'Sherlock' and 'Hugo' get extra steamy
"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" is full of the steampunk aesthetic.
December 16th, 2011
01:10 PM ET

'Sherlock' and 'Hugo' get extra steamy

The first time you look into the eyes of a whimsically lifelike automaton in “Hugo” or watch in horror as the exposed clockwork gears of a Victorian bomb tirelessly turn in “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” you know that some wondrous aesthetic is at work. It is just enough to enchant audiences, and they may not even know what the visual technique they adore so much is called.

Steampunk  is a subtle presence in these films but a strong and pleasing “applied aesthetic,” according to “Steampunk Bible” author Jeff VanderMeer, that works seamlessly in each. It adds wonder while preserving the very human aspects of the narratives.

“It doesn’t have to be a movement of a definitional thing,” VanderMeer said. “But people seem to really respond to that aesthetic, and partly it’s because we have a lot of sleek modern design right now that is relatively seamless. Like an iPod is really beautiful in its own way, but it’s not cathedral beautiful.”

But directors like Guy Ritchie and Martin Scorsese are careful not to give all of the attention to the machines. The subtlety of the steampunk aesthetic is why it works.

“There would of course be the impulse to over-clockwork it, and then you lose sight of the characters and stories,” VanderMeer said. “The best steampunk fiction is still character-based, because the gadgets are part of the society and messages involved, but they don’t overwhelm the characters.”

While the retro-futuristic subculture has appeared in shows like "Warehouse 13" and "Doctor Who" as well as movies such as “Van Helsing,” “The Prestige,” “Wild Wild West,” “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” "Sleepy Hollow," "The Time Machine," "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and many others, both Scorsese and Ritchie are enhancing the aesthetic to heighten their movies overall rather than making steampunk a focal point.

The teasing occurrences of steampunk in Ritchie’s 2009 “Sherlock Holmes” movie were just a taste compared with his latest venture. Everything from the costuming and color schemes to the gadgets and weaponry, as well as a nod to goggles, is cloaked in the steampunk aesthetic without being overwhelming.

“The Sherlock Holmes story predates steampunk, but these updated versions are using more elements, which makes sense because it is a retro-futuristic movement making older stuff reborn using the past,” VanderMeer said.

“In the first film, they had a machine built by Dr. Moriarty which was very much in the mad inventor steampunk mode. It’s kind of an archaic James Bond element in a way. I got the feeling Guy Ritchie was just getting his feet wet with the first one.”

The sheer experience of witnessing the exposed gears of a moving machine draws audiences in, VanderMeer said. It is a new way of interacting with reborn technology.

“Hugo” is whimsical without losing its integrity and remaining faithful to the Brian Selznick book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” Everything that happens in the film could easily be rendered in real life.

But its optimism is what makes “Hugo” so charming and seemingly illusory.

“The steam of it, the mechanical doll, was almost a MacGuffin,” steampunk author Emilie P. Bush said. “However, there was a cadence to that film: Scorsese did really well with having that heartbeat of the machine throughout the film. It was both stimulating and relaxing at the same time, a beautiful bit of filmmaking.”

Selznick himself did not set out to write a steampunk book – rather, it was an accident. “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” was meant to tell a touching tale of a young boy who discovers an automaton and the art of early silent films through Georges Méliès.

The first time Selznick heard of steampunk, it was after his book was published and subculture websites began claiming “Hugo” as a steampunk novel. Now, he is thrilled that the steampunk community has embraced it.

“Steampunk to me always seems to imply a little bit more fantasy or something inspired by the Victorian age or Industrial Revolution, but tying modern technology,” he said.

“I wanted my book to feel magical and fantastical, but I didn’t want there to be any fantasy elements in it. Rather than being steampunk, I feel like it is a bit more steam. All of the original elements that steampunk is inspired by are in ‘Hugo’: clockworks, the automaton, the vision of the world as a giant machine. I see those being the elements that steampunk is inspired by and then creates something new and futuristic and unusual with.”

VanderMeer believes the movement itself has “exploded into the pop culture zeitgeist.” Justin Bieber's new video for "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" oddly tries to incorporate the aesthetic, but many in the steampunk community see the directors as "gluing some gears on it," alluding to a popular video of the same name.

