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Steampunk: An Overview

Posted August 26, 2009 to photo album "Steampunk: An Overview"

In anticipation of the release of Shane Acker’s steampunk-influenced animation 9, Jeff Vandermeer presents a primer on the fantasy subgenre.

Slide 1: An Introduction
Slide 2: Jules Verne
Slide 3: The American "Edisonade"
Slide 4: The Rise of Modern Steampunk
Slide 5: The Role of
Slide 6: The Aesthetic Influence on Movies
Slide 7: The Role of DIY Fashion
Slide 8: Steampunk Art
Slide 9: Reimagining Technology Through the Maker Movement
Slide 10: The Future of Steampunk
Slide 6: The Aesthetic Influence on Movies

Slide 6: The Aesthetic Influence on Movies

Many of the films of Hayao Miyazaki demonstrate that a parallel Steampunk aesthetic had entered the cinema by the time the literature had a name, probably influenced by, again, Jules Verne. Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), with its clanking, clunky, smoke-stack-riddled Steampunk redoubt, shows a fascination with baroque retro-tech. But as early as 1986, Miyazaki had released Laputa: Castle in the Sky, which features an alternate Earth complete with zeppelins, metal men, and steam-powered inventions. As with the best Steampunk novels and stories, Miyazaki weds his Steampunk images to social or political issues—in his case, concerns about the environment. Thus, his version of Steampunk has a kind of purpose underlying it that’s most akin to Moorcock and Sterling/Gibson, even if his emphasis on good stewardship of the planet creates radical differences.

Beyond Miyazaki, there are many examples that use elements of baroque retro-tech but few that seem definable as “Steampunk.” Steamboy (2004) may be the most obvious, although it doesn’t feature a compelling story. Other films, like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), City of Lost Children (1995) and Hellboy (2004) partake of the aesthetic in small ways, while The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), based on the marvelous comic by Alan Moore, is an example of Steampunk eating itself on celluloid—and, sadly, imploding. The Golden Compass (2007), based on the Philip Pullman novels, would have been the definitive Steampunk film, but tends to downplay many of the source material's most interesting Steampunk elements. Perhaps the most unintentionally funny movie with Steampunk elements is The Mutant Chronicles (2009), which features an airship so heavy and absurd in its movements that it’s impossible to believe for a second that it could actually make it more than a few feet off the ground. Unlike the magical absurdity of Howl’s Moving Castle, this effect is almost certainly not intentional.

Despite the lack of a definitive Steampunk film, the variety of ways in which movies have used Steampunk elements—or even just neo-Victorian elements—has influenced such aspects of the Steampunk subculture as fashion and art, perhaps more so than the literature.