So if you think my list is crap, bully for you. Do better.
- John Scalzi

Canon Fodder (Part One)

20 October 2005

John Scalzi, in the recently-published Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies (please note that I am giving that title verbatim and have not chosen to abbreviate "science fiction" that way of my own volition, kthx), gives a canonical list of ... well, let him explain it:

The Canon [...] 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.

Scalzi, bless him, is aware of what argument-starters these lists are, and has knowingly invited the slings and arrows because he is all wool and a yard wide. (That mixed metaphor is not mine, I stole it from Al Sicherman years ago and I love it.)

Because I, too, like ruminating over lists like these, I have taken the list and italicized the ones I have not seen (less markup that way), adding a few comments where appropriate. And at the end, I have added a word or two about some things I think are MIA.

14 June 2014

I'll admit this essay is not necessarily pertinent to much of anything, but you'll notice that some of my favorites are the ones which reward repeated and small-screen viewing. Anyway, it was a lot of fun. I've updated some remarks below to keep pace with my actual viewing experience since then.

If you're wondering about Canon Fodder (Part Two), it was going to be about comedies, and I have never gotten around to writing it. Yet.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension! - This film has a life cycle. The first time you see it it looks like a dreadful, confusing mess. The second time, you realize there might be more than meets the eye. The third time it is entertaining, the fourth time hilarious, and the fifth through thirtieth times it is an old familiar friend where you know all the good lines and repeat them along with the screen. After that it depends entirely on who you see it with and when. In short, it is designed to be an audience-participation style midnight movie, and that is how I was lucky enough to first encounter it. Is it important to SF? Yes, but perhaps not as a film.

Akira - No, I haven't seen it. I have issues with a great deal of Japanese animation, not for script but stylistic reasons (Hayao Miyazaki is the lone exception to date - I pretty much like everything he's done, but he also has a style that is drawn far more realistically than a lot of classic anime). Nonetheless, I concede that this is a major hole in my repertoire, and I need to grit my teeth and watch it one day.

Alien - keep reading.

Aliens - Alien itself stands alone, as a lonely, oddly silent, xenophobic masterpiece. But once you take in the second one - which is an important film on its own merits, yet entirely different from the first in every way - you must take the third, as a perfect set of three directors taking the same idea in three completely different directions. You can't have these two without the third, in other words ... and I realize that a lot of people do not like the third. That's because they have not admitted to themselves that the film is the way things had to go, had to work out - wetly, in a place no one cared about, and not with a bang but a whimper. I move that they be canon, but only as three parts of an indivisible whole. (I give you permission to ignore the fourth one entirely; it is for Jean-Pierre Jeunet fans only, and his best film is already elsewhere on this list.)

Alphaville - I will take half credit here. Back in the days when I was on the committee to pick films for the LSU student film series, I stumped heavily to put this on the schedule ... and then couldn't see it when they showed it. Since then I have seen parts of it, and my conclusion is that, while it may very well be a seminal piece of SF film, it is also Godard, and therefore, like all Godard, has glacial pacing and is as boring as hell. [2014: Recently, a restored print returned to theatres around here, and I still couldn't bring myself to see it.]

Back to the Future

Blade Runner


Bride of Frankenstein - Again, not a very good film, and hard to watch by modern eyes. But as a cultural reference ... hell, Elsa Lanchester's hairdo alone qualifies it. And most all "mad scientist" sets, including the ones in Bugs Bunny cartoons, got their origins either here or in Metropolis. (P.S. Did you know Elsa Lanchester was married to Charles Laughton?)

Brother From Another Planet - [2014: In retrospect it interests me that Scalzi would put this sleeper on the list. I don't disagree, you understand; I take it as proof that Scalzi knew what he was doing. I bet I could ask twenty people about this film right now and eighteen of them would say "huh"?]

A Clockwork Orange

Close Encounters of the Third Kind


The Damned - I'm afraid that I feel this is one of those films where once you know the conceit, the conceit is all you need. In other words, I have to be aware enough of it to laugh at when "The Simpsons" makes a joke about it ("The Bloodening"), but I don't feel like I actually need to see the film.

