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Science Fiction Films
John Costello
Pocket Essentials, 160 pages

Science Fiction Films
John Costello
John Costello is a lecturer in Film and Media Studies and Screenwriting at the Universities of Warwick, Coventry, and Birmingham. He has also written Pocket Essentials on David Croenenberg, and Writing A Screenplay.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Kit O'Connell

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Science Fiction Films from the Pocket Essentials series is more than just a quick overview of the better films of the genre -- it makes you want to go out and rent a personal movie marathon of some of the greatest, most entertaining, and memorable movies of the 20th century. The book opens with a selection of the author's favourite scenes from The Day The Earth Stood Still, Blade Runner , The Thing and others; this imaginary timeline of science fiction's great moments, stretching from the dawn of humanity to the 23rd century, is surely enough to grab the imagination of even a total novice to SF films:

Washington DC, 1951: A humanoid figure and a giant robot emerge from the first alien spaceship to land on Earth. The humanoid raises its hand. In the surrounding army cordon a nervous young soldier aims his rifle and fires.
Los Angeles, 2019: As his life ebbs away in genetically programmed termination, an android 'Replicant' delivers a lesson in humanity to his human nemesis whose life he has just spared.
Antarctica, 1982: The two survivors of an attack on a US research station by a shapeshifting alien lifeform face the prospect of freezing to death together, neither certain that the other is really human.
After the introduction whets the reader's appetite and explains John Costello's definitions of the genre, the chapters are laid out roughly by the era within which each movie appeared, starting with the genre's first appearances at the beginning of the 20th century with La Voyage Dans La Lune and ending with 2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. In addition to rating each film and giving the usual synopsis, the author tries to give context to each film by discussing some of the era's prevailing philosophies and influences from the obvious touch of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg on the films of the late 70s to the influence of the Roswell crash on the films of the 50s. The last two chapters of the book detail science fiction in animation and some of the great bad movies, including of course Plan 9 From Outer Space. but also Logan's Run and Zardoz. While anime fans and Z-movie enthusiasts will undoubtedly have a few favourites that were left out, I think the inclusion of these chapters more than makes up for their necessary brevity.

The biggest source of controversy in the minds of the average reader will be Costello's ratings -- is Terminator 2: Judgment Day (five stars) a better film than Star Wars: Episode IV (four stars)? At four stars, are both Ghost in the Shell and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within equally good? However, it is the double-edged sword of the Pocket Essentials imprint that the series' editors actually allow the authors to have an opinion of their own. It is my opinion that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, because it allows this book to be entertaining even if you happen to have seen every film in it (in which case, congratulations or, in some cases, my condolences). When John Costello calls Lucas a 'megalomaniac' for messing with his classics, or refers to The Black Hole as "so bad it created its own singularity and disappeared straight into it," the writing rises above the level of a mere Dummies guide.

The real drawback to Science Fiction Films is that there is no page-by-page index, either alphabetical or by chapter, of the films in the volume. This is especially irritating in light of the book's purported goal to be a pocket reference guide to film and makes it hard to find a film in a hurry (for example, to write this review). This is probably not the author's fault, as it shares this editorial error with at least one other entry in the Pocket Essentials series.

Overall, the Pocket Essentials Science Fiction Films is an inexpensive, and entertaining volume. Even though I'm a fan of SF film, I haven't seen nearly all the films in its slim 160 pages, and the web resources included in an appendix will undoubtedly point the reader to even more great information. As a writer, critic, and fan I am sure this is a reference I will reach for frequently.

Copyright © 2005 Kit O'Connell

You can read the 'pocket essentials' of his life (a new excuse for not updating more often) at todfox.livejournal.com.


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