Why I Despair When Discussing Steampunk Films

So, let’s look at three lists that come up first when searching for “steampunk films” via Google…

One: The City of Lost Children (because… dream stealing?)
Two: 9 (because post-apocalyptic?)
Three: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (because Victorian fashion?)
Four: Going Postal (because ‘steampunk costumes’?)
Five: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (because submarine?)
Six: Hugo (because automaton?)
Seven: SteamBoy (because it IS steampunk)
Eight: Fullmetal Alchemist the Movie: Conqueror of Shamballa (because… I got nothing)
Nine: Wild Wild West (because it IS steampunk, no matter how bad it may be)
Ten: Treasure Planet (because Victorian fashion?)


The Prestige (because it’s Teslapunk… eh, close enough? Not really…)
Hellboy (because it’s Dieselpunk?)
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (because we want it to be?)
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (because it IS Victorian SF, and therefore ‘steampunk’)
Van Helsing (because it IS steampunk, at least as far as the technology)
The Golden Compass (because airships? and maybe this one IS steampunk as well, i’d have to rewatch it)
A Series of Unfortunate Events (because… I got nothing)
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (because it IS steampunk)
The Time Machine (2002) (because… time? it at least begins in the Victorian era?)
Sleepy Hollow (because science?)
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (because balloon?)
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (see above)
Howl’s Moving Castle (because… I got nothing. I’d have to rewatch it.)
Treasure Planet (see above)
City of Ember (might actually be steampunk)
Hugo (see above)
Stardust (because… airships?)
The Great Race (because it may well be in the gray area between ‘steampunk’ and ‘dieselpunk’)
Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (because it might be in that gray area as well)
Brazil (because… I got nothing)
Kin-dza-dza! (because… science?)
Perfect Creature (because… vampires?)
SteamBoy (see above)
Metropolis (1927) (because airships? well, there is that strict caste system…)
Metropolis (2001) (because… automatons?)
Around the World in 80 Days (because… Verne?)
Sherlock Holmes (2009) (because Victorian?)
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (because Victorian and big guns?)
The Illusionist (might be steampunk)
John Carter (because planetary romance and steampunk are essentially the same, but not really?)
Sucker Punch (because… zeppelins?)
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (because… pretty toys?)
Fullmetal Alchemist the Movie: Conqueror of Shamballa (see above)

and finally…

Sherlock Holmes (2009)
The Prestige
Van Helsing
A Series of Unfortunate Events
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
The Time Machine (2002)
The Golden Compass
The City of Lost Children
Wild Wild West
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (because… Victorian?)
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (because the list’s creator has no clue as to the difference between steampunk and dieselpunk?)
From Hell (because Victorian?)
City of Ember
Young Sherlock Holmes (because… Holmes? Victorian?)
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Howl’s Moving Castle
The Brothers Grimm (because… I got nothing)
Time After Time (because it involves time travel and Jack the Ripper? begins in the Victorian era?)

so, maybe the problem is the very vague and ill-defined definition of ‘steampunk’… everything from ‘features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology’ to ‘Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery’ to ‘With a backdrop of either Victorian England or America’s Wild West at hand, modern technologies are re-imagined and realized as elaborate works of art, fashion, and mechanics’.
So, definition could well be a problem.

But let us, for the purposes of this discussion, say ‘Victorian, Science, Steam, Machinery’ – those, perhaps, we can agree on as a bedrock upon which to build ‘steampunk’. And they need to be Major Story Elements, not ‘gears glued on a hat’, as it were.

Now, look at the lists again.

Airships don’t do it. Submarines don’t do it. Costumes and fashion don’t do it. (Unless you’re first and foremost, and primarily, a cosplayer, in which case… whatever. Go play in fields of daisies, li’l fairy folk. Style over substance be thy honeydew.)
I swear to God, I could write a story with atomic-powered spaceships, robotic pirates sailing on lava seas, continents populated with gleaming crystalline cities inhabited by flesh golems wearing Victorian costumes, and some goddamned idiot would proclaim it ‘steampunk’, because it has Victorian fashion.

Okay… I’m almost through being curmudgeonly.
The problem is indeed one of definition.
I’m gonna go kick these johnny-come-latelies off my grass, and beat them with my cane.
Steampunk’s just jumped-up Victorian SF&F. It’s been around since, oh, let’s see… the Victorian era!
And it’s damn hard to find in movies. Many films get called ‘steampunk’ for purely aesthetic reasons, regardless of the story or setting. Some get labeled ‘steampunk’ out of wishful thinking.
And if you want to say “it’s steampunk to me!”, feel free to do so…
Somewhere far away from me.

(This disgruntled mental meandering was inspired by our recent Wastebook launch party for “Ghosts, Gears, and Grimoires”.)

listening to: peace and quiet
mood: curmudgeonly


3 thoughts on “Why I Despair When Discussing Steampunk Films

  1. Part of the despair results from you are really talking about two different things that are only moderately related – and have dumped the expectations of both categories on all the movies.

    Steampunk was invented about twenty years ago as a science fiction literary category which included some stories written around then (The Difference Engine, etc.) and most Victorian era SF (Verne, Bellamy, Doyle etc) were posthumously adopted into it.
    Then, about a decade later Steampunk was invented as a design/fashion trend in the non-SF world. Not just your typical con cosplay fashion, but lots of fascinating catwalk eye candy. Also branching into home design decor and product design. (See the “Victorian” PC that i sometimes uses on Facebook as my personal icon.)
    You might want to split the movies up into those which Steampunk (1st definition) as an intrinsic element of its plot. and those movies in which Steampunk (2nd definition) is the predominant expression of the films visual vocabulary.

  2. So I probably need a name for something that I like, that steampunk seems to come close too, however since the label is used loosely I am often disappointed – I like magic (not a fan of victorian fashion but that is minor), and I like mechanical things – gears, and clockwork, and steam and such….

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