Will including steampunk in these popular movies be beneficial or harmful to the subculture?

“I think the jury is out on it,” VanderMeer said. “There’s obviously the possibility of it becoming so familiar that it is no longer has a sense of wonder to it. At the same time, it’s changing and evolving in so many different ways. Hollywood is catching up with where steampunk was a few years back, and there is nothing wrong with that.”

Bush has a similar perspective. “I think a rising tide lifts all boats here. There is great creativity to be had, and in general, steampunk is an optimistic movement. It’s a very loving and supportive subculture.”

Bush also believes that these movies can be a gateway for people who feel stirred by the steampunk aesthetic, or they can simply enjoy it without ever knowing the subculture’s name. Either way, they just might walk away with a good feeling in their soul, and perhaps steampunk helped create that optimistic spark in each film.

“Everybody in ‘Hugo’ was a little broken,” Bush said. “It appeals to steampunks in that we’re all a little broken, and we find that we function better together.”

In the latest Sherlock film, as Watson and Holmes rumble through the streets of London in a curious buggy car, Watson questions the sanity of driving in such a conspicuous vehicle amongst horse-drawn carriages, quite like steampunk sneaking into mainstream entertainment.

“It is so overt, it’s covert,” Holmes replies, adjusting his driving goggles.

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soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. Jae Basich

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    May 14, 2013 at 12:31 am |
  2. Eslam

    Steampunk bands revel in dressing very Steampunk, using intmeutrnss that have been modified to fit the theme, and using lyrics that exemplify an era we currently only dream of. This is an example of a DIY Steampunk guitar:

    August 2, 2012 at 11:25 am |
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    February 7, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  5. Anomic Office Drone

    I like the look of steampunk stuff, but like so many things, the internet has already done it so much that it has lost that certain something that made it special.

    January 12, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  6. Leucadia Bob


    January 4, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  7. c s

    I realize that the broomhandle Mauser is really neat looking. But I cannot beleive that Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson who are the epitome of British manhood would be caught dead with one. A Welby & Scott Mark VI would probably have been Holmes preferred weapon.

    December 18, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • Mike

      They weren't caught dead with one... primarily because they had the presence of mind to stock up with them before attempting their escape. The C96 mausers (or, in this case, holmes-world equivalents... in the movie it appears that they fire much longer rounds) aren't their guns... they find them during the course of the movie and take them out of an imminent need for survival and lack of other firearms. If you see the movie, you'll get it.

      December 21, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  8. Interesting

    I'm not a steam punk fanatic, but I find the imagery interesting and fun. To me he has just enough fringe steam punk to make it a little quarky and interesting without alienating the majority of people. I think they have managed to make things fantastical and almost plausbile looking. And I think Guy has come a long way since Swept Away, that's for sure.

    December 18, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  9. Purpura

    I would rather watch Data play Sherlock Holmes than see part 2.

    December 18, 2011 at 6:28 am |
    • Mike

      That's because you're no fun. The movie is though.

      December 21, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  10. HollyRae

    Check out reviews of experts on this flick on Rotten Tomatoes before wasting $25.

    (It's not rated too high!)

    Better save your money for Obama's worsening economy!

    December 17, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • Glenn

      You gotta politicize a movie review? Really? BTW it's not Obama's economy, it's our economy. Everyone in America is helping to build it in one way or another.

      December 18, 2011 at 1:13 am |
    • Banda Bee

      Had to get that Obama crack in there, didn't you. In a completely unrelated topic... A freakin' movie review.

      I guarantee Obama could not make your life more miserable than you make it on your own. Get a life.

      December 18, 2011 at 2:05 am |
    • The Question

      Soooo, I should always base my oppinion on the views of others who obviously know more than me?

      December 29, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
  11. El Flaco

    How could a group of writers and a director start out with the wonderful material provided by Arthur Conan Doyle and turn it into a ninety minute yawn? It's like they deliberately set out to make a bad movie.

    December 17, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • Jon O

      Nice opinion.

