While there’s a lot of joy in rewatching vintage sci-fi movies with their low-fi effects and impossible dreams of future technology, they don’t quite excite me as much as new retrofuture movies do. I understand that may be confusing, how can a new movie be retrofuturist? Just like how many authors write steampunk stories or artists create posters that look like retro sci-fi art, movies can be made in a retrofuturistic style. These may be alt-history stories that take place in the past or visions of the future that align with the nostalgic predictions of yesteryear. There’s something about these nostalgic films that I can’t get enough of. This list captures some of my favorites. If I’ve missed one of yours, make sure to share it in the comments.
The Rocketeer (1991)
Watching The Rocketeer was my first foray into the world of retrofuturist movies. My dad bought a VHS copy of it in the discount bin at the video store and it became a favorite in my rotation. It’s sad for me to admit that this movie is considered “vintage” now, but it still meets the definition for this list. Based on the (not as great) comic book series, the movie follows pilot Cliff Secord who stumbles upon a top-secret jetpack. Things get a little crazy from there as he unravels a secret Nazi plot to rule the world by stealing the jet pack.
Set in the glitzy Hollywood of 1938, the style is a mix of decopunk and dieselpunk, mirroring the style of the original comic, which was published in the 1980s. The creator Dave Stevens created the character as a homage to the Saturday matinee serial heroes from the 1930s-50s and you can feel that in the movie as well. The classic art deco style of the original comics was used in a lot of the early promotional images as well.
The movie didn’t do so great at the box office thanks to viewers assuming it was a children’s movie because of the Disney name (it’s not) and the original movie poster (above) didn’t advertise the cast as well as it could have. But the visual effects are very slick for the early 90s and it is so fantastic to see Cliff take off in that jetpack that we’re still stuck waiting for.
The Incredibles (2004)
I’ve reviewed The Incredibles before, and it’s a fantastic family movie in the retrofuture drama. Directed and written by retrofuture fanboy Brad Bird, the story is about Mr. Incredible and his wife Elastigirl, who are forced into civilian life as their secret identities Bob and Helen Parr. Raising a family in the suburbs, Bob is bored and unfulfilled with his new life and takes on a secret mission to destroy a malfunctioning robot. He soon realizes he’s in over his head, as his family of Supers comes to his rescue and ultimately join the fight of the ultimate super-villain.
With a mix of Art Deco & Googie architecture, plus vintage clothing and cars from the 1950s and 1960s, this movie hits all of my favorite retrofuture designs. If you love retro-architecture, vintage interior design, retrofuturistic technology, and superhero movies, you’ll love this movie. The sequel is set for release this summer, so now is a great time to revisit the original.
Iron Sky (2012)
This Dieselpunk-esque alt history story has a premise that is pretty amazing. In 1945 a secret Nazi space program fled to the Dark Side of the Moon where they constructed a giant fortress and a massive armada of flying saucers. Their plan: travel back to Earth and re-colonize.
The events of the movie actually take place in 2017 and although it portrays a bizarre presidential election in the USA, it’s nowhere close to the reality we’ve got. Iron Sky is a bit more divisive for viewers. While some people love the biting political humor, others don’t quite get it.
The really interesting part of this movie is seeing the Nazi’s secret base on the moon. The design of the base, the outfits, and their ships (including a few space zepplins, pictured above) are firmly rooted in the 1940s dieselpunk style. Beyond that, you may not enjoy anything else.
Critical reception of Iron Sky was not great, but they managed to crowd fund a sequel that was released earlier this year. If you’ve seen it, let me know in the comments whether there’s any retrofuture design in it.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
So, this movie is terrible, but the visuals are so cool. This movie is straight up dieselpunk, set in a technologically advanced 1939. With Zepplins and robots, there’s tons of action and lots of cool designs to please your eyeballs. Written and directed by Kerry Conran, he took inspiration from the designs of Norman Bel Geddes and his exhibits at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. He tried to approach making the film so it would look like the Golden Age comics of that era, and he pulls off the style masterfully.
Unfortunately, the movie was a complete box office flop, though it’s proved to be incredibly influential. Critical reviews were actually largely positive for it and it has a cult fanbase. If you haven’t seen it, but you love dieselpunk and decopunk, you must check this movie out.
Back to the Future Part II (1989)
The second installment of Back to the Future is like a double whammy: you get the retrofuture inspired vision of 2015 as well as the 80s view of what the future would look like. It is glorious. Part 2 was always my favorite movie from the trilogy, specifically because of the 2015 parts.
Director Robert Zemeckis disliked the future sequences the most in the movie because he doesn’t like trying to predict the future, so they just decided to have fun with it. They knew flying cars wouldn’t happen by 2015, but they wanted them anyway. Despite their attempts to not predict the future, they actually got quite a few things right. By 2015 we had flat paneled wall mounted TVs, video chat, and tablet computers with fingerprint scanners. Plus, they predicted Donald Trump’s run for president as well.
There are some things that haven’t come to pass, like automatic shoelaces and the much beloved hot pink Mattel Hoverboard. The whole trilogy is must watch for sci-fi fans.
Space Station 76 (2014)
I have not seen this one yet, but it’s in my “to watch list.” This is probably the least well-known movie on this list, but it meets the definition of a retrofuturistic movie perfectly. Space Station 76 is a dark comedy set–you guessed it–on a space station as envisioned in the 1970s. Jack Plotnick envisioned the story as a personal project about growing up in the suburbs. He decided the best way to express it was through a remote space station as imagined in the 1970s.
The images I’ve seen of the movie perfectly match the aesthetic of the 1970s, not just the science fictional vision of a space station, but also the vintage style costumes. I can’t wait to check this movie out.
While Brazil is solidly a dystopia satire, from a design point it is solidly retro-futurist. Made in the 1980s, it’s created from the view point of a 1940s filmmaker viewing the 80s. The style is often described as a mixture of Fritz Lang films like Metropolis and film noir movies.
The movie takes place in a futuristic world where a controlling state has taken away the individualism of the people. A lowly civil servant dreams of overthrowing the system while pursuing the love of his dream woman.
If you enjoy art deco, noir, or just dystopian satire, add Brazil to your queue.
Did I miss any good retrofuturistic movies on my list? Let me know in the comments below.
Pink Floyd’s the Wall