it’s a hot mess of an adaptation, disappointing both fans and newbies, and ensuring there will be no follow-up.
10. Sherlock Holmes (2009)
As he’s a product of the Victorian era in the first place, it seems it was only a matter of time before someone gave everyone’s favorite detective some steampunk toys to play with…
11. Tai Chi 0 (2012)
Kung-fu steampunk is a thing. (It is now, anyway.) Expect the usual planes, trains, and top hats souped up with awesome martial-arts action. There’s even a sequel, now. Tai Chi Hero: