Lizards in robot suits! Trains, planes, and top hats! Scrap metal, spare parts, and corsets aplenty! The best steampunk movies contain all of this and much more. The perfect mix of sci-fi and machinery has something for fans whose interests span many genres. From Hugo to The Fabulous World of Jules Verne to The Prestige, if it’s steampunk you want, this list details the very best steampunk movies around.
April and the Extraordinary World is a charming film in the steampunk style suitable for all ages. The plot is straightforward and simple enough, but the beautifully detailed world in which it is told would enchant almost anyone. April, a young girl voiced by the inimitable Marion Cotillard, must search for her parents in a treeless, post-apocalyptic world where everyone must wear masks in order to breathe. The visuals are a real joy to behold. Like many films of this style, there are definite themes provoking thoughts on environmentalism, pollution, science, and government, but the film doesn’t beat you over the head with a lesson to learn. Instead, a thrilling adventure with delightful characters (including an immortal talking cat named Darwin) takes you along on a gentle ride through the imagination.
If you’re not familiar with Tai Chi Zero, you’re in for a huge treat, because here’s the scoop: this is kung-fu steampunk. From the makers of Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, Tai Chi Zero is set in a legendary Chinese village where everyone is a master of the martial arts. In this movie a mysterious young man with secret powers seeks to learn tai chi from the villagers. They rebuff him, but when a terrifying machine powered by steam threatens the village, they have to reconsider his request if they want to save themselves. Here you’ll find the usual elements from all the best steampunk movies—trains, top hats, planes, machinery, silent film flashbacks—but with amazing martial-arts action to boot. This movie is straight up fun that you can really eat popcorn to while enjoying the fight scenes, full of energy and life in the midst of the gadgets and gears.
This is a classic, and unquestionably one of the best steampunk movies of all time; It’s certainly inspired a great deal of the steampunk genre. The essential plot of the story is chilling, sometimes too intense to watch. In a Victorian setting, a mad scientist named Krank kidnaps children and steals their dreams with fantastic contraptions. The protagonist searches for his younger brother, who has, of course, fallen into Krank’s hands. This is a dark fantasy, inspired itself by Jules Verne (of course, what steampunk film isn’t) and has stunning visuals, some of the most elaborate and costly in French film history. There are hideous creatures, failed human experiments, a cosmic vortex, and more that play more as a sequence of astonishing images rather than a straightforward plot. The obscurity of the visual element is perhaps the most distressing. Viewers are often asking themselves "What is that?", unsure what horrors might lie within yet another creature or contraption in a world of brass, wood, and shadows. This is one you can’t miss if you’ve got the stomach and need some crazy good inspiration in the world of steampunk.
Based on the Caldecott award winning novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, this 2011 film is one of the best steampunk movies for children and adults alike. Martin Scorcese departs from his usually violent style to take a viewer into the steel dreamworld of a 1930s Parisian train station filled with giant clocks, secrets ready to be discovered, and above all, the young but brilliant performance of Asa Butterfield. The ensemble cast probably includes a few of your favorite actors. If you love the gadgets and the tinkering of steampunk on a small scale, they’re here as well in full force. Perhaps the most intriguing part of this film for the steampunk junkie is a broken automaton, which young Hugo believes has something important to tell him. It’s nostalgic, beautiful, and thought-provoking while never getting too heavy-handed with its message.
No list of the best steampunk movies would be complete without Wild Wild West. This one fits into the sub-genre of “American Western Steampunk” and is out of control entertaining with detailed Victorian fashion, a giant mechanical spider, a flying bicycle, and the craziest train you can dream up. Gadgets? It’s got ‘em. Deplorable inventor/villain? Oh yes. It’s not a deeply philosophical, substantial film like Metropolis or The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, but what it lacks in seriousness it makes up for in hilarity and hijinks (plus, don’t miss Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Selma Hayek, and Kenneth Branagh). Take off your film critic goggles and go along for ride on this one.
