In a recent brief review of April and the Extraordinary World, the French animated film based on the works of Jacques Tardi that was released in the US last week, the Village Voice called it an “all-too-rare example of steampunk done right.” Indeed, it is rare, but the fact that steampunk works at all in April suggests that the maligned phenomenon has merely been misused. Beyond schlocky regurgitations of the aesthetic — Sherlock Holmes, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Golden Compass — steampunk has proven to have enduring worth in works that use it both as a poetic visual motif and to link the present day to the rise of marvelous, ecologically unsound technologies. It often feels ineffective to look toward apocalyptic futures that are the result of the combination of industry, tech, and governance gone awry —because they seem to just state the obvious in way that exaggerates current fears. Sometimes looking simultaneously forward and backward can be more interesting, and less disorienting than it sounds.
As a reactionary science fiction-based subculture that extended to fashion, interior design, and assorted teensy commodities, the steampunk boom of the early 2010s made a lot of sense: it wasn’t quite the Luddite rejection of technology one might expect from this era, but rather a fetish for the antiquated, ornate visibility of technologies’ inner workings. As various technologies shrunk to near-invisible size, the steampunk aesthetic romanticized the anthropomorphically complex anatomies of Victorian innovations; these technologies are not sleek and incidental, but wondrous, crude and unmissable. At its most basic, the steampunk aesthetic is nostalgic.
Gorgeous films like Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children illustrate why the ostentatiousness of Victorian visual culture applied to speculative inventions can be so attractive. And it’s perhaps because of this attractiveness that “steampunk” grew to be not just a genre, but also a meaning-stripped aesthetic.
Once “steampunk” was subsumed by obsolescence-oriented fashion journalism, it was only a matter of time before the term (which has always merited eye-rolls, presumably because the word itself is undeniably… kinda dumb) would start to sound completely hackneyed. The word became a bit of a running joke, one that soon conjured images of overpriced baubles on Etsy more readily than exciting literature and cinema. Nothing signals a vacated trend more than sketch-comedy spoofing, and Key & Peele parodied steampunk in a typically hilarious 2014 skit, with Jordan Peele donning a monocle and a top hat with a tiny door in it, taking pride in “liv[ing] in a clock now” and asserting his devotion to the movement that’s about “Jules Verne and shit.”
But April and the Extraordinary World is far more interesting than a mindless monocle fetish, and shows that there’s still plenty of wonder and horror to be eked from the genre. Directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci’s adult-friendly kids’ movie is taken from a whole oeuvre of graphic novels and situates itself very specifically within a rewritten history. Then it goes completely and (mostly) excitingly crazy.
In April‘s world, Napoleon III dies right before the Franco-Prussian War begins with a sabotaged experiment, leading to a peace treaty wherein the Third French Republic never came to be. The other thing that never came to be was advanced technology, because suddenly the world’s leading scientists began disappearing. For fear of spoiling the film’s utterly bizarre premise, I will only say that the steam-based technology leads to a world that’s even worse off than our own with respect to ecology: coal-blackened skies and a treeless Paris are overrun with peculiar, inefficient dirigibles, cable cars, and mechanical rats. The film, it turns out, surrounds a fantasy-world ecoterrorist plot of sorts, revealing — within its own crazy logic — how ideological extremism is bred by anthropocenic extremes.
The temptation of steampunk is to fetishize its beauty, but April complicates that. In this particular world, the seductive anachronism is also the danger: a world subsisting through the 1940s on 1870s-era coal technology would be every bit as environmentally bleak as the film suggests. And yet, this alternate-universe scenario is also reflective of contemporary fears in a world where science hasn’t been stunted by a global conspiracy potentially involving large reptiles. Rather than fearing the new and fetishizing the old, the movie’s parallels to the present day raise the question of why certain technologies haven’t been implemented faster — why, when you boil it down, we’re facing the same problems as a fantasy society that’s stuck in the late 19th century.
Bong Joon-ho’s spectacular Snowpiercer is similar in the way it depicts an insidious political system catalyzed by exaggerated environmental strife. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that the titular futuristic vehicle that carries the last surviving humans represents an antiquated means of transportation: the train, which helped connect the world and then led to… all this.
Snowpiercer is all anachronism, with some train cars looking hypermodern and others reminiscent of the Orient Express. The film’s Victorian aesthetics (the plushness of Victorian wealth, the iconically sooty look of Victorian poverty), as well as the segmented structure of the train, amplify its examination of wealth stratification. As it grows more visually beautiful, the film’s appeal becomes more sinister: we want the characters to wander ever farther towards the front of the train, because then we get to see the visual wonders it contains, despite our awareness of the oppression that enables them. We’re led to feel a complicity with that exclusive upward mobility.
Though the series is actually historical fiction rather than steampunk, the anachronistically futuristic score of Cinemax’s The Knick creates a similar bridge as these films. The synthesized music by Drive composer Cliff Martinez always sounds like it’s escalating to an ominous discovery, often (as in the track above) imitating the rhythm of horses trotting along turn-of-the-century Manhattan streets, as though it’s all creeping along into the future. The Knick may, in fact, be the best — though definitely not the most traditional — example of steampunk’s potential. The series sees great minds of early-20th-century New York marveling at early examples of technologies we now consider pretty basic — but that the music frames as both beguiling and (in a way that almost recalls science fiction) alien. An X-ray machine, amateur pornography, automobiles, condoms, and, of course, so many new ways of understanding the human anatomy all feel extremely current. Thanks to the score and the exquisite cinematography and production design, contemporary viewers can share in the awe experienced by characters interacting with these various, needlessly complex versions of objects we now consider banal.
The Knick depicts a time when people marveled at both human bodies and human inventions — and the fact that we had so much new access to both; machines were becoming normalized and domesticated, and medicine was suddenly rapidly advancing. We see these old things anew, and see the complex relationship between this awe and a proneness to industry gone out of control.
The best uses of the steampunk sensibility don’t merely mix futurism and nostalgia. They use the wonder the aesthetic evokes to capture our attention — to show us what being awestruck by the human potential exhibited in early technologies may have felt like — and then to tell stories that highlight the complications of that wonderment. We see worlds that capitalized on these innovations without taking into consideration or modifying the consequences. In Snowpiercer, all that remains of society is a stunning… socially stratified train. In April, these marvelous… coal-fueled contraptions have suffocated the world’s ecology. In The Knick, the acceleration of thrilling medical advances… is paralleled by accelerating corruption.
As an interesting counterweight to the banal, contemporary merging of humans and technology, steampunk at its best revisits the awe-inducing dawn of industry. And when the aesthetic is actually situated in a strong, purposeful narrative — rather than fetishized in steampunk fashion or design — it often draws on both the beauty and the ugliness of human creation. The sense of wonderment steampunk inspires carries with it a question: how did our awe in human creation get capitalized into a banal consumerist cycle that led the world to environmental and social crisis?