Pterodactyls, Mummies, and Magic

I’m beginning to think the French are particularly adept at making steampunk films. I enjoyed 2013’s Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart which had lovely animation and used steampunk images and metaphors to tell a tale of falling in and out of love that included among other things a loving tribute to Georges Méliès. Last week, I discussed the 2015 animated film April and the Extraordinary World drawn in the style of cartoonist Jacques Tardi. This week, I take a look at a film that precedes both of these, 2010’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, which is based on Jacques Tardi’s comic book series of the same name.

The film is directed by Luc Besson, probably best known in America as the director of The Fifth Element starring Bruce Willis. Adèle Blanc-Sec is a writer and adventurer living in 1912 who, as the movie opens, has traveled to Egypt to look for the mummy of the physician of Ramses II. Meanwhile, back in Paris, a professor uses mental powers to resurrect a pterodactyl at the French Museum of Natural History. The pterodactyl breaks free and manages to kill a high ranking French official. Like in The Fifth Element, many disparate characters and situations eventually come together, sometimes with humorous results. Sometimes tragedy ensues. In the end, I felt like I had been treated to a good and satisfying yarn.

As it turns out, the original comic series goes all the way back to 1976 and predates the K.W. Jeeter’s 1987 letter to Locus magazine where he gives Victorian fantasies the name “steampunk.” Even so, the adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec have all the hallmarks of good gonzo, historical fiction. We see a 1912—and even glimpse an ancient Egypt—where technology is so advanced for some, that it’s indistinguishable from magic. We see a pterodactyl brought back to life. For reasons that become clear over the movie’s course, we discover that Adèle wants to bring a mummy back to life. I have no problem calling this movie set just before World War I, steampunk.

Steampunk literature has brought us some strong female protagonists. Among them are Alexia Tarabotti in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, Briar Wilkes of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and Agatha Heterodyne of Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius. I’d like to think that Fatemeh Karimi and Larissa Seaton of my Clockwork Legion novels could also stand by their sisters. There’s no question that Adèle Blanc-Sec qualifies. In fact, one thing that impressed me about the movie was Adèle’s lack of interest in romance. There’s a young scientist who is enamored with her, but she doesn’t share his infatuation. Her character isn’t defined by any kind of a romantic interest. Like many good action heroes, her character is defined by the object of her quest.

If you’re looking for a good steampunk romp, it’s hard to go wrong with The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. In its way, it’s very much an heir to Jules Verne’s own extraordinary adventures. Perhaps being a countryman of Jules Verne or Georges Méliès helps when you set out to make a steampunk film. I think Hollywood could do worse than pay attention to France’s successes in this area.

If you enjoy The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec and would like more rollicking tales featuring strong women, be sure to check out my Clockwork Legion Series.

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April and the Extraordinary World

A few weeks ago, my friend William J. Jackson posted a review of the movie April and the Extraordinary World on his blog. William is the author such novels as An Unsubstantiated Chamber and Cerulean Rust. Be sure to check out his blog and his books at the links above. When a steampunk writer of William’s caliber recommends a steampunk movie I haven’t heard of, I take note.

April and the Extraordinary World is a Belgian-Canadian-French co-production based on the visual style of Jacques Tardi, who is probably best known for the early steampunk graphic novel series The Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, which was adapted into a live action movie in 2010. April and the Extraordinary World came out in 2015 and starts by imagining a scientist named Gustave Franklin who has been creating super soldiers for Napoleon III. When the emperor comes to visit, there’s an accident and the two most promising super soldiers escape—a pair of hyper-intelligent Komodo dragons named Rodrigue and Chimène. If that last sentence alone doesn’t make you want to watch this film, I’m not sure what will!

We then jump ahead many years to a future where Napoleon IV rules France. Many scientists such as Einstein and Fermi have just vanished and the governments of the world are secreting away what scientists they can. Gustave’s son and grandson are working on a formula to regenerate the cells of animals to heal any injury and possibly extend life indefinitely. They come to the attention of those who are making scientists disappear and pass the formula on to their daughter, the April of the title, just before they disappear.

We now skip ahead a few more years to a point where April is a young adult and a scientist in her own right. The police are trying to round up any scientists they can get their hands on to work for the government. Meanwhile other mysterious forces have discovered that April has continued work on her parents’ formula. She finds she must get to the bottom of this conspiracy of vanishing scientists in order to learn the fate of her parents.

Even though we’re now in the world of the 1940s, everything is still steam powered. The streets are clogged with smoke and dirty. Gas masks are the province of the elite. This alternate 1941 Paris is a beautifully rendered, if frightening steampunk world. The artwork not only takes inspiration from Jacques Tardi, but from Japanese filmmaker Hiyao Miyazaki.

One minor issue I had with the film was that early on, it makes a point of telling the audience “this is alternate history” and “this is how we’ve changed the world from the one you know.” The best speculative fiction works by just introducing you to the world and showing it to you in such a way that you suspend your disbelief. That said, this straightforward approach may make this a good film for introducing those who don’t understand steampunk to steampunk.

My one other minor issue is that for a plot so embroiled in the work of scientists, some of the technology seemed almost magical in its amazing abilities. This magical element is part of what reminds me of Miyazaki and its beautifully rendered, but I might have enjoyed the film just a little more if some of the inventions we saw seemed just a little more plausible.

Those minor nitpicks aside, I highly recommend the film. It’s one of those I rented on Netflix, then immediately decided I needed a copy and was delighted to find one at my local Barnes and Noble. It was in the anime section, appropriately next to Miyazaki’s films!

I liked the fact that this was very much alternate history that asked what if the level of science and technology had changed. I liked that April was a strong woman—and not necessarily in the butt-kicking way. She was smart and solved problems with her brain, yet was a well-rounded character who had believable feelings about the people around her. In tone, it accomplished much of what I also shoot for in my Clockwork Legion novels. You can learn more about them at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion