Serge_LJ (serge_lj) wrote,

Steampunk and Hollywood (Part Two)

This is Part Two of my talk on Steampunk and Hollywood.

Part One can be found here:


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One can find steampunk movies made thru the 30 years of the Third Era, but they are few and far between, and without a driving force. This is the Middle Ages.

The first steampunk outing of that era is 1973’s “Frankenstein: The True Story”, a 4-hour TV miniseries with a cast that included James Mason, David McCullum, and Joyce Penelope Wilhelmina Frankenberg, aka Jane Seymour, as the Bride (see above). True, the Modern Prometheus has become a genre onto himself, but his story IS about Science way ahead of what was possible in the 19th Century. The premise here is that Mary Shelley’s novel was a highly fictionalized account of real events, and that we’re now told the true story, a tale about the responsibilities that go with giving life. At first Frankenstein behaves with pride toward his angelic ‘son’. Unfortunately the process that created him, a process powered not by lightning storms but by the Sun, is imperfect and he becomes a coarse Creature rejected by its father.

The chase ends in the Arctic, Frankenstein begs his son’s forgiveness.

The following year, Frankenstein and the Creature are given a slightly less serious treatment in Mel Brooks’s “Young Frankenstein”.

Also in 1974, Disney releases “The Island at the Top of the World”. In 1907, a British businessman hopes to find his rebellious son who long ago vanished while searching for a legendary whale cemetary somewhere in uncharted Arctic regions. An expedition using a Frenchman’s advanced airship is put together and eventually they find the whale cemetery and the long-lost son. And Vikings.

Like “Captain Nemo and the Underwater City”, this film was an anomaly as far as public tastes were concerned. I saw it recently and it is an honest adventure tale only aiming to entertain, which it does. I was impressed by their not having the Vikings speak English. And amused by their not translating the French inventor's insults while he’s hanging high in the air for some important repairs.

By the way, if the name of the film’s scriptwriter sounds familiar, it may be because he also worked on “Leave It to Beaver”. Or you may have noticed his son’s name among the writers of “Golden Girls”. Either that or you heard of his grandson, one Joss Whedon.

In 1976, Edgar Rice Burroughs was finally tapped for steampunk with “At The Earth’s Core”. What is there not to like? A no-smoking rule aboard the mechanical mole. Peter Cushing as a scientist who turns his umbrella and suspenders into a bow with which he kills a sort-of dinosaur that then explodes. Cheesy SFX. Rubber-suited telepathic pterodactyls. Lines like “You cannot mesmerize me! I'm British!”

It did reasonably well, but there were no other steampunk films from Amicus Studios after that. The following year, George Lucas changed everything about what we could expect from a movie. Cheap monster suits wouldn’t cut it anymore. People didn’t care much for lost worlds or for steampunk. They wanted outer space and were even willing to watch abominations like Italy’s “Starcrash”.

I saw “Island of Doctor Moreau” when it was released in 1977, and never came across it since, not even on TV. I remember Burt Lancaster as Moreau turning Michael York into a beastman and trying to tempt him into eating a rat. The makeups were fairly good, which isn’t surprising as they were by the people who had worked on “Planet of the Apes”.

In 1978, Irwin Allen gave the world “The Return of Captain Nemo”. Captain Nemo, played by Jose Ferrer, wakes up in the modern world and fights Mel Ferrer. Luckily the world said thanks-but-no-thanks to his attempt at a steampunk TV series.

1979’s “Wild Wild West Revisited” had the show’s original cast fight Doctor Loveles’s son and his $600 robots. The whole thing felt tired, and quite embarrassing.


Much better was that same year’s “Time After Time”, in which Jack the Ripper (David Warner) steals the Time Machine of HG Wells (Malcom McDowell) to escape to 1979’s San Francisco. Aghast at having unleashed a monster upon Utopia, Wells follows him and discovers that the Future isn’t quite what he expected. Nicholas Meyer’s movie rather stacked the deck against the Present, with the Ripper declaring that, in our world, he’s just an amateur. Also, much as I liked Mary Steenburgen, while her character is supposed to be a modern woman, more involved in the events of her life, she remains a pawn. Still this is a suspenseful story, with humor and romance thrown in. It was well received, but had no great impact on steampunk although one doesn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to conclude that it influenced the episode of “Lois & Clark” involving a time-travelling HG Wells. It most likely didn't do that well financially otherwise someone in Hollywood would have translated that as we-want-more-of-this. It did have an impact on SF movies as a whole though. It allowed Meyer, who had written the Sherlock Holmes novel “The 7-percent Solution”, to show that he could also direct films, and that led to “The Wrath of Khan”.

In 1982’s short-lived series “Q.E.D.”, Sam Waterston plays Quentin Everett Deverill, a scientist who, in the year 1912, exiles himself to Edwardian England where he uses his genius to thwart the likes of Julian Glover’s Doctor Kilkiss.

After a gap of a few years, the closest to steampunk is 1986’s charming “Young Sherlock Holmes”, but it is so in an incidental manner. The flying machine could have easily been replaced by less unusual means of chasing after bad guys without affecting the plot.

A trend begins to emerge in the Third Era with 1990’s final chapter of “Back to the Future”. Marty McFly once again travels in time, going back to the Wild West to prevent the death of Doc Brown, inventor of the time device. There he finds Doc in love with Mary Steenburgen.

From the very beginning, 1993’s “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr” made it clear it wouldn’t be a run-of-the-mill TV western series. After some bandits stop a train with a boulder painted to look like it wasn’t there, we are treated to further Wile E. Coyote antics when Bruce Campbell’s Brisco catches another train with a rocket sled built by John Astin’s Professor Wickwire. About the latter, I suspect that people LAUGHED at him at the University and that they called him MAD, but he probably laughed back. Anyway. The story’s center piece is the Orb, which is sought by John Bly, the man who killed Brisco’s father. When a naked woman from the year 5000 materializes before Brisco, he finds out what the heck was going on.

Brisco ran for only 27 episodes, but that’s longer than 1995’s TV western series “Legend” did. Richard Dean Anderson plays a dime-store novelist convinced by John de Lancie’s Professor Bartok that he can make people believe, with the help of Bartok’s inventions, that his literary creation Nicodemus Legend is real.

In 1997, steampunk steps away from westerns, with two TV adaptations of “20,000 Leagues under the Sea”. One, with Ben Cross, could be described as Nemo and Ned Land duking it out to decide who will be the boyfriend of Conseil, Professor Arronax’s servant. Before you get a mistaken impression, Conseil is a girl in male drag. Had it been Peter Lorre in drag, the whole affair might have been more interesting.

The other “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” has Michael Caine as Nemo, Mia Sara as his daughter, and Bryan Brown as Ned Land. Patrick Dempsey is a young Arronax. This Nautilus looks fantastic inside and out, even better than Disney’s. Nemo isn’t interested in fighting the world’s various Navies. He leaves them alone if they leave him alone. He wants to build a home away from the pain inflicted upon him years before. He’s been seeding Earth’s oceans with mysterious devices that, when he triggers them, will stabilize the planet’s earthquake points, thus making his underwater refuge safe in sunken Atlantis. His daughter warns him that the devices may have the opposite effect, but he refuses to listen. This sounds like a great movie, doesn’t it? It is, and it is not. This 4-hour miniseries felt padded to fill up the time slot. As a result, the story winds up with emphasis being placed on the wrong elements. The issue of the devices’s possible effects drifts in and out of the plot, and is resolved almost offhandedly. Instead we watch attempt after attempt after attempt by Ned Land to escape from his submersible prison. That gets tiresome after a while. And the ending is incredibly depressing.

1999’s TV version of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” borrowed a bit from 1950’s “King Solomon’s Mine” as a woman convinces a scientist, Treat Williams, to take her deep inside the Earth where Bryan Brown, her estranged husband, has disappeared. On the way down, we get some blue ferns, one dinosaur, no underground sea, and Brown lording it over the generic lost-world natives.

Steampunk returns to western that year with the eagerly anticipated big-screen revival of Wild Wild West”. It has everything that the old TV series had. The gadgets. The mad scientists. The beautiful ladies. The cross-dressing.

The movie was a big disappointment. There wasn’t any chemistry between Will Smith's James West and Kevin Kline's Artemus Gordon. Also there was a lot of anger in the movie, and not just in Kenneth Branagh’s mutilated Southern rebel who refused to surrender. Not even Salma Hayek nor a giant mechanical spider could make up for the film’s flaws.

An aside… George Clooney originally was cast as Artemus Gordon, not Kline, but he kept playing him as if he was James West, so they replaced him with Kevin Kline. Yes, it’s hard today to believe that there was a time when someone would let go of Clooney.

This marked the end of the Third Era, with less than optimistic prospects for steampunk movies.

Or so it seemed, until later that year.

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The Fourth Era of steampunk, its Renaissance, began in 1999 with Moore’s comic-book “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, is different from the earlier ones. While his comic-book may have rallied and reinvigorated steampunk’s proponents, the era isn’t crystallized around the tales of a few authors. Its approach is looser. It uses the old tropes, and often turns them on their head.

Another difference is that the previous eras were confined to movies. The films were based on written stories, true, but it was a mostly one-way relationship not reflected in books and magazines. Quite the opposite today. Ironically, the movies themselves, while they may have added fuel to steampunk’s boiler, have not done that well.

I should have loved 2000’s TV series “The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne”, best described as a secret History of the 19th Century revolving around a young Verne who hasn’t yet written the stories he is famous for. Unfortunately the actor had no presence. Luckily, there is Rebecca Fogg who has rescued her cousin Phileas from suicidal impulses. She is also a spy for the Empire, using neat gadgets such as a crinoline that, at the push of a button, unfolds into a castlewall-climbing ladder. That would make this a crinolinepunk story.

2000 saw the return of Bruce Campbell to steampunk with TV’s “Jack of All Trades”, in which a spy at the service of Thomas Jefferson works with the British to counter Napoleon Bonaparte’s plans for world domination. It wasn’t as much steampunk as it was another History-be-damned mishmash left over from the “Hercules-Xena” days.

2002’s “The Time Machine” was a story with little awe in it. The biggest disappointment was that modern technology could have shown, but didn’t, the extremely far future of Earth, when our sun is a bloated red orb hanging above a sluggish sea.

I must confess that I like 2003’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”. Yes, I had read Moore’s comic-book long before, but modern audiences would have frowned at one of the villains being the Yellow Peril’s Fu Manchu. There ARE things I wish the movie had kept, such as Allan Quatermain being a burnt-out man, and Mina Harker, near-bride of Dracula, having a Beauty & the Beast relationship with Mister Hyde. I could have done without the Nautilus navigating the canals of Venice, and without the car chase in that city. Still, I like the movie. I am very ashamed.

2004 is a busy year.

Miyazaki’s film “Howl’s Moving Castle” really is fantasy more than steampunk, but THAT is another characteristic of the Fourth Era, where genres are merrily mixed. Dare I name it slipstreampunk?

Meanwhile Otomo's “Steamboy”, set in an alternate year 1866, is firmly planted in steampunk territory. The machine designs are great, but the story is mostly people rushing around and yelling. I wanted things to slow down so that I could take a closer look.

How did 2004’s “van Helsing” come to be? Universal had made a lot of money with the “Mummy” movies, which were fun - empty-headed, but fun. I guess it was ‘natural’ for them to then take on the other monsters of the studio’s early days. They may have also thought “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” would be a blockbuster. Representative of this bloated movie’s problems is the scene where Dracula’s Brides attack Our Heroes and it goes on and on and on, and their tossing a cow that instead hits the broad side of a barn isn’t particularly humorous. The only scene with any real emotion is early on, when Frankenstein’s monster is holding his dead creator in his arms and, grieving, asks the peasants why they killed him. It was too little in this movie that thought that, if it threw enough stuff at us, we’d think something fun and exciting was going on. By the end, with Kate Beckinsale’s dead body on its funeral pyre, all I could think was…

Look! A baking sale!

