For all of the allure and general popularity of steampunk settings, there’s a surprising dearth of popular films that have used them. That’s not to say there aren’t any examples, but they tend to be few and far between. Also, the most noteworthy ones have concerned similar periods of history. Most notably, the recent Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr. along with The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen have decidedly steampunk vibes and both are set in Victorian London (or something close to it). There just seems to be something about the literal steam on dark London streets in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution that factors into steampunk fantasies.
But because in a strict sense steampunk just refers to machinery replacing advanced technology in science fiction, there are many more film genres that could explore the concept; and they wouldn’t have to be rooted in Victorian England! These films are always at risk of looking a bit ridiculous to those who aren’t specifically interested in steampunk features, but they can be very enjoyable with the right execution.
Just for the sake of amusement, let’s look at a few genres that should dive into steampunk.
The American Western is still one of the more popular genres in film and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Just a few years ago, a major remake of True Grit was good enough to earn 10 Oscar nominations, and many are eagerly anticipating Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven this autumn. It’s a very active genre that most every popular actor and director seems interested in exploring. It’s also ripe for twists and experimentation.
We’ve seen a lot of quirky twists on the American Western over the years. Most recently, Quentin Tarantino played with the genre, resulting in pseudo-Westerns such as Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, which embraced common imagery and tropes but were peppered with modern-day language (and in some cases music). Before these films, Cowboys & Aliens blended the Western with science fiction. Looking a little further back, 1999’s Wild Wild West actually did employ some steampunk elements. But now it’s time for another shot. Audiences may still love Westerns, but they’re also hungry for new ideas, and a big, bold twist featuring steam-powered carriages, weaponry and the like could make for a brilliant new look.
This genre hasn’t been explored nearly as thoroughly as the American Western, and in fact has been largely missing from Hollywood for a while now since the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise stalled out (though apparently there’s another sequel in the works). Where we can tell that people are still deeply interested in pirate entertainment, however, is in the world of gaming. Console titles such as Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and the coming Sea Of Thieves make for big, adventurous experiences. There are also multiple pirate games among the collection of fiction- and history-based games at Gala’s online bingo platform. There, titles such as “Pirate Plunder” and “Treasure Island” look to attract players to slot machine games simply through the familiar and entertaining atmospheres associated with pirate fiction.
In other words, the interest is still there but the films? Not so much. Now might be the perfect time for someone in Hollywood to try a bold new look on the pirate genre. Can you imagine pirate ships powered by steam engines, or loudly clanking machine guns on deck? What about some kind of machinery whizzing a pirate up to the crow’s nest, or simply dark and ominous port settings billowing with steam? This could be a wonderfully imaginative film.
It’s easier to think of big and adventurous genres with regard to steampunk, simply because it’s essentially a fantasy concept. The more realistic or modern the genre seems, the more of a stretch it is to do it in a steampunk style. However, political thrillers are as popular as ever these days. This is particularly evident in the popularity of House Of Cards, which has been called the best show on television by some publications. Even beyond this show, audiences clearly enjoy the intrigue that’s naturally tied to political plots, from Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln to the hit Broadway musical Hamilton.
Keeping the idea of political dramas in mind, one of the interesting things about the prominent steampunk films we have seen is that most of them exist in a world of advanced machinery, without necessarily acknowledging it. Generally, this is appropriate; steampunk is meant to be a setting with certain circumstances rather than a plot device. But if it were to be treated as a plot device, it could actually make for a fascinating and original political thriller. Essentially, we’d be talking about a society dealing with the advent of steam-powered technology capable of sci-fi levels of activity. Politicians for and against the technology debating one another with some major position on the line would be an entirely new concept for steampunk film.
None of these ideas actually appears to be in the works, so far as we know. But you can never be sure what Hollywood’s going to attempt these days, and each of these concepts could make for a really fun film.