Like most genre film, the contours of sci-fi are both incredibly fuzzy and highly debated. We clearly recognize aliens, spaceships, and time travel as sci-fi, but what about superhero films? Is Spiderman, the story of a young man who gains incredible superhuman powers after being bit by a radioactive spider (itself the product of a science experiment), really sci-fi? What about cerebral though experiments along the likes of The Truman Show (1998)?
Debating the constitutive elements of genre film is, in fact, one of its intrinsic pleasures. Any film fan knows that many a social gathering has been sustained by conversation around so and so’s “top ten”, a subjective ranking that inevitably gives rise to disagreements about the accuracy of individual picks. Douglas Brode’s new book Fantastic Planets, Forbidden Zones, and Lost Continents: The 100 Greatest Science-Fiction Films (University of Texas Press) is squarely within this tradition, though it takes some unexpected (though thoroughly welcome) detours from accepted sci-fi wisdom.
The book contains a short introduction followed by “The List”, that is, all of the included films ranked from best to worst. This ranked list is then followed by the list of films themselves, ordered according to the year in which they were made. Each film listing contains a photo, credits, cast, memorable lines, background information on production, a plot summary, analysis of themes, and assorted trivia. Each section is written in clear, open prose that, while remaining accessible to the casual fan, still contains a wealth of information that may be of use to academics and students. (One of the blurbs on the inside jacket suggests that the book may work well for an undergraduate course. I agree.)
By all accounts, Brode’s list is quite diverse. He includes those classics that any “serious” sci-fi fan would be horrified to find missing: Georges Méliès’ Voyage dans la lune (1902), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Jack Arnold’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and Andrei Tarkov’s Solyaris (1972). However, the book also contains a number of sci-fi films that have been woefully underrated like Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) or Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006). Readers will be surprised to find films as recently as James Gunn’s 2014 blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy.
While it contains a ton of information that sci-fi fans will love having collected into one volume, ultimately the book’s organization leaves something to be desired. According to its jacket and promotional materials, the book is a collection of the “100 greatest science-fiction films”, and yet the list is arranged in chronological order. While this does effectively render the book a kind of concise history of the genre, it is ultimately confusing and, in my opinion, a bit misleading to do so. After all, a ranking of the “top 100 films” in any given genre is a very different thing than a history of said genre, and I anticipate that readers interested in one will be turned off by receiving the other.
One of my favorite parts of the book, however, was the collection of appendices that organized sci-fi films into subcategories like cult sci-fi, comedy sci-fi, and dystopian fiction. It’s no secret that sci-fi is an incredibly diverse genre, and these more specific, narrow lists allow readers to really focus on the kinds of film they prefer. It also provides a means for casual sci-fi fans to discover titles similar to those they already enjoy. Do you love “space camp”, those sci-fi films that are so bad they’re good? Brode has a list of six that you’ll enjoy checking out.
That’s the central benefit of Brode’s book: discovering new films that one is already highly likely to enjoy. Sci-fi fans, which are undoubtedly this book’s primary audience, are already a widely read, highly sophisticated bunch. They will already be familiar with much the trivia, production info, and thematic issues outlined in Brode’s book, but that shouldn’t deter sci-fi cinephiles from picking it up. Not only does it collect all that film ephemera into one place for easy reference, it also serves as a springboard for the kinds of conversations that energize film fans and wear out their less invested friends: “I can’t believe he chose this film as the fifth best of all time; I can’t believe he gave this other such a low score.”
Such quibbles and debates are the stuff of film culture, and as such Fantastic Planets, Forbidden Zones, and Lost Continents anticipates its own place within them.