Review by C.J. Bunce
Any list of 10 or more items these days quickly becomes the stuff of argument. But in the right context it can become the stuff of discussion and curiosity. A list of 50 items takes some work to prepare and if that list accompanies a genre that has spanned more than a century, then it really invites discussion. Which brings us to Turner Classic Movies and Running Press’s new look at the science fiction genre in Sloan De Forest’s Must See Sci-Fi: 50 Movies That Are Out of This World. This latest pop culture book to engage science fiction fans may show that, after all these years, the best and most important works of science fiction are not really all that controversial. Yet it wouldn’t really be worth picking up if it only confirmed readers’ love for epic films. Must-See Sci-Fi takes that next step and also serves that need of all fans of film to take another look at the classics and be open to those films we may have overlooked.
Consisting of 50 approximately 1,000 word essays on each film across 114 years, from 1902 to 2016, Must-See Sci-Fi covers the significance of each film selected in its 280 pages, including a plot overview, key memorable scenes, plus some good behind-the-scenes trivia, as well as plenty of color and black and white photographs. From A Trip to the Moon in 1902 to Arrival in 2016, the book has a fairly consistent coverage (but weighted with more selections from the 1970s and 1980s, and the 1940s have no entries). Most will agree with the films included from George Méliès’s groundbreaking beginning through the 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. But controversial for one person may not be controversial for another. De Forest presents her case for those films you might not find on other lists–many firsts of sci-fi emphasized instead of the definite look at a sub-genre, like Alphaville, Solaris, Sleeper, The Man Who Fell to Earth, THX 1138, The Brother From Another Planet, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. One great feature is a recommendation of two “watch-alike” films after each section–If you loved a film, you have two more films to track down and compare, and if you missed a film but don’t like the two suggested films, the book may telegraph your level of enjoyment once you screen the entry. Readers will also see the impact across a century of filmmaking from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of both H.G. Wells and Jules Verne on these selections.
Key to the fun of delving into science fiction film history is understanding the roots of science fiction–how modern science fiction 99% of the time derives (or combines) its story elements from key benchmarks from stories or films of the past. As the book progresses readers can see author De Forest frequently referring back to those sources, and after 1977’s Star Wars the remaining 16 entries all seem to rely significantly on films of the past–sometimes they even appear to be merely another twist on one of the films in the first half of the book. And yes, readers will find new discussion topics. La Jetée may be an incredibly fascinating short film, but is it more of a “must-see” than Terry Gilliam’s update 12 Monkeys? And how did a Woody Allen movie ever make the cut?
Every few years a new book attempts to unearth those movies that are integral to understand the scope and breadth of science fiction in film, like 101 Sci-Fi Movies You Must See Before You Die (2016), Top 100 Sci-Fi Movies (2011), Sci-Fi Movie Freak (2011), and this year’s book that accompanies the TV series, James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, which primarily covers films but also shares its space with sci-fi novels. Some of these chronicles are brief and come in magazine form, others are more scholarly in their reach. Some try to catch them all, like The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, and others don’t try hard at all, like Cult Sci-Fi Movies: Discover the 10 Best Intergalactic, Astonishing, Far-Out, and Epic Cinema Classics. One book even focuses on the sci-fi films that didn’t make it out of the studio: The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made (2008). Must-See Sci-Fi, a worthy follow-on to the 2016 broader work, Turner Classic Movies: The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter, has its own take on sci-fi history and a fresh approach to separate it from the rest.
Must-See Sci-Fi is a fun addition to the sci-fi film bookshelf, a way to revisit some of those classics you love, and learn about some movie suggestions to track down for films you may have missed. Look for a foreword by Roger Corman, plenty of photographs and some rare behind-the scenes images, and a list of cited sources at the back of the book. New from Running Press and in an affordable paperback edition, TCM’s Must-See Sci-Fi: 50 movies That Are Out of This World is available now here at Amazon.