      Glad it's only yours – 50 bucks says you haven't seen the new movie yet don't hesitate to judge it... especially seeing as how it's actually 129 minutes in length... so there's a clue to how accurate you are to begin with.

      Oh, and here's a clue – they make movies to make money. This movie will make money. A faithful retelling of the slow, plodding tales of Doyle wouldn't make a cent.

      December 17, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • cacique

      darn flaco, now I am going to have see said movie just in case you missed some good details.

      December 17, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • HollyRae

      "A faithful retelling of the slow, plodding tales of Doyle wouldn't make a cent."

      It is obvious to see that the intelligence of Doyle is 'over the head' of Jon O.

      December 17, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
      • Mike

        It's less that Arthur Conan Doyle's intelligence is over any one person's head in particular and more that it's over the average person's intelligence, thus making adaptation required if the studio wishes to target more than the 10% of the population who might enjoy it (which they have to do if they want a financial success). Even 10% of the American population only gets you about $300 million in potential box office receipts, and given that this same 10% also contains the unfortunately snobbish segment of the population who believes that movies are an utter waste of time, that obviously reduces that number.

        As for whether or not this is a faithful retelling... I believe it is. It's not a specific adventure penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but it does borrow heavily from many of them. For the sequel, this is especially true, as some scenes are lifted (more or less) directly from the stories. You are, of course, welcome to disagree... but some people are convinced that only a word for word, scene for scene retelling is a valid attempt at "remaining faithful", and I have learned to discount the opinions of such people as having no concept of the spirit of the work itself or its characters.

        December 21, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  12. Johnn

    Better than "radioactive punk"...

    December 16, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
  13. RabiaDiluvio

    Cue every know-it-all who wants to edumacate the rest of us about what steampunk REALLY is and why everything in this article is wrongedy wrong wrong.

    December 16, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • Umbri

      XD this is why I hate most articles trying to describe pop culture. It just always makes it sound so cheesy and wrong. Like the adults trying to sound like teenagers in Seventeen magazine.
      Its just 'article style' I've found very few magazine or newspaper articles who's diction I could tolerate.
      Look at like any big new's take on "WOAH THIS WEIRD NEW THING CALLED AH NI MEH." and try not to gag.

      December 17, 2011 at 2:31 am |
    • Ken

      Words mean things. If you don't believe this, just join the Sarah Palin Express and make things up as you go along . . . and sound like a ignoramus. Sherlock Holmes fit no definition of Steampunk, just like Star Wars isn't science fiction just because the misinformed think it is. I know it bothers you that some people know how to define things properly, but that's your problem, not theirs.

      December 18, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
      • Ken

        *an ignoramus. See, I can judge myself just as harshly :).

        December 18, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
      • RabiaDiluvio

        Well golly gosh yes, words have meaning. Genres and styles are fortunately not defined by those obsessive basement-beaters who think that everything in the universe should have a nice, neat, rigid, hi-res pigeonhole. Shades of gray...embrace the chaos. You will find life more pleasing.

        December 18, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
    • Nadya

      – Okay alright! The blur efcfet in the second photo is good. You really focused on the necklace. That's what I love about photographers,they are really excellent when it comes to the focusing to the object!

      August 3, 2012 at 2:52 am |
  14. Emilie P. Bush

    Steampunk is HIGH adventure in LOW technology. IT started as a direct reply to the Cyberpunk movement in the late 70's and early 80's – in fact the first Steampunk writers were Cyberpunk writers as well. The movement has evolved over the years – becoming less dark and more optimistic, less about lit and more about fashion and adventure and making. It references a lot of the culture of Victorian England and colonialism, and the wild, wild west in the U.S. Other terms associated with Steampunk are retro-futurism, Gas-lamp romantic, neo-victorian and alternate history. Check out my web site for more on what Steampunk is - CoalCitySteam.com.

    December 16, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • SilentBoy741

      Ha ha. You young kids. The first steampunk authors were Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. They envisioned advanced concepts like space- and time-travel using Victoria-era steam-powered technologies; because at the time their novels were written, that's all there was. all steampunk, and later, cyberpunk, arises from them.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
      • Johnn

        Absolutely true! They were visionary in their belief that the post industrial revolution would take us beyond all normal reality – in Victorian style.