Destination Moon - You know what I'd like? I'd like someone to film one of Heinlein's Boy Scout adventures as a period piece - make it retrofuturistic, but do it entirely seriously, without winking at the camera. I would adore a film of Rocket Ship Galileo or Have Space Suit - Will Travel, done completely straight, possibly with a disclaimer slide at the beginning announcing that this was a genuine artifact, presented as is, including all the things that were tremendously, ridiculously wrong. Hell, especially those things.

The Day The Earth Stood Still - Tried to watch it once. Seminal but boring. Again: I need to know enough to get Klaatu jokes, and no more than that.


Escape From New York - [2014: I claimed to have seen this at the time, but I have no memory of it whatsoever.]

ET: The Extraterrestrial

Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers (serial) - Hell no. I dislike Flash Gordon immensely. At least the horrible version with the Queen soundtrack played him as essentially what he has always been - a stupid, cartoonish football-player type.

The Fly (1985 version) - Interesting that Scalzi would specify this one. Both movies are flawed - the 1985 version has a great lead performance but eventually lets the special effects budget win out over a real script; the 1958 version has weak performances and bargain-basement production values, but builds up suspense slowly and effectively, and the ending is still a shocker (if you can find a viewer who hasn't been tipped off in advance). But it's the 1958 version I would consider the cultural milestone. By the by, the main character in the 1958 version is none other than David Hedison, who is mostly known as the person who played Felix Leiter most often in Bond films.

Forbidden Planet - Did you know the special effects in this are mostly animation done by Josh Meador, who was the Disney "special lighting effects" animator and who was on loan from them? Did you know that Leslie Nielsen was once taken seriously as a leading man? Did you know that this movie is almost entirely cheese and has an absolutely laughable script, and yet certain parts of it are so compelling even today that I own it on DVD? Such a paradox.

Ghost in the Shell - See Akira.

Gojira/Godzilla - I've seen two or three versions. The lure of the giant lizard cannot be denied, but the fact remains that, for all its cultural significance, none of these films have ever been very good. [2014: And I stand by that even with the recent rework, sight unseen.]

The Incredibles - Scalzi has taken some mild flak for putting this on his list. My beef, unlike others, is not that it's "too soon to tell" but that this film is not really science fiction. It's not even really a film about superheroes. Nonetheless I love it so much (I considered it last year's best film, period) that I am not in a position to quibble.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 version) - This is another one (see The Fly) where both this version and the remake have big flaws, but this time Scalzi has, I think, picked the more important one.

Jurassic Park - Alas, yes. This is the sort of film you hate to love.

Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior - No, I haven't. Not all the way through. I've seen fragments of it. Although I understand why its particular vision is important, I feel like this is the point where the title character changed from a vengeful sociopath (the original Mad Max is basically Death Wish set in a post-apocalyptic desert) into a strange antihero, and I would just rather have Death Wish than The Postman (by which I mean the Kevin Costner mess, not Il Postino).

The Matrix - See comment for Jurassic Park, and also my essay on Dark City. At least this one had slightly better structure than the next two.

Metropolis - Seen it because everyone should, but there is no denying that the pacing will put people off and make them long for a "good bits" Cliffs Notes cut, which would be about forty minutes long.

On the Beach

Planet of the Apes (1968 version) - [2014: This is another film I have no memory of, and I wonder if it's just so culturally ingrained at this point that I think I've seen it when I haven't.]

Robocop - I have trouble explaining to people that this may actually be a great film, and surely the only possibly-great film that has Paul Verhoeven's name on it. The social-satire aspects of this film take a back seat to the special effects and the violence, but they are what pushes this film above the rest of its ilk (including its horrible sequels).

Sleeper - I have a lot of trouble with Woody Allen, but this is my favorite film of his.

Solaris (1972 version) - I have read the Lem novel and I consider it unfilmable. So far I have not, in my estimation, been proved wrong.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - I don't believe in a no-win scenario.

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

The Stepford Wives - It is worth specifying here that Scalzi means the original; at least I assume he does.


Terminator 2: Judgement Day - I realize this is probably the one which has set the cultural pointers, but I believe you can't actually appreciate this one properly without the first one. For one thing, if you hadn't seen the first one a billion times before this one came out, you fail to appreciate the whole setup in the first fifteen minutes of the film because you don't realize that the audience is being cued to think that the wrong person is the bad guy. If you take the two as a set, and you should, then they belong on this list, but they are inseparable. See also Aliens.

