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Steampunk Movies

December 23, 2009
By Laura Moncur in Meta-Steampunk

When we were choosing movies to show at our steampunk-themed Halloween party, we were hard pressed to find movies that we felt fit our theme. Two months later, however, I have collected a vast array of movies that I feel are the best of steampunk movies, some of which were filmed before steampunk even had its name.

Time After Time at Amazon.comTime After Time starring Malcolm McDowell, David Warner and Mary Steenburgen This movie is one of my all-time favorite movies. Malcolm McDowell plays a young H. G. Wells, who has invented a time machine. Unbeknownst to Wells, David Warner, his close friend, is Jack the Ripper. When the police have traced Jack the Ripper to Wells’ home, the murderer gets away from them using the time machine. Feeling as if he has unleashed a monster upon Utopia, Wells follows Jack the Ripper to the mid-1970’s in an effort to track him down and bring him to justice back in England, but Jack will have none of that. He feels right at home in San Francisco during the height of the sexual revolution. Can H. G. Wells stop Jack the Ripper before he strikes again?

This preview shows more of the movie than you probably should see if you don’t want too many spoilers:

Wild Wild West at Amazon.comWild Wild West starring Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, and Salma Hayek I didn’t see this movie when it came out, but it quickly became apparent that I needed to include it in our steampunk movie repertoire. Whenever I tried to describe to the uninitiated what steampunk was, so many people responded with, “You mean like the bad guy from Wild Wild West?” We weren’t five minutes into the film before I realized that it was the PERFECT steampunk movie from the exploding head of Abraham Lincoln to the mechanical spider walking off into the sunset. Kudos to Will Smith for having the foresight to star in that movie, even though it wasn’t a box office smash.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen at Amazon.comThe League of Extraordinary Gentlemen starring Sean Connery This movie is what I consider the definitive steampunk movie. It doesn’t follow the storyline of the graphic novel very well, but it is beautiful and gadgety. It’s what happens when English teachers run amok with a story. Every person in the movie is a character from literature, but we get to see them all in a whole new light. If Captain Nemo and the Nautilus were the sole heroes of this movie, it would be steampunk enough, but adding Allan Quatermain to the list pushes it right into steampunk ecstasy. It’s a shame it didn’t earn more money when it was released, because I would have loved to see the sequels, including the tripods and their War of the Worlds invasion.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow at Amazon.comSky Captain and the World of Tomorrow starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Angelina Jolie, and Giovanni Ribisi A largely forgotten movie of brilliance that should be ushered into the steampunk hall of fame is Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I loved every moment of it. There are flying dirigible airships, eye patches and plenty of gadgetry. I have NO idea why this movie didn’t kill at the box office. When Mike and I got out of the theater, we counted the days until we could buy it on DVD. I think it was just a little ahead of its time. This movie is completely steampunk, right down to the lens cap!

Back to the Future III at Amazon.comBack to the Future III starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, and Mary Steenburgen Just because there is a time machine in a movie, doesn’t make it steampunk, but the third movie in the Back to the Future series DEFINITELY fits the steampunk genre. From Doc Brown’s huge contraption that creates ice for his drinks to the super fuel that they throw into the locomotive boiler to make the train speed up to the required 88 miles per hour, this movie is full of the gadgetry that steampunk is known for. Additionally, the time paradox with Buford Tannen (and his progeny) is just a lovely icing on the cake to the whole thing. When Mike and I saw that Mary Steenburgen was reprising her role as the time traveler’s girlfriend, we both sighed with delight.

Around the World in 80 Days at Amazon.comAround the World in 80 Days starring David Niven What list of steampunk movies would be complete without at least one Jules Verne? This iteration of the story is my absolute favorite because David Niven plays the PERFECT gentleman. When he is bet that he cannot circumnavigate the world in eighty days or less, he takes that bet and spends a fortune to make it a reality. Is the honor of winning the bet worth risking life, limb and property? Apparently it is. There are few gadgets in this film, but it is a steampunk adventure nonetheless.

Young Sherlock Holmes at Amazon.comYoung Sherlock Holmes starring Nicholas Rowe and Alan Cox I hadn’t seen this movie since it first came to VHS back in the mid-Eighties, so it was a treat to revisit it and see how steampunk this movie was, all before steampunk had a name yet. This young Sherlock Holmes is more Indiana Jones than Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, so the action is undeniable and fast-paced. There are few gadgets (even less if you don’t count a magnifying glass), but the hallucinatory drug and its effects are enough coolness to make this movie count as a steampunk movie.

I couldn’t find the trailer for Young Sherlock Holmes, but here is the movie review from Siskel and Ebert.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen at Amazon.comThe Adventures of Baron Munchausen starring John Neville, Eric Idle, Uma Thurman and Robin Williams It was so difficult for me not to include so many Terry Gilliam movies on this list. Brazil, Twelve Monkeys and Time Bandits were set in the wrong time eras, but had the beautiful steampunk-style gadgetry. It wasn’t until I found this movie that I realized that Terry Gilliam HAD done a steampunk movie back in 1989, with plenty of airships, journeys to the center of the Earth and large sea creatures to satisfy any steampunk craving.

Van Helsing at Amazon.comVan Helsing starring Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale I’m going to be completely honest here. The ONLY reason I included Van Helsing on this list is because of the crossbow. Sure, it’s set in about the right time, but it really doesn’t fit the bill for a true steampunk movie. Van Helsing’s crossbow is so badass, however, that it supports it all on its own. The vampires are fun, the movie has a lot of action, but I really just liked the gadgety appeal of the weaponry in this movie.

Jules Verne's the Fabulous Journey to the Center of the Earth at Amazon.comJules Verne’s the Fabulous Journey to the Center of the Earth starring J.P Simon and Kenneth More So many of the movie versions of Journey to the Center of the Earth have more to do with the time they were filmed than the time the story was set. The bad acting aside, this movie is the most faithful to the HISTORY of the story. Don’t even get me started about the recent Brendan Fraser version of the story. It’s a shame it carries the same name.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade at Amazon.comIndiana Jones and the Last Crusade starring Harrison Ford and Sean Connery I wouldn’t say all Indiana Jones movies are steampunk and even this movie is stretching the definition quite a bit, but I wanted to include it on the list for a couple of reasons: the travel map and the devices that protect the grail. Steampunk has a great basis in travel and watching Indiana and his crew travel across the globe with a red line on a map is such a steampunk thing to do that it makes up for any lack of cool gadgetry. The devices that protect the Holy Grail ARE cool gadgets, but they pre-date the supposed steampunk era by hundreds of years, so I really can’t claim them under the steampunk moniker. It’s a stretch to include Indiana Jones on a steampunk movie list, but I just had to keep him there.

Kate & Leopold at Amazon.comKate & Leopold starring Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman Although most of this movie takes place in present day, the first half hour of this movie is entirely steampunk. Hugh Jackman plays Leopold, the supposed inventor of the elevator. He is transported in time to present day by falling through a portal in the space time continuum. The true invention of the elevator goes to Henry Waterman, so during the entire movie, I was expecting Leopold to stay in present time creating inventions like toasters that toast bread CORRECTLY instead of warming them or burning them to a crisp. The writers decided history be damned, however and Otis, Leopold’s butler, is given the honorific of the elevator instead of giving credit where it’s due, to Elisha Otis. History aside, Kate and Leopold isn’t really what I would consider a steampunk movie, but it had so many elements, I had to include on the list.