9 might be animated, but think twice before showing this one to the kids; The nine rag dolls starring in this “stitchpunk” story are cute and cuddly enough, but the foes they face are truly terrifying. When a machinery-filled burlap doll called 9 awakens in a sort of no-man’s land, he has no voice, and his only possession is a strange object he finds amidst the rubble. He finds other dolls like him on his journey toward Brain, a terrifying machine that he accidentally activates. The film is pure dark fantasy, and the post-apocalyptic world is filled with real and chilling dangers that will haunt you long after the credits roll. The most interesting steampunk element of this movie is the “Fabrication Machine,” a steam-powered analog computer of sorts that pushes the boundaries of the genre. Within the film, characters both good and evil tinker to create little gadgets, showing that there’s an inventor inside all of us.
What is a machine, and what does it mean for the magician who uses it? This is a question that The Prestige attempts to answer in a rich world that is as much historical as it is scientific. The story centers around characters, not technology, and profits much from its focus; When we think about this movie it’s as much about the tragic love stories and the magicians who dared to dream too far as it is about the style of the film with Tesla’s magnifying transmitter at the center. The Prestige is about magic and machinery, but it’s also about the consequences of playing with forces beyond your control. Of course you only have to ponder these deep themes as much as you want to. For most of the film, you’ll be dazzled by Victorian beauties with real stories of tragedy to flesh them out, fascinated by men who struggled like Icarus toward power and deception, and intrigued by Tesla, Edison, and their creations. As a character actor who provides essential commentary within the film itself, Michael Caine is at his finest here and is unforgettably perfect.
This dark, eccentric story is the first in Terry Gilliam’s Trilogy of Imagination, and post-dates his involvement with Monty Python. One of the best steampunk movies of all time, the story explores ideas of escaping reality and the way that society is ordered. The film is told from a child’s perspective (a child accompanied on his adventures by six dwarves, no less) and has an incredible number of steampunk elements. There are fearsome beasts to slay, kings, swordsmen, and time travel, and it is the last of these that allows the heroes of the story to step back into the world of King Arthur, or Napoleon, or Robin Hood. Seeing this movie as a children’s film helps those of us less young-at-heart to relax and enjoy the journey without judging it too deeply. It’s often underrated because there really is lighthearted magic amidst the desolation and terror, but what is a world without hope of a light at the end of the time traveler’s tunnel? An original soundtrack from none other than George Harrison really makes Time Bandits stand out as a unique addition to the steampunk lover’s canon.
In City of Ember, giant mutated animals roam the streets—a butterfly with a 2' wingspan, or a mole the size of a hippopotamus, for instance—and the old, outdated technology no longer is capable of sustaining the retro-futuristic world. Perhaps one of the most enjoyable steampunk elements of this 2008 book-to-film adaptation is the Rube Goldberg machine that prepares meals, reminiscent of Dick Van Dyke’s similar machine in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This movie is more steampunk by feel than anything else, with its grit and gadgets and brokenness, but it takes the viewer on a wonder-filled journey as two children must find clues, left behind by the builders of the city, so that they can find a way back to the safe world above (formerly a post-apocalyptic wasteland). The movie is definitely more steam punk than the book, so try this one out first if you want to get your gear on.
If you’re talking about the best steampunk movies, it’s impossible to ignore this oldie-but-goodie. Jules Verne, without question, has been the inspiration in some measure for almost every steampunk movie ever made and this film tosses them all into one big steam punk salad. Created by Karel Zeman with inspiration from Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne has everything you could want in a steampunk film and more: underwater bicycles, airship towers, pirates, scientists, and futuristic weapons. The romantic, fantastical visual effects are so stunning that you won’t mind watching this essential steampunk primer for one mechanical minute.
The best steampunk expands from the big screen to the pages of a graphic novel in Larry Blamire's Steam Wars. Complete with sci-fi and Victorian elegance, Steam Wars is a great reading choice for any steampunk enthusiast.
Steam Wars is set in 1897, but the technology is anything but standard of the era. War is fought with steam-powered machines that look like armored warriors. In an age old tale of the underdog, Duff, Cribbs, and Tunney, steam crewmen, put it all on the line in a courageous and reckless endeavor. The adventure is written by Larry Blamire who is also an actor and director, and Steam Wars is just one of his many successes in the world of sci-fi and fiction.