The Thing From Another World - Hain't seen all of it. I saw an IMDb review which called this "fast-paced." They must have been watching a different film. Oh, yes, I know, McCarthy/Red Scare metaphors, product of its time, slow buildup of terror, etc etc. I'll give it another try one day.

Things to Come - Huge points for being not just prescient, but ahead of its time in film terms as well. However, the bits I have managed to see (this and A Trip To The Moon are the only films on the list I would consider Hard To Find) suggest that I might not be able to sit through the whole thing if I ever get a chance. Also, please see comments under A Trip To the Moon, below.


12 Monkeys

28 Days Later - I hear this one is actually good. However, I used up my lifetime quota of living-dead movies years ago on George Romero. [2014: And my absolute moratorium on zombie movies continues to this day. Sorry.]

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - I don't know if Scalzi means the 1916 version which was a pioneer in underwater photography, or the 1954 Disney version. Probably the latter - the film is a cultural touchstone, whether I like it or not. I finally got a chance to watch about fifteen minutes of this as an adult, and the cheese level was entertaining enough that I'd like to watch it start to finish one day, but I suspect that a lot of its fans remember this film fondly from having seen it as children and that it doesn't stand scrutiny. (And I have not yet had reason to change my statement that Mary Poppins is the only live-action Disney film that has ever achieved genuine quality.) Also see comments under A Trip To the Moon, below.

2001: A Space Odyssey

La Voyage Dans la Lune - The issue with these Verne and Wells adaptations is that they had already had their moment of prescient glory in an earlier format. War of the Worlds shocked once as a book and again as a radio play (famously); by the time it got to the point of being a movie, it was not breaking any new ground whatsoever. I feel the same way about Things to Come and 20,000 Leagues - these are both squarely placed in my historical-significance canon, but in their written format (and for War of the Worlds the Orson Welles/Mercury version is trump - have you ever listened to it? It still holds up well today).

However, A Trip To the Moon is a little different. While its story had already broken all the ground it was ever going to break in the written format, the film does break ground - filmmaking ground. I learned about this film, and saw clips from it, in film class for the simple reason that what Méliès did in 14 minutes of silent film in 1902 had never been done before in any way. And he was a smart enough filmmaker to know that his special effects would not hold up, so he made them entertaining instead - the space capsule hitting the moon in the eye is still a good joke (and a memorable image) to this day. Also, this is probably the first science fiction film ever made - and that ain't hay.

War of the Worlds (1953 version) - My heart belongs to the Mercury Theatre. See above.

Missing from this list, in my moderately humble opinion: Well, not a hell of a lot. It's actually a pretty good list, and some of the things I could argue for putting on it are also subject to the "but is it really SF?" argument - which is another song and dance entirely. (For example, while Dr. Strangelove belongs on anyone's list of anything, I can't bring myself to call it SF.)

However, I would make cases for:

Westworld - A lot of cultural cliches came out of this one, and as I proved by exposing it to an adult who had never seen it a year or so ago, it still holds up very nicely as a movie.

Total Recall - Paul Verhoeven may never have topped Robocop, but this movie definitely has its cultural-landmark moments. (Don't believe me? I'm not alone; the film is listed in 1000 Movies You Must See Before You Die, and that list spans all genres/eras).

Videodrome - Not a good film by any means, but the "stop-is-this-actually-a-hallucination-reset-film" structure is hard to find done right (and I'm not going to try to sell you on Jacob's Ladder, either as SF or as quality). Some people consider Videodrome more horror than SF. I am prepared to concede that.

The Incredible Shrinking Man - No, I haven't seen it, which makes my putting it on the list even more significant - the cultural-reference value of it is so strong that it seems like a must, even sight unseen.

There are a bunch of others that come to mind, many of which I haven't seen - Seconds, which is apparently very significant but hard to find; La Jetée, which barely qualifies as a film but is the inspiration behind 12 Monkeys; Fantastic Planet, which is a genuine 1960's artifact but not actually good; The Last Battle, which is a cultural reference point everywhere except in America (and introduced us to the always-interesting-if-not-quite-good Luc Besson, without whom we would not have The Fifth Element); Independence Day, which is War of the Worlds for a generation which has completely lost all sense of subtlety, and is therefore a cultural marker of its own; the first 100 minutes of A.I. - if for no other reason to show how fast a film can go completely from good SF to utter crap without warning; and so on.

But this will more than suffice.

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