In my struggles to define the different audiovisual styles of various films, including and especially the diegetic minutiae of the worlds in which their narratives inhabit, I stumbled across numerous articles, forums, and reactionary podcasts discussing the numerous “punk” aesthetics of fictional words in different art forms, including but not limited to novels, comic books, and movies. I also noticed I felt — perhaps correctly so — that I didn’t understand what various aesthetic styles meant, what popular culture works they included, or even what having an artistic style of “punk” implied.
My rough understanding of artistic “punk” is that the word is a shorthand definition for describing fully formed artistic worlds, also known as diegeses (plural) or a diegesis (singular) where authors set their stories. The first broad diegetic style described was cyberpunk, a subgenre of science-fiction focusing on cybernetic and digital technology that proliferates into a futuristic society; this society combines rebellious countercultures (the “punk” suffix of cyberpunk) with high-tech (the “cyber” prefix of cyberpunk) lifestyles. Author and software developer Bruce Bethke first coined the term in a series of short stories and a novel titled Cyberpunk (1983); thereafter, various styles and subgenres of speculative fiction adopted that naming convention for other artistic worlds… “world[s] built on one particular technology that is extrapolated to a highly sophisticated level… even [a] fantastical or anachronistic technology, akin to retro-futurism, a gritty transreal urban style, or a particular approach to social themes,” which is how cyberpunk “derivatives” like steampunk, dieselpunk, and biopunk are currently described on Wikipedia.
As some observers have pointed out, futuristic world-building styles defined by genetic engineering and biotechnology (biopunk) or retrofuturistic depictions of alternative history dominated by steam-powered technology and Victorian Era culture (steampunk) are not so much descendants of cyberpunk art styles as they are analogues to them. All punk-aesthetics are consistent yet not rigidly defined formulas for building lived-in, fleshed out narrative settings.
At least, that is how my brain and personality interpret them. I do not wish to prompt debates over which specific works of art, specifically film (I’m a cinephile before any other sort of appreciator of the arts), should be cataloged under which particular punk aesthetic. Taxonomy is difficult enough in evolutionary biology using sophisticated physiological and genomic analyses, using quantitative empirical methods, that my head aches at the thought of arguing with other nerds over the precise definitions and boundaries of artistic subgenre movements. No doubt many cinematic works can and have been cross-referenced over multiple punk styles. Instead, what follows is my personal, some might even say “subjective” interpretation of different popular diegetic motifs. These are my broad, rudimentary understandings of various punk aesthetics as exemplified by popular film, written in the hopes of creating a sort of shorthand reference essay to which I can link future movie analyses.
- Biopunk = I start with my favorite — or what I at least think is my favorite — punk aesthetic, the imaginary worlds defined by advanced genetic manipulation and organic evolution. Biopunk diegeses emphasize biotechnological control at not just the physiological level, but the molecular level (see also: CRISPR). Examples of biopunk on film include Gattaca (1997), Splice (2009), David Fincher and Tim Miller’s Love, Death & Robots (2019-), as well as the works of Neil Blomkamp (e.g. District 9 , Elysium ) and the Resident Evil (1996-2020) franchise.
- I would argue my favorite movie franchise, Alien (1979, 1986, et al.), is a perfect example of this subgenre: A world populated by android “synthetics” that appear more organic than robotic or digital, not to mention defined by xenomorphic extraterrestrials whose parasitoid life cycle requires injecting viral mutagens into unwilling hosts, which then form hybrid embryos based on those hosts’ genetic code. The world of Alien, not to mention Predator (1987, 1991, 2010) — a contemporary diegesis where alien humanoids utilize advanced weaponry and interstellar travel for the sole purpose of sport-hunting other species — operates through the artificial enhancements of organic material. Thus, biopunk aesthetics are a close cousin of cyberpunk fiction, though the former emphasizes biotechnology over the latter’s information technology.
- Steampunk = Perhaps the most well established and popular world-building technique outside of cyberpunk, the most consistent features of steampunk I see are an affection for 19th century fashion, technology, and either Victorian England or American Western frontier backdrops, which span the genres of science-fiction and fantasy. Authors H. G. Wells or Jules Verne are often credited as the progenitors of this diegetic style given their upbringing during the Industrial Revolutions of the 1800s.
- This subgenre’s emphasis on steam-powered tools, brass metal gadgets, intricate clockwork visuals, and Victorian fashion are found in such films as The City of Lost Children (1995), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009, 2011), and Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy (2004, 2008, though these films also sport plenty of dieselpunk influnces; see below).
- Dieselpunk = Like steampunk, this diegetic motif is a blend of past technologies and speculative cultural evolution, a type of retrofuturism that blends the vintage and advanced. Steampunk recalls a 19th century Victorian England or American Wild West anticipation of the future, while dieselpunk reimagines the future — or an alternative history — from a Western interwar period (1918-1939) perspective. This diegetic movement is dominated by diesel-powered, analog technology and war machine visuals from World War I and II, recalling cultural movements that gained popularity through the height of the Second World War (e.g. film noir, Jazz music, American prohibition, socioeconomic fallout from the Great Depression, etc.).
- Cinematic narrative media said to represent this diegetic pattern include the Indiana Jones trilogy (1981, 1984, 1989), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), The Man in the High Castle (2015-2019), The First Avenger (2011), The Rocketeer (1991), Overlord (2018), and the Wolfenstein (1981-2019) series. del Toro’s Hellboy and George Miller’s Mad Max (1979, 1981, 1985, 2015) retain various dieselpunk elements, though are often categorized under the broader, more popular steampunk and more obscure steelpunk aesthetics, respectively.
- Cyberpunk = The “punk” movement that popularized, if not outright defined the aforementioned world-building art styles by comparison, cyberpunk diegeses are considered the benchmarks for other, less mainstream aesthetics perhaps due to their embrace of all things digital. Our (real) world’s continued embrace of digital technology, information technology, artificial intelligence, and the Internet in particular have only heighted the style’s applicability to modern day or near-future narratives, taking the works of science-fiction authors like Philip K. Dick and running with them. Ridley Scott’s — and later Denis Villeneuve’s — adaptations of Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Blade Runner (1982, 2017), are considered quintessential works of cyberpunk, as are the Wachowskis’ Matrix (1999, 2003) films and various information tech-heavy anime titles like Akira (1988), Ghost in the Shell (1995), and Cowboy Bebop (2001).
- As you can tell, much of the cyberpunk movement on film has narrative roots in hard-boiled detective fiction, which became popular in American culture during the Great Depression and inspired the Film Noir movement of the 1930s-1950s. This core influence reproduces a general noir aesthetic, “but with a futuristic edge.”
Some final thoughts on punk aesthetics: As you can tell, much crossover exists between different movements of world-building, and some of this cross-pollination is a function of visual art styles while other shared influences are more thematic. I won’t delve further into the weeds of which titles are more this type of diegetic style versus that, save for in passing observations in future, standalone film reviews. For now, take this post as a surface-level reference list of popular diegetic “toolkits” used to create distinct, well defined settings for storytelling on film… and other media.