Science fiction has long been considered by some experts to be a lesser genre than traditional dramas and character studies. Because it lends itself so easily to exploitation, science fiction isn’t always given the respect it deserves. Sure, it tends to be a box office winner, as evidenced by the fact that more than half of the all-time domestic grossing films fit easily in that genre (with at least two more – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Shrek 2 – marginally related as genre films). Still, some still consider science fiction something not to be taken seriously.
It is for this reason that “legitimate” film directors might shy away from science fiction in lieu of more important or significant projects. However, many directors got their start or their earliest fame from working in science fiction and other allegedly exploitative and pulp genres. This week’s release of Prometheus reminds us that even though Ridley Scott has directed historical epics (Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven), military action films (Black Hawk Down), crime thrillers (American Gangster) and straight dramas (Thelma & Louise), he got his start in science fiction with Alien and Blade Runner.
Scott isn’t the only director to begin a successful career in science fiction. Here are seven other directors who started out or received some of their earliest success in this genre.
Note: For the purposes of this piece, let’s define science fiction as Analog magazine editor Stanley Schmidt did in a 1999 interview: “simply fiction in which some element of speculation plays such an essential and integral role that it can’t be removed without making the story collapse, and in which the author has made a reasonable effort to make the speculative element as plausible as possible.” This allows some stories, which also exist in horror or fantasy genres to be rightfully included.
In addition to Ridley Scott, the Alien franchise has spawned a couple directors who went on to great things. The obvious one is James Cameron, who followed up The Terminator with the sequel Aliens. However, Cameron arguably has never left science fiction, considering only Titanic and True Lies (which is marginally science fiction as a high-tech spy film) were not true science fiction. Instead, look at David Fincher’s feature film directorial debut Alien 3. Fincher followed up Alien 3 up with Se7en and The Game, though he soon left genre-specific work to make heavier, character driven dramas like Zodiac, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Keeping with the Ridley Scott connection, his younger brother Tony took a stab at genre fiction before solidifying himself as a bona fide action director. The 1983 film The Hunger is loosely based on Whitley Strieber’s book and tells the story of two vampires (David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve) who engage in an affair with a sleep and aging specialist (Susan Sarandon). Made before vampires even thought about sparkling, The Hunger bridges the genres of science fiction and horror by offering scientific reasoning behind vampirism rather than being a straight monster movie. Later in his career, Scott returned to science fiction with 2006’s Deja Vu with his long-time collaborator, Denzel Washington.
After being a successful young actor on television shows like The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, but before he was winning the Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, Ron Howard spent years making genre fiction films. Like his contemporaries Francis Ford Coppola and Joe Dante, Howard debuted working for Roger Corman to make Grand Theft Auto. Though his first major Hollywood movie was the comedy Night Shift, it wasn’t until he made the rom com Splash (marginally science fiction due to a character being a mermaid) and later the geriatric romance Cocoon (which was full-fledged science fiction, featuring an alien-fueled fountain of youth in an old folks home) that people really took him seriously. Since then, Howard has dipped his toe back into the genre pool with movies like Willow and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but for the most part he’s busy trying to make serious films like Frost/Nixon. (We’ll forget about The Dilemma for now.)
To the casual observer, Oliver Stone first gained notoriety with his 1986 Vietnam tragedy Platoon, before which he made the Oscar-nominated war film Salvador. Even earlier in his career, though, he played around with science fiction and horror. His directorial debut was mostly forgotten horror thriller Seizure, and it was 1981’s psychological thriller The Hand that gave him his first mainstream notice. He also co-wrote the original Conan the Barbarian in the early 80s. Opting for war films and political remunerations over most of his recent career, Stone has not returned to genre films (unless you consider 1991’s JFK to be science fiction).
To most people, he is known as the puppetry master behind such iconic characters as Sesame Street’s Grover, The Muppets’ Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy, and Star Wars’ Yoda. However, Frank Oz is also an accomplished director of comedies such as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob?, and Death at a Funeral. When he got his start directing films, he took charge of the third Muppet movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan. However, sandwiching that film were the 1982 sci-fi/fantasy The Dark Crystal and the 1986 musical Little Shop of Horrors. Since then, Oz has returned to more speculative genre fiction with 1995’s The Indian in the Cupboard and the 2004 flop The Stepford Wives.
Those without a knowledge of classic films might ask who the hell James Whale is. But if you were around in the 1930s, you’d know him, and you definitely know his most famous films. Like many of his contemporaries in early cinema, Whale got his start in the theater before moving to Hollywood productions. Though much of his career was spent working on a variety of genres from war films to musicals, it was his guidance that made 1931’s Frankenstein a timeless classic. He later directed The Invisible Man in 1933 and The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935. While these are traditionally remembered as horror films, all three easily fit in Stanley Schmidt’s above definition of science fiction.
It’s tempting to classify anything that David Lynch has directed as science fiction simply because he is known for his surreal technique. However, it is his earlier pieces that fit best into this genre. His wacky 1977 debut Eraserhead is undefinable, genre-wise, though it has many elements of bizarre science fiction (though the plausibility angle as stated in Schmidt’s definition is quite arguable). This film led him to direct the 1980 drama The Elephant Man, which in turn led him to be approached to direct Return of the Jedi and eventually to direct the brilliant but soft box office performer Dune in 1984.
Other notable mentions: Darren Aronofsky began his career with the mind-benders Pi and The Fountain before turning to award films like The Wrestler and Black Swan. John Landis is known as a horror film and comedy director, but his first movie Schlock spoofed the 50s sci-fi/horror monsters. Robert Wise had a long, illustrious career with dramas and big Hollywood musicals (like West Side Story and The Sound of Music), but he is also known for the science fiction films The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Finally, no discussion of science fiction directors can be complete without giving a nod to early silent film pioneer Georges Méliès, whose groundbreaking and iconic A Trip to the Moon in 1902 gave us some of the most enduring images in cinema history.
Notable science fiction directors who did not start in science fiction: While some directors are now known for science fiction, they actually got their start in other genres. The bulk of George Lucas’s career has been Star Wars, and he started off with THX-1138, but the movie he was best known for pre-1977 was the coming-of-age film American Graffiti. Stanley Kubrick’s defining films include A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but those came later in his career after dramas and war films. Finally, Steven Spielberg is remembered for science fiction, but he directed a half-dozen other films (including the blockbusting thriller Jaws) before really jumping into the genre with Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977.
Who are some of your favorite science fiction directors?