The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies is now officially available for purchase here in the US (it’s been out in the UK for a couple of weeks now), and naturally, I encourage each and every one of you to enter through the doors of your nearest bookseller and proclaim in a loud, clear and confident voice that you are there to purchase this very book, and in doing so make a better world for yourself, the book sellers, and all your various and sundry children. Alternately, here’s the link to snag it off Amazon.
As you might expect from the title, the book is a guide to science fiction film, from the very first SF film in 1902, to this summer’s biggest science fiction extravaganzas. That’s 103 years of science fiction film in 325 pages, including the index (lovingly indexed, I’ll note, by the super-competent and generally awesome Susan Marie Groppi). But — of course — it does some scene setting as well, putting SF films into context. The book is arranged in the following chapters:
The Origins: The history of science fiction and other speculative fiction, reaching back to ancient Greece and then following through with written science fiction through the 21st Century.
The History: A quick jaunt through the eras of science fiction film from 1902 to 2005, not only in the US but worldwide.
The Canon: Reviews and commentary on the 50 science fiction films you have to see before you die (more on this in a minute)
The Icons: The people and characters of enduring significance in science fiction film.
Crossovers: Film genres that mix and match with science fiction, including fantasy, thrillers, horror and animation.
The Science: A look at the science (or lack thereof) in science fiction films.
The Locations: Significant studios and locations where science fiction is filmed, and places (real and otherwise) made famous by science fiction.
Global: Snapshots of science fiction films from all over the world, from Canada to South Korea.
Information: Past and present science fiction in other media.
All of this is designed to be both interesting and informative, but the part of the book that’s going to get most people’s attention — and raise hackles — is The Canon, which features the 50 science fiction films I have deemed to be the most significant in the history of film. Note that "most significant" does not mean "best" or "most popular" or even "most influential." Some of the films may be all three of these, but not all of them are — indeed, some films in The Canon aren’t objectively very good, weren’t blockbusters and may not have influenced other filmmakers to any significant degree. Be that as it may, I think they matter — in one way or another, they are uniquely representative of some aspect of the science fiction film experience.
You ask: Why do I get to choose what films are in the canon? Well, you know: 15 years of film reviewing and following the business of cinema, and a lifelong interest in science fiction, gives me some amount of credibility. Being a published science fiction author doesn’t hurt, either. Now, I didn’t start this project thinking I knew it all — some of you may recall I made an open call for people to suggest their thoughts on the most significant SF films — but by the time I got down to the writing, I felt comfortable with the list I drew up, and in saying that these were the most significant SF films of all time.
Now, let me be clear: I don’t expect everyone to agree with my selections for the Science Fiction Film Canon. Indeed, what fun would it be if everyone did? I hope that people use The Canon list as a springboard for starting a wide-ranging debate about what science fiction films truly matter. So if you think my list is crap, bully for you. Do better. Be aware I’m willing to fight to the death for this list; otherwise, bring it on.
So, what films are in The Canon? Here’s the list, in alphabetical order:
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!
Back to the Future
Bride of Frankenstein
Brother From Another Planet
A Clockwork Orange
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The Day The Earth Stood Still
Escape From New York
ET: The Extraterrestrial
Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers (serial)
The Fly (1985 version)
Ghost in the Shell
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 version)
Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior
On the Beach
Planet of the Apes (1968 version)
Solaris (1972 version)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
The Stepford Wives
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
The Thing From Another World
Things to Come
28 Days Later
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
2001: A Space Odyssey
La Voyage Dans la Lune
War of the Worlds (1953 version)
No, Serenity didn’t make the list. Deal with it (it is in the book, though. Page 24. Big shout-out to Joss Whedon there, too, although I don’t have very nice things to say about his Alien Resurrection script when I review that movie on page 59. Please don’t hurt me, Whedon fans).
This list only notes the films I selected; for the reasons and rationales behind their selection, you’ll need to pick of the book and read the reviews of each of these films. There is some excellent writing in those reviews, if I do say so myself; if any of you were worried I might tone down the snark, well, let me just say your worries are unfounded (you’ll particularly want to check out the Star Wars and Matrix reviews, which are chock full of snarky goodness). I will note that this list is very substantially informed by suggestions from people who responded to my August 2004 call for input, so if you were one of the folks who pitched in for that, many thanks. You helped quite a bit.
I’m very proud of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies; it was a lot of work to put this book together, and I think it works on a lot of levels — it’s a fun overview for people who don’t know much about the history of science fiction film, but even those with deep knowledge of the field will find interesting stuff in here (I’ll note I found a few typos here and there — well, a few more than a few. Welcome to first editions! We’ll get them for the second printing; in the meantime it doesn’t affect the reading in any significant way). The book gives folks lots to argue about, which makes me happy.
I hope you’ll check this book out and find it as interesting to read as it was for me to write — and that you end up checking out some science fiction films you might not otherwise have seen. That would make me happiest of all.
Update, 6:06pm — The Amazon ranking for RG2SFM is 1,800 at the moment, up from 105,000 or so yesterday. w00t! That’s really excellent for a pop reference book. You’ve made my publisher’s day. I’m also pleased. Thank you very much for checking it out.