Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci’s April and the Extraordinary World is a steampunk mystery that follows its eponymous heroine through an alternate history of modern France. The unexplained disappearance of the world’s greatest scientists, before their discoveries enabled the world to harness the transformative power of atomic energy and fossil fuel, has left the world stuck in the Age of Steam. Europe has totally depleted its supply of wood, so the French empire wages war against North America for control of the latter’s forests, a vital resource in a world that relies solely on wood and charcoal for its energy needs. The film’s central narrative concerns April (voiced by Marion Cotillard), a teenage scientist orphaned as a child by the mysterious death of her parents, as she searches for the missing scientists.
Adapted from a graphic novel by Jacques Tardi, this animated film plays like a fortuitous mashup of Hergé’s Tintin comics and the films of Hayao Miyazaki, what with its indomitable heroine, talking animals, fantastical fortresses and flying machines, valorization of scientists, and weighty ecological themes. It’s appropriate that such a work would eventually come out of Europe, whose literature and fairy tales had such a profound effect on Miyazaki and the other Japanese animators whose work in turn inspired the makers of this film.
In addition to its ecological commentary, the film offers the simpler, standard steampunk pleasure that comes with constructing an alternate past parallel to our own, full of ingenious gadgets and inventions that could only exist in such a world. Bicycle-powered blimps, suspended railroads (where trains hang down from the tracks instead of running on them), and rodent surveillance cyborgs (serving the same purpose as our modern closed-circuit security cameras) transform this unique, smog-drenched vision of turn-of-the-century France, despite the gray and brown palette, into a visual wonderland.
Steampunk occupies a unique place at the intersection of sci-fi and historical fiction. While aiming at historical accuracy, it slightly tweaks the past to bring certain issues to the foreground of our consciousness. Likewise, one of the chief pleasures of alternative histories is that they reveal the contingent nature of both the past and the present, thereby highlighting the provisional character of our reality. The ecological changes wrought on the world’s ecosystems by the pollution unleashed by the Industrial Revolution led to our current epoch of massive geological and climate change. By proposing how much worse the damage could have been without the advent of modern technology, the film provocatively has audiences see the world’s current ecological concerns in a different and unexpected light.
By showing the first world developing in a manner that we normally associate with the third, April and the Extraordinary World forces us to reconsider our critical attitude regarding the costs of the latter’s socioeconomic development, leading one to view the third world’s troubles in a more sympathetic, and thus politically productive, light. And by highlighting the conditional and fleeting quality of energy sources and their exploitation, the film causes us to question the shelf life of our current energy technology, giving us hope that future scientific breakthroughs will one day make our current era seem as antiquated to future generations as steampunk’s alternative vision of the fin de siècle looks to us now.