2006’s “The Prestige” officially was about stage magicians trying to one-up each other, and who cared who gets hurt? It really was steampunk though, thanks to the essential presence of Nikola Tesla, played by David Bowie, the best thing in the film.


2007’s “The Golden Compass” is set in the late 20th Century, but one where technology is still at the level of the 19th Century. Still, some of their scientists speculate about alternate realities where people keep their souls inside of them, instead of having them walk alongside in animal form. The cast is awesome. (SLIDE#085) Unfortunately, this is only the first part of the story based on Philip Pullman’s novels. They never filmed the rest and it remains incomplete. Very frustrating.

2008’s TV version of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” borrowed a bit from 1950’s “King Solomon’s Mine” as a woman convinces a scientist, Rick Schroeder, to take her deep inside the Earth where Peter Fonda, her estranged husband, has disappeared. On the way down… You may by now have noticed some similarities with 1999’s version, but there ARE differences. No blue ferns. More than one dinosaur. An underground northern Canada lake, and Fonda lording it over the local American-Indians. That’s when I gave up, the coup de grace after the scene where Schroeder, upon seeing a pterodactyl, casually comments on it in the tone he’d use if this were the first time he had seen a live turkey.

Luckily that year, we get the “Doctor Who” Christmas Special “The Next Doctor”, in which the Doctor shows up in 1851’s London on Christmas Eve. What with the Cybermen being involved, one shouldn’t be too surprised at what next happens to the City.

Is that it for the Past History of steampunk movies?

Did I fail to mention something?

Back in 1925, Cecil B Demille showed interest in a movie adaptation of “War of the Worlds”. Considering Demille’s taste for historical dramas, he might have gone for the novel’s original time period. Nothing came of that. Move forward to 1930, when a small movie-production company including Wells’s son Frank was all set to bring Sergei Eisenstein to Hollywood. That fell thru when it was discovered that another studio had long before bought the rights in perpetuity to the novel – a detail that HG Wells had forgotten. Later in that decade, a young English director tried to convince Wells that the tale could be modernized. That obviously meant no Victorian setting, but it’d have been interesting as the young director was one Alfred Hitchcock. Then the world war was unleashed onto the planet and the story languished until 1953, when George Pal filmed the movie that is best known. It is a classic of SF movies, and I never tire of watching it, but it isn’t steampunk. After 9/11, there was talk of setting the story in Victorian England. Instead we got 2005’s modern-setting version with Tom it’s-all-about-me Cruise. At least, we got to see tripods in action and they were scary.

The closest to a steampunk “War of the Worlds” is Jeff Wayne’s musical. He originally released it as a 33rpm record in 1978 although he had conceived it for the stage. It is briefly mentioned in Roger Dean’s 1984 art book “Magnetic Storm”, in the section about his own interpretation of Wells’s story. It’s only in 2006 that the musical made it to the British stage.

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In conclusion…

I’m not sure what the prospects for hollywoodian steampunk are.

For now, the only project I know of that is definitely steampunk is the adaptation of Philip Reeve’s Young-Adult novel “Larklight” by Shekhar Kapur, who directed Cate Blanchett in two movies about Queen Elizabeth. In this novel, the solar system is populated by many alien species, over which the British Empire rules. Thus, one of the characters is explorer Richard Burton, known as the Warlord of Mars.

There are many other venues where steampunk thrives. Every week, three times a week, I see what new madness the “Girl Genius” has come up with. The thing is that I especially love steampunk MOVIES. Who knows? Someone who loves steampunk AND who has the financial and technical means may right now be creating the film that will knock everybody’s socks off.

The concept for one such movie came to me when I realized that, in 1893, while Toulouse-Lautrec was doing his art at the Moulin Rouge, Marie and Pierre Curie, also in Paris, were researching the mysteries of radiation. A bit to the East there was this 14-year-old boy named Albert, who would soon revolutionize Science.

I personally think that something called “A Brush with Atomic Death in Gay Paris” has blockbuster written all over it.

One can dream.

If one of you wants to write that story, feel free to do so.

The bottom line is that I don’t know what the Future has in store for the genre.

Maybe HE can tell us.

Thanks for your time.


Part One can be found here:


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