Steampunk has style. You might assume that the narrow focus of a subgenre like steampunk would force works to become repetitive and derivative, but the best steampunk stories still feel fresh, and that’s because the rules of the genre itself are more aesthetic than structural.
Steampunk movies, TV shows, books, and comics look and feel cool, but they don’t necessarily need to have anything other than steampunk’s gears-and-goggles aesthetic to keep them in the genre, and the best creators take full advantage of that. That’s certainly the case with these riveting (do you get it?) steampunk movies.
Our list covers some great steampunk movies, including everything from films with a touch of steampunk to all-out efforts that fully immerse themselves in the genre.
Did we miss one of your favorite steampunk flicks? Share it with us in the comments!
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
For whatever reason, Hollywood has had an easier time creating great movies that are unapologetically steampunk when the target audience is children. Exhibit A: Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which is both one of the best steampunk movies and one of the most underrated Disney flicks ever made.
The fun and funny adventure film follows early-19th century adventurers on a submarine journey to the lost city of Atlantis, which turns out to be very real.
An underrated classic, Atlantis: The Lost Empire didn’t do as well at the box office as it probably deserved to. That dashed hopes for a big-screen sequel, though there is a direct-to-video follow-up called Atlantis: Milo’s Return. That one was pretty forgettable, but at least we’ll always have the original.
Legendary director Martin Scorsese might not be the first person you think of when you think steampunk, but his 2011 film Hugo is widely considered to show some traits of the subgenre. It’s even more widely considered to be a very fine film — but that part, at least, is something you’d have expected from Scorsese.
Scorsese’s film is an adaptation of an illustrated children’s novel that features 1930s Paris and human-like automatons. The colorful adventure and the 3-D film it was shot on were both somewhat atypical of Scorsese, but he got his typical reaction: box-office success, great reviews, and Oscar wins.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
There’s not much of steampunk’s typical alternate-history stuff here, although the movie does feature some anachronistic contraptions, steam-powered machines, and infernal devices.
Still, this is (more or less) the real 1800s, albeit a version full of fictional characters imagined by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and brought to life by Hollywood hotshots like Robert Downey Jr.
Sherlock Holmes mixes steampunk and neo-noir elements to craft a blockbuster that pleased audiences without infuriating critics. Kudos to the Sherlock Holmes gang for making a blockbuster that mixes steampunk with sophistication (a little bit of it, anyway).The film follows the famous detective and his ever-present sidekick, Watson, on a missing-person case that is more than it seems.
If you can’t get enough of this, there’s good news: This film has a sequel, 2011’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
Yes: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is technically dieselpunk, not steampunk.
But dieselpunk and steampunk are related genres, and while they get their hip feeling from different eras of mechanical wizardry, they’re very similar in a lot of ways. So unless you’re a stickler for exactly which sort of outdated engine technology you want blended with your alternate histories, retro fashions, and high-contrast camera work, check out Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
The story, which follows an airship’s quest to find the source of giant robots that have been attacking New York City, is the perfect over-the-top vehicle for the memorable visual style.
Steamboy tells the story of a boy named Ray Steam (yes, really) who has to protect a mysterious mechanical sphere from the evil forces that are after it. This is one of the rare films that fully commits to the steampunk aesthetic while still succeeding as a work of art.
Steampunk buffs will be hard-pressed to find a more steampunk-y film than this: it’s set in the genre’s classic alternate-history, steam-crazed world. Yet this is a film for anyone. It received generally positive reviews and even snagged a film festival prize.
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Sucker Punch (2011)
The strange and stylish Sucker Punch is Zack Snyder's most over-the-top film, which is saying something. Within Snyder's trademark gray-green tones is a colorful story about a mental patient escaping — or perhaps fantasizing about escaping — an institution ahead of her scheduled lobotomy.
Part fantasy, part psychological thriller, this movie is a weird and wild ride. Either way, there's no denying the steampunk influences in Snyder's film.
Sucker Punch is nothing if not visually stunning. In fact, a lot of critics thought that it was nothing besides visually stunning. Admittedly, it's a film that viewers tend to either love or hate.
But if you're a big fan of steampunk's emphasis on visual aesthetic and all things stylish, then you may be the sort of viewer who will dig Sucker Punch. It’s also a great film to discuss with friends, precisely because it inspires such extreme opinions.
