What Makes a Movie Steampunk?

What makes a movie steampunk is a topic that brings a lot of debate across the community. A lot of people have their own take on this, and the beautiful thing is, there is no right a wrong answer, as steampunk never actually existed, so historical accuracy is moot. However, there are some key themes that should be looked out for, and we will discuss these further below.

Ok, I may have miss led you a bit above, there are SOME wrong answers as to what makes a movie steampunk, however, there are some grey areas too.

Movies tend to fall into one of three categories, steampunk, steampunk-inspired, or not steampunk at all.

Steampunk as a movie genre does have certain themes and elements that help categorize them.

We will discuss them in turn below. They don’t all necessarily need to exist together, but this will soon become apparent.

Key Elements That are Indicative of a Steampunk Movie

1. The Use of Steam

Ok, this may be a bit of a giveaway considering the name ‘steampunk’. However, for a true steampunk movie, steam will be the main source of fuel. In a steampunk world, electricity has never been invented.

Therefore, if a movie solely powers its technology via steam, it is potentially a steampunk movie. However, if steam exists in conjunction with electricity, it is likely to not be steampunk at all, or have just taken inspiration from the steampunk genre in some of its aesthetics.

2. Steam Powered Vehicles

In a true steampunk movie, cars, ships, and even submarines will be powered by steam, and they will be retro-futuristic in appearance.

3. Airships

A common method of travel in steampunk movies is via airship. As with the steam powered vehicles, these are all engineering based and not digital in any way – remember, electricity never existed!

4. Set In Victorian Era or an Alternative History

A traditional steampunk movie is likely to be set in Victorian England in the 19th Century, with a slightly grey and dreary background (due to the steam) but full of life and possibility with the era of steam and inventions.

In contrast to this, a good steampunk movie may be set in a completely alternative history, in an apocalyptic future, potentially not even set on earth. In this alternative reality, steam powered technology will still be prevalent with no modern day electronics.

Again, if a movie is not set in the Victorian era, or an alternative reality, it is not likely traditional steampunk and my be, instead steampunk inspired

5. The Clothing

The clothing can be a good indicator as to whether a film is actually steampunk or not.

Clothing is another contentious topic within the steampunk community but in general terms, Victorian era clothing is a good give-away that a movie may be steampunk.

If the women are wearing corsets, tuxedo coats, hats with steampunk goggles, some veering more to the vampish and others more to the burlesque with others staying down the middle line traditionally. Men can be seen in waistcoats, top hats, steampunk goggles, fingerless gloves, and pocket watches.

Alternatively, a more colonial explorer look may be seen (especially on men) with beiges, khakis, being predominant colors with monocles and binoculars being seen as accessories.

Not all items will be present in every outfit. But the description of the style will give you an indication that a movie may be steampunk or steampunk inspired.

6. Augmented Mechanical Humans

It is not unusual to see elements of humans being replaced with mechanical parts, it may be an eye or an arm or even an exoskeleton attached to a limp, either to help or enhance its movement.

7. Gadgets & Gears

In line with the mechanical humans, gadgets can be seen in a steampunk world. This can be anything from intricate pocket watches to guns that mechanically pop out of the sleeve of a jacket. 

Gears are also prominent in the mechanical steampunk world, they can be seen on everything, clocks, cars, and clothing.

8. Time Travel

As steampunk is already a futuristic take on the past and often occurs in an alternative reality time travel is really not prevalent in steampunk. Time travel is seen in some steampunk classics such as Time After Time (1976).

Time travel is not seen in all steampunk movies, so the absence of time travel would not indicate that the movie is not steampunk.

9. The Paranormal

Although there is some crossover seen between steampunk and the paranormal (think League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), paranormal does not traditionally form part of the steampunk genre. The ‘baddies’ in steampunk movies are not traditionally alien, demonic, or paranormal. The ‘evil’ character is normally created through the misuse of science and technology by humans.

Intrigued by what makes a movie steampunk? Want to learn some more? Why not check out some of our favorite steampunk movies to get you started on this genre?

10. Advanced Technology

Technology that is advanced for its time is a standard theme throughout steampunk. As long as the technology is mechanical in nature, it can be as advanced as the imagination. Examples can be seen with flying cars.

List of Steampunk Movies

Here we have lined up for you a list of some of our favorite steampunk movies in order to get you started and to allow you to understand the genre more clearly.

  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
  • The Fabulous World of Jules Verne  (1958)
  • The City of Lost Children (1995)
  • Nautilis (1999)
  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
  • Sherlock Holmes (2009)
  • Hugo (2011)

If you are more interested in Disney movies, check out our list of the best Disney steampunk movies and see what you thin.

There you have it, a round-up of some of our favorite steampunk movies for those that are new to the steampunk movie genre and are looking at getting into it. 

Summary: What Makes a Movie Steampunk?

As we have taken you through, there are a lot of different factors which will help you decide whether a movie is likely steampunk or steampunk influences, or, in fact, not steampunk at all. The key elements to look out for are the use of steam, the era in which the movie is set, and the clothing.

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