Just because they aren’t a household name doesn’t mean that these lesser-known dieselpunk flicks aren’t well worth the watch. If you love watching Nazi spies, katanas, Nazi zombies, tanks, Nazi robots, Mafia lords, dogfights, Nazis on the moon, jetpack rockets, and Nazi zeppelins thrown together in messy, grimy, wildly entertaining yet somehow philosophically engaging stories that your friends haven’t seen before, then this is definitely the list of dieselpunk movies for you.
When a young pilot inadvertently discovers a top-secret rocket pack, he’s on a troubled road to save his one true love and stop the Nazis from ruining human civilization. The Rocketeer, a feature film from Walt Disney, is a perfect example of the dieselpunk genre (and not your typical Disney movie by a long shot - for starters, it would be a huge stretch to even call it a kid’s movie). What’s it got? A mechanic for a mentor, gangsters, 1930s Hollywood, bad guys reminiscent of Bond villains, and a throwback kinda vibe to a time when things were simpler. Here’s a dialogue from the film that captures the mood: "How did it feel, strapping that thing to your back and flying like a bat out of hell?" "Well, it's the closest I'll ever get to heaven, Mr. Hughes." Expect an innocent picture of good versus evil (rather a departure from the usually dark dieselpunk genre) and you won’t be disappointed.
Tank Girl is an ambitious film, based on comic books of the same title and definitely imitating the style with its combination of animation and live action, still-graphic montages, musical numbers (yes, really), animatronic makeup, and special effects by the bucketload. Not a lot has been left out. Oh, yes, the plot: when a giant meteor turns the planet into a post-apocalyptic desert, the evil Water and Power Co., headed up by a madman, runs the world, opposed only by the Rippers, who are kangaroo-men. Don’t think too hard about that one. Only Tank Girl (ok, and Jet Girl, her new amiga) can fight back against the tyranny! And fight they do, with weapons both devastating and gruesome - but with a cheery smile and a song on their lips. If you can suspend your disbelief and jump on board with the whimsy, you’ll love the girl power and the over-the-top everything.
Wildly experimental, incredibly stylish, gorgeously surreal (and highly controversial - I’m sure I’m infuriating someone right now by adding it to this list), Sucker Punch is not the bland, mass-produced Hollywood pablum moviegoers are all too accustomed to. When a young girl named Babydoll is locked in a mental asylum by her abusive stepfather, the only way to get out proves to be complicated. By entering another world, Babydoll and her tough, take-no-prisoners team are up against Nazi zombies, clockwork warriors, and epic fantasy dragons - all obstacles in their way to be defeated on the way to freedom. Let’s call it an escapist’s dream, a rock opera that taps into the truth of how humans deal with trauma. This is a soul-filled triumph against the extrusion of sub-par “films” and you can say differently, but make sure you watch it before you decide. (Also, Jena Malone is brilliant in her supporting role as Rocket. That sass!)
What is it that makes us human? It’s a question cyberpunk derivatives of all kinds can’t help but keep asking, and Dark City asks it in a chilling new way. In this world, all human memories are created again at midnight - no different in many ways than “noon” since now everyone has lived in a world of darkness for as long as they can remember. The Strangers, aliens who live inside corpses, control not only memories but also every aspect of the world - they can stop every element in its place, move skyscrapers, houses, people - and then reset everyone’s memories, creating completely different lives and scenarios for them whenever it befits their experiment. Except for, of course, one man, who must escape from this forced reality. Poignant love stories, a perfect noir setting, and the triumph of the human spirit are all hallmarks of this brilliantly imagined otherworld.
I need to start by saying Nazis on the moon. Ok. (This is one of those things that I really would have loved to have thought of first.) In the comic science fiction action film Iron Sky, the Americans head back to the moon only to discover that the Nazis have been hiding there for the last 70 years building a ginormous fortress - and the Moon Führer is not pleased that the Americans have just put down their Lunar Lander too close for comfort. Whoops! Madcap adventures ensue as the Fourth Reich prepares to retake Earth. Cue Nazi propaganda, flying saucers, secret stowaways, and an international nuclear war. The film is almost satirical - some compare it to Monty Python - and if you love it rejoice, because it’s an independently funded project and a sequel (Iron Sky: The Coming Race) is in the works.
The Sky Crawlers is an animated Japanese alternative history set in a WWII-like time and place; however, here the world is strangely at peace. Since the citizenry is used to violence and aggression, fighter pilots are privately commissioned to fight each other - real places, real guns. A science-y element of the film is the mystery of characters known as Kildren, human-like creatures engineered to live forever as teenagers (sounds like cruel and unusual punishment to me). The main character and his friends fit this description, and their hedonistic, pointless lives are tenuously connected in friendship and romance, ready to crumble at the reveal. The film leaves its viewers wary of measuring out their own lives with coffee spoons lest they too find themselves with only a veneer of meaning covering a shallow existence. This is one that will leave you thinking long after the credits roll.