Van Helsing (2004)
Van Helsing has enough steampunk style to meet our standards for a steampunk movie. Does it meet our standards for a good movie? Listen, let’s not get too hung up on this stuff.
The bottom line is that Van Helsing is a stylish and fun take on the character of Van Helsing, who makes a living exterminating Dracula and other monster-type things. If it’s deeply stupid as well, then that’s just a part of what makes Van Helsing Van Helsing, okay? Turn off your brain and have a good time, just like the 2004 moviegoers who, over the protests of critics, helped make Van Helsing a success.
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Some superhero movies have been bigger deals than others. The mid-2000s saw the debut of Christian Bale's Batman and the peak of Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man. Pretty soon, Marvel Studios would change everything. Even the flops were memorable — remember Catwoman?
Against this backdrop, Dark Horse Comics' Hellboy got a pretty modest reaction. But the film, which was directed by the visionary Guillermo del Toro, is an underrated classic. It's also a film with significant steampunk influences, which is how we find ourselves talking about it in this list of steampunk movies.
For the uninitiated, Hellboy is a literal demon summoned by the Nazis in World War II. He ends up fighting for the forces of good, but he is still very much a demon — he's a giant dude with crimson skin, and he kind of stands out.
If you like this film, you should check out the sequel, too. Guillermo del Toro came back to make it, which is surely a part of the reason that it's pretty good —(especially for a superhero film sequel in the pre-Marvel Studios era).
The Prestige (2006)
Remember in 2006 when two movies about magicians came out at practically the same time? With all due respect to The Illusionist, this one is the better one of the two.
The Prestige is clever and surreal. It's a steam engine-era tale that doesn't limit itself to the realities of that (or any) time. At the center of the story are two unforgettable characters, but all around them are stylistic wrinkles that steampunk fans will love: Mad-scientist interventions, strange mysteries, and clever twists and turns.
There are all sorts of cool things going on in this film, from the appearances of real-life historical figures and settings to spoil-able shocks that we won't tell you anything about here. The steampunk influence here isn't overwhelming, but it's there. And, no matter how you slice it, The Prestige is a very, very good movie.
Need another reason to see it? How about the fact that it’s a collaboration between director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale? It came out just a year after the same two collaborated on Batman Begins. They went on, of course, to complete their Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises.
The Golden Compass (2007)
Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is generally shelved as fantasy, but readers will certainly spot science fiction influences in general and steampunk influences specifically. This film version preserves those stylish influences, and follows a young girl named Lyra as she joins an expedition to an alternate-universe version of the North Pole.
Fans of His Dark Materials are getting more of their favorite story right now: HBO has released a series based on the trilogy. HBO's take on His Dark Materials is full of steampunk goodness as well. We'd include it on our list, but we're limiting ourselves to movies here. Sorry, no TV shows allowed!
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
Based on the comic book series by Alan Moore, the same comics genius who wrote Watchmen, this 2007 film arrived at a time when both steampunk and comic book movies were becoming a bit more vogue. It's not without its shortcomings, but the film version puts in a good effort as it tries to capture the things that made Moore's comic books so memorable.
By the way: If, like Alan Moore himself, you dislike the film adaptations of Moore's work, then you can always go back and re-read the comics. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was originally published under an imprint of DC Comics, and you can still find graphic novels collecting Moore's work on the series.
Since the film is a pretty loose adaptation, reading the comics is still the best way to check out Moore's version of the story.
Wild Wild West (1999)
An adaptation of the classic TV show The Wild Wild West, this 1999 flick wasn't really appreciated in its own time. Hot on the heels of the hit Men in Black, Will Smith and director Barry Sonnenfeld teamed up once again for this weird and genre-bending steampunk adventure-comedy.
Wild Wild West did a little of everything, but it didn't appeal to everyone — instead, it had a more niche appeal to fans of the genre that, in some ways, this unlikely film helped to define.
Steampunk fans who ignored Wild Wild West when it came out would do well to return to the film now. With the benefit of hindsight, they might just see how influential — and how surprisingly good — this movie actually was. Steampunk movies owe a lot to Wild Wild West!
Featured still from "Hugo" via Paramount Pictures.