        December 16, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
      • Ken

        Not quite. Jules Verne and HG Wells wrote science fiction: fiction about future technologies and scientific advances that were speculative at the time. A hallmark of Steampunk is alternate history: technologies that could have existed in the past, but did not. Steampunk is the reverse of science fiction.

        December 18, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  15. Dorothy

    I know that with teh interwebz I can look up virtually everything, but it would have been nice if there had been an actual definition of what exactly "steampunk" is in the article itself. The author keeps using this word and even says that audiences may enjoy it without knowing what it's called, but doesn't even offer a hint of a definition until the 6th paragraph, and then it's just a passing "retro-futuristic subculture" followed by a list of tv shows and movies that may have major or minor examples of use.

    Honestly, the whole article reads like a paper from a student who doesn't really understand a concept but keeps saying things in the hope that it will make it seem like he does.

    December 16, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Chartreuxe

      The Victorian and Edwardian Eras are usually considered to be the Steampunk periods.

      December 16, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • RabiaDiluvio

      The easiest way to explain steampunk: the future as imagined from the late victorian/early edwardian as a sort of alternate reality. Steam engines, simple gear-based tech (often exposed so that part of the aesthetic is to see the workings of the beast), lots of victorian or edwardian spin on costumes.

      December 16, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
      • Inha

        BelishaBeaconThis is like when TV stations go on strkie. Then, the masses are left to fend for themselves, telling stories of yore, finding humour out of nothing, or boosting the population growth nine months hence.Please, please give me more.

        August 5, 2012 at 12:43 am |
    • Umbri

      When people ask what steampunk is I just like to say "BROWN. Brown and copper. Gears... brown."
      but as it was once very worthily described to me. Steampunk is different for different people, whether it be life stylists, artists, cosplay, music.
      But most of all, its not so much a genre, as it is a filter. It can be applied to near anything like a sepia toned lens, and its not the lens itself, you have to be looking at good content first.

      December 17, 2011 at 2:33 am |
    • Bart de Boisblanc

      What would you expect from movie reviewer with a short attention span.

      December 18, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Mike

      Steampunk is an imagined reality in which steam powered machines (or clockwork ones, or really any alternative energy source available during the Victorian and Edwardian eras other than gasoline) take over the roles of what would be their contemporaries. In many (maybe even most) steampunk settings, it imagines an alternate world where certain advances in technology are made decades ahead of time in the same vein as Charles Babbage's Analytical Machine (which was never built). So many settings have tanks and machine guns rolling around in the late 1800's and very early 1900's (a decade prior to "Little Willie" in 1915, the first self-propelled all-terrain armored vehicle, and direct precursor to the modern tank).

      Steampunk sort of bleeds over into other genres as well. My favorite setting, the Iron Kingdoms, involves enterprising engineers who apply the invention of interchangeable parts to magic, allowing them to create parts (runeplates) which can imbue an item with magical attributes. It also examines what a Dungeons and Dragons setting might look like if propelled forward to the Edwardian Era, with classes like the Gun Mage (which uses special bullets to carry touch spells to their targets) and Arcane Mechaniks (which specialize in building arcane devices of a semi-mechanical nature). It also includes steam-powered constructs with a magical "artificial intelligence" which allows them to work basically like battlefield mecha.

      December 21, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  16. The Real Bristol Palin

    I'd like to see some steampunk adult toys.

    December 16, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • RabiaDiluvio

      Just glue some gears on it, sweety. If its good enough for Regretsy it should be good enough for you.

      December 16, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • ScottH

      Steely Dan

      December 17, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Mike

      I originally interpreted this as "Steampunk toys which adults would appreciate" and began to type a list... then I realized that "adult toys" was meant to be taken together as a descriptor. My list became suddenly and comically inadequate.

      December 21, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
      • Syavi

        Lord MelchettA fit Asian bird attractor? Just out of shot are thuaosnds more of them.Or perhaps a skirt shortener she had a long evening dress type number and that puppy just whipped the fabric off to create a short skirt

        August 4, 2012 at 11:58 pm |