Typically, I preface my lists with some clever introduction discussing the nuances of the genre. However, as I worked through the shockingly short list of steampunk movies to try and pinpoint even just ten of the best, I realized how underutilized the genre is in cinema. And when it is integrated into a grander story, it’s often done so haphazardly, as an afterthought, and with no real connection to the movie’s overarching theme. Steampunk, in many instances, is largely used as an aesthetic simply because it “looks cool.”
Thankfully, though, there was just enough to compile this list of the ten best steampunk movies we can turn to when we need a dose of retro-futuristic industrialized science fiction fantasy.
A tale of rival magicians using magic and visual trickery to outdo one another, The Prestige is quite the treat for steampunk enthusiasts.
As the stakes get higher in Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel, the on-stage tech becomes more advanced and potentially deadlier. David Bowie stands in as Nikola Tesla, the driving force behind the steampunk machinery utilized by Hugh Jackman’s Robert “The Great Danton” Angier.
The Prestige is a Nolan flick through and through, complete with a twist you’ll be looking for right from the get-go but will fail to see coming. Jackman, Christian Bale, and Michael Caine deliver their expected top-notch performances that help drive even the slowest moments of this intriguing theatrical gem.
9. The City of Lost Children (1995)
Director(s): Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro
Jean-Pierre Jeunet lends his very unique style to a 1995 sci-fi fantasy film starring Ron Perlman. The City of Lost Children is strange, to say the least, featuring an odd-ball world full of characters like the devilish being, Krank, that sets out to steal the dreams of children all over the world, and the brain named Irvin that helps him in his quest.
Perlman stars as One, a carnival strongman, who gets inadvertently tangled in Krank’s exploits. From trained, poisonous fleas to a Cyclops and an amnesiac diver living in a harbor, The City of Lost Children is quite eccentric and will have you furrowing your brow often, but the blend of disturbing imagery, quirky imagery, and surprisingly good visual effects make it difficult to look away.
Be warned, though. This movie will probably ruin your love for Santa with an eerie scene that has a gaunt Claus serenading terrified children.
8. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
One of the best sources for steampunk is Japanese animation.
In 2004, director Hayao Miyazaki brought the visual spectacle of Howl’s Moving Castle to screen. Based on the 1986 novel by Diana Wynne Jones, the movie transports viewers to a world of fantasy, imbued with 20th-century technologies that match the prevalence of magic. When Sophie falls under the curse of a witch, she finds herself intertwined with the resistance against King and the antics of a wizard named Howl.
Howl’s Moving Castle is a shining example of a movie that lets the steampunk elements shine through without beating viewers over the head with them. Being a Miyazaki film, you know to expect incredible set pieces and a cast of fascinating characters.
7. Hugo (2011)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Though you may have never seen Hugo, chances are you heard of it. Its 11 Academy Award nominations are hard to overlook, but it’s also notable for being Martin Scorsese’s first 3D movie. Though he chose the medium to give character emotion the spotlight in this drama, the 3D also brought to the forefront the 20th-century tech mingled with the 1930s setting.
The whole movie is about innovation and automation and the pioneers that lead the filmmaking industry. Because of its story, we get some glimpses at some pretty incredible steampunk machinery. Around every corner is a different gear that turns another that powers some implement.
Asa Butterfield is a delight as the titular Hugo, and the cast features notable names like Ben Kingsley, Jude Law, and Christopher Lee that help fuel the adventure.
6. The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958)
Director: Karel Zeman
Also known as Invention for Destruction, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne is a 1950s Czechoslovakian sci-fi adventure inspired by the popular works of Jules Verne.
Blending live-action and animation, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne was a marvel for its time, and though it doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen in dozens of movies since, it’s still a spectacle today. In fact, a digitally restored version was released in 2015 under its original title.
