McFarland & Co, 2000, 759pp, £157.10, ISBN: 0-7864-0740-9
The problem with reference books is that, no matter how much you put in them, you are always judged by what you leave out. With a tome this size (marginally smaller than a double-decker bus) you’d be forgiven for thinking that most omissions would be minor, but you’d be wrong. John Carpenter, Inoshiro Honda, Robert Wise and David Cronenberg are among the plethora of directors who do not appear here, on the basis that they are included within the author’s companion book on Horror Films. This is understandable, but surely coverage of their sf output would be more than appropriate, it would be essential, especially as people interested in science fiction might not seek out a horror volume. The book’s remit is to cover the work, life and critical reaction to a number of key players, which results in an eclectic choice of directors. Each chapter is generally decent, albeit inconsistent in scope – Spielberg (does The Color Purple really warrant a page of analysis?) gets 30 pages, Shinya Tsukamoto just one. However coverage of the early directors, such as William Cameron Menzies and Val Guest, is incredibly useful and this is one of the best compilations available for information on such lesser known visionaries as Mamoru Oshii, Eugene Lourie and Ib Melchior. Similarly the inclusion of such names as Andrei Tarkvosky, Brian Yuzna and Jeunet & Caro is eminently satisfying. Each entry is well researched and comprises biographical and career information as well as coverage of each film and the particular director’s other roles within the film industry, such as writing credits. The book also gives an interesting history of the science fiction film and mops up any anomalies in the closing chapters to showcase important films (e.g. Fantastic Planet, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers) that might otherwise have slipped the net. Hence Tim Burton, the Wachowski brothers, Joe Dante and Francois Truffaut manage to get a look in, albeit through the back door. And finally there’s the Internet Movie Database’s listing of the 100 most popular sf films (rated by the public), which can serve as a basis for many a heated debate.
Science Fiction Film Directors is a valuable resource for anyone who finds science fiction movies fascinating but it is burdened primarily by one thing – its cost. Giving scant change from £160, the price tag limits its market considerably. Presumably it is intended as a resource book for undergraduates but the prose belies academic intent (the interesting clippets of contemporaneous analysis generally comprise national newspaper reviews rather than journals and the author takes the “public face” of auteur theory to heart and assumes that all directors are auteurs – whoops). This leaves the book perched uneasily in a no-man’s land between the usual puff we’ve come to expect from a book on sf movies (Bring more pictures! Increase the font size!) and the more analytical approach favoured by media studies publications (No words less than four syllables! No sentence without an -ism or a psychosexual word!). As such it is ideally suited for the intelligent non-media student or fan and wholeheartedly recommended as the de facto reference book on the subject… if it were £130 cheaper that is.