Dieselpunk, cyberpunk’s darker, grittier older brother, is often forgotten and cast aside in favor the goggles, gadgets, and Victorian charms of steampunk. But you’re missing out if you ignore amazing films like these, featuring science labs, evil doctors, and - let’s not forget - NAZIS. Take a look at some of the best dieselpunk movies that have scored big at the box office and prepare to be swept into a retro futuristic world of the 20s, 30s, and 40s where heroes still stand for justice in the midst of the grime and grind.
When the United States becomes involved in WWII, a secret government program gets the go-ahead to inject Steve Rogers with the experimental serum that turns him from a 90-pound weakling into the peak of human perfection (aka Chris Evans, God’s gift to women). Rather than two hours of special effects weakly tied together by some sort of so-called plot, Marvel actually did this one right and put together a film with real texture and life to it. We actually care about the hero, his origins, and the success of his mission to fight the super-weapon-wielding, overly ambitious Nazi villain who’s trying to destroy the world. Hayley Atwell plays a sultry pin-up-worthy Peggy Carter, red-lipped but highly capable. The set and costumes are refreshingly period 1940s in contrast to the same-old cityscapes we usually see in superhero movies. Interesting fact: the wimpy pre-experiment version of Steve is seamless CGI, while the bulked-up post-experiment Captain America is...just the real Chris Evans. As the squeaky clean hero himself might say, “Well I’ll be darned.”
With big questions about what it means to be human, a transcendently noir style, and absolutely jaw dropping visual effects, Blade Runner is a gritty, messy masterpiece of a dieselpunk film. The film’s story of the rise of a giant global corporation that creates replicants (robots that are “more human than human”) has fathered many a similar tale - consider Gattaca, Total Recall, or12 Monkeys. Part of the fun is speculating about whether Deckard, the main character played by Harrison Ford, is himself a replicant (though tracking down dangerous replicants is his job). Inspired by the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this is action on a grand scale that comes right back down to earth.
You either loved it or you thought it was the worst thing to happen to dieselpunk in the relatively short history of dieselpunk. For those who gave it rave reviews, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow did a lot of things right with the striking visuals, which are about halfway between sepia and full color. The director was influenced by Norman Bel Geddes, industrial designer for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and the 1939 New York World’s Fair and has been quoted as saying he hoped that the movie would feel “just like a lost film of that era.” Obviously a lot of research went into creating a film that feels authentic in its vision of the future as imagined by someone living in a more innocent past. Enjoy giant mechanical men sent to destroy Manhattan, a German WWI scientist with evil plans and a laboratory to match (created using clips of the deceased Laurence Olivier), and rekindled romance between Sky Captain and his leading lady. It’s an energetic, joyful film that demands you take off your serious film critic cap at the door and just come along for the ride.
The budget was insane, but the movie is like no other. Waterworld is set in a post apocalyptic future where melted polar ice caps have created a sink-or-swim culture where it’s every gilled, finned man for himself. Flying machines, sailing machines, and weapons both medieval and futuristic come to battle when scarce resources are at stake. While the characters could be more fully developed, it’s the fantastically imagined sights you’ll see here that will keep you thinking about what it would be like to live in this world for a long time to come.
Before I was ever allowed to see Raiders of the Lost Ark, my mother, a huge fan of Marian, told me the entire plot complete with dialogue many times through (this is where I learned what it meant to drink someone under the table). The first time I watched it was an odd experience: was my instant recognition of it as familiar merely a result of my mom’s dramatic retellings throughout my early childhood, or something more visceral? Raiders is a classic that deserves every bit of the fame it’s got, certainly in large part because of Harrison Ford’s unforgettable role as the title character. If you’ve never watched Indy recover the cross of Coronado, fight the Nazis, find the Ark of the Covenant, and get the girl, then you need to stop reading this and go do it right now. If you’re not convinced yet here’s a short list of the bonuses you get for obeying: spiders, mummies, poison darts, a snake pit, bulldozers, tanks, motorcycles, machetes, hiding in baskets, John Rhys-Davies, machine guns, ships, a Nazi flying wing, a secret submarine base, whips, and a whopping dose of the supernatural.
The Batman that Tim Burton created in 1989 remains a definitive dieselpunk classic because of its noir-esque return to the 1940s, completely discarding what the 1970s added. Here you’ll find an intricately designed world, grey and moody and defended only by Bruce Wayne’s alter ego. Here The Joker (played by Jack Nicholson) rules the underworld with a bloodstained fist, and it’s not long before he and Batman are at each other’s throats. The worlds of Metropolis and Blade Runner are similar to the world Burton has created for his Batman to roam - and a very relatable Batman he is indeed. He’s awkward at parties, he drives a terrible car, and he’s not exactly smooth with the ladies; for me, that’s far better than having to endure Ben Affleck’s perfectly stubbled middle-aged jaw as he beefs up using tires and chains in a dank, dripping basement (if you drive an Aston Martin, I think you can afford a better gym than that). A seedy 1947 makes a perfect setting for the bitter battles of men who prove all too human.
This is one of the most watchable dieselpunk films around. Denzel Washington plays a loner (we’ll call him Eli, because that’s what it says on his nametag) who’s been walking west across a devastated, dystopic America for three decades. You won’t see major twists at the end coming (unless you’re one of those people with The Curse, which you will no doubt visit upon others by saying “Oh, I see where they’re going with this” five minutes in). The film’s themes are right at home in their Western setting - look for knife fights, prostitutes, roaming motorcycle gangs of bad dudes, religion, and scarce water. The story may be fairly simplistic (until the unpredictable ending), but you do get to see a giant Gatling gun. Always a plus.