The movie follows a band of pirates looking to advance their status on the deep blue. To do so, they target a scientist that may have their answer in the form of a deadly weapon. The Fabulous World of Jules Verne is ripe with elements of steampunk, exactly as you’d expect in a film based on movies like Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
5. April and the Extraordinary World (2015)
Director(s): Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci
Set in an alternate world that thrives on steampunk technology, April and the Extraordinary World is based on the visual style of French cartoonist Jacques Tardi. Though it starts on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, the movie spirals into a sci-fi adventure featuring supersoldiers, modern weaponry, fantastical serums, and cyborgs. At the heart of it is April, great-granddaughter of Gustave Franklin, who finds herself pursued because of her lineage.
April and the Extraordinary World spans beyond the French Empire, winding up on distant planets and the bottom of the sea as April pursues ever-lasting life while evading the authorities. There is plenty of tech scattered throughout the movie to appeal to steampunk fans, including a mobile bunker disguised as a normal house.
April and the Extraordinary World scored six awards, including the Cesar Awards Best Animated Feature Film and the Annie Awards Outstanding Achievement, Editorial in an Animated Feature Production.
4. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
Director(s): Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise
The City of Atlantis is an age-old legend that people still love to fantasize over today. Many mediums have tackled the subject, but one of the most memorable was the steampunk adventure Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
Michael J. Fox headlines in this Disney adventure as Milo James Thatch, an early-20th-century cartographer known for his research on the City of Atlantis. Of course, his studies bring him to a world beyond our own, one hidden from humanity.
The animated steampunk feature scored more than ten award nominations, including the Young Artist Award for Best Feature Family Film – Drama and Individual Achievement in Directing at the 29th Annie Awards. Atlantis’ animation is old-school Disney at its best, though some may not appreciate how dated it feels. However, there’s much to love about this movie, especially if you love steampunk.
3. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
Director: Richard Fleischer
Based on Jules Verne’s late-19th century novel of the same name, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a classic piece of Technicolor cinema that spotlights the early innovations of Walt Disney Productions. Though the visual effects have shown their age, when the film released in 1954, set pieces like the giant squid fight captivated audiences and earned Disney two Academy Awards.
What’s so fascinating about 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as one of the best steampunk movies is that it predates the term, which is believed to have its origins in the 80s. The design of Captain Nemo’s vessel, the Nautilus, and the diving gear all have that signature steampunk appearance.
Richard Fleischer’s adaptation of the classic novel is one of those “must-see” movies, regardless of your views on steampunk.
2. Castle in the Sky (1986)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Studio Ghibli has become a well-known animation studio, producing such greats as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Princess Mononoke. The studio’s legacy dates back to 1986, with a delightful steampunk movie titled Laputa: Castle in the Sky (or just Castle in the Sky in the United States). This animated adventure was Studio Ghibli’s first film, and it was a strong start for the studio.
A tale of air pirates and government organizations, Castle in the Sky follows young Sheeta, an orphan bearing a unique pendant that everyone seems to want. Sheeza is joined by Pazu, an orphan boy, and embarks on a quest to locate a mysterious floating city named Laputa. Along the way, they escape many perils, often using steampunk-style machinery to evade pursuers.
Despite being more than 30 years old, Castle in the Sky is a visual treat still worthy of a viewing or two today.
1. Steamboy (2004)
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Released in July 2004, Steamboy earned notoriety for being one of Japan’s most expensive animated films. To bring it to life, the creative minds of Katsuhiro Otomo and Sadayuki Murai spent a decade perfecting 180,000 drawings. It was an effort worth taking as Steamboy remains one of the best steampunk movies ever created.
Set in an alternate 19th-century Europe, steam power leads the technological charge and has become an essential piece of civilization. When the discovery of Icelandic pure mineral water that could change the energy industry forever leads to tragedy and the creation of a mysterious sphere, multiple entities set out to steal the sphere. A grand adventure unfolds as young inventor, Ray, gets caught up in his father’s discovery.
Steamboy features some truly neat tech derived from the steampunk genre, including a MonoCycle and a massive floating fortress. There are some similarities to Castle in the Sky, but Steamboy stands on its own as an unforgettable animated film.
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