Making any sort of successful first film is a tremendous accomplishment, but making a successful genre film right out of the gate is an especially arduous accomplishment, because genre is inherently so riddled with clichés and conventions that are far easier to fall into than avoid. Great genre filmmaking involves not just sidestepping these pitfalls, but at times also embracing them, subverting them, and using them to an expected advantage. That’s a tact that typically requires the grace of an experienced hand, but on occasion a first-timer will come along and prove themselves a natural by producing a genre film of classical proportions. With that in mind, here are 8 great science-fiction films directed by rookies, people with no other features under their belts. Not only do they stretch the parameters of their genre, but of filmmaking in general, first-time or otherwise.
MOON (2009) dir. Duncan Jones
MOON is brilliant; it’s brilliantly written (by Jones and Nathan Parker), brilliantly structured, beautifully shot (by Gary Shaw), and masterfully performed by lead actor(s) Sam Rockwell. It is one of the greatest internal science-fiction films – by which I mean science-fiction where the conflict is of the self, and not external, like aliens or Empires or sexy androids – ever made, and a contender for the best science-fiction film of the 21st century to date. It’s an intelligent, moody, dubious with tinges of terror, and mindbending film: everything great sci-fi should be. Jones’ follow-up, SOURCE CODE, was another intimate feat of sci-fi, and while WARCRAFT was a bit of thematic departure, there are rumors that his next film will be MUTE (or MUTE WITNESS), a sequel of sorts to MOON, or at least a film set in that same universe. Fingers crossed.
EX MACHINA (2015) dir. Alex Garland
This is another one in contention for best sci-fi film of the 21st century, and it certainly sits at the top of the list of best sci-fi of this decade. Garland already had a stellar career as a screenwriter – THE BEACH (based on his own novel), 28 DAYS LATER, SUNSHINE, DREDD – when he decided to step behind the camera, and that decision produced one of the most sensually insidious films in recent memory, genre or otherwise, a kind of cyber-erotic thriller that engaged our understanding not just of the physical and emotional components of seduction, but also the technological ones. It’s like HER gone terribly, terribly wrong. Look for Garland to continue his sci-fi domination with the female-centric bio-adventure ANNIHILATION, out next year.
DARK STAR (1974) dir. John Carpenter
A couple of weeks ago I did a list of 10 Great Horror Debuts, and I wasn’t able to put the great John Carpenter on the list because I had to put him on this one. DARK STAR is a low-budget sci-fi comedy made by Carpenter two years before he’d breakout with ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, and co-written with Dan O’Bannon, who a few years later would alter the sci-fi game forever with his script for a little flick you might have heard of called ALIEN. Though DARK STAR is very, very different from that film and in fact could be considered a spoof of sci-fi films more than a straight sci-fi film itself, I don’t really care. This film is so much fun and has such a great atmosphere, not just internal to the narrative but externally, as a project in general, that it’s always a good time, and is legitimately on my list of top 10 favorite films ever. And the alien is my favorite ever. Sorry, xenomorphs.
THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES (1955) dir. Roger Corman (uncredited)
This one is a bit of a technicality because though it is the first time Corman directed a feature, he did it uncredited; Corman produced the film and wasn’t happy with the director he hired, David Kramarsky, so just took over without taking billing. Furthermore, it isn’t the film itself that’s so great as much as it is what it signifies the beginning of, namely Corman’s indelible contribution to genre filmmaking and sci-fi in particular. The list of genre films under Corman’s banner could fill a phonebook, and this is where it all started. (And though FIVE GUNS WEST was released two months before this flick, with Corman credited as director, this flick was finished first. Another technicality, but it’s my list so I’ll allow it.)
SILENT RUNNING (1972) dir. Douglas Trumbull
This is the eco-sci-fi flick on the list, itself a distinct sub-genre. In a future where all the Earth’s flora is extinct, one astronaut (Bruce Dern) is put on a spaceship/greenhouse and ordered after eight years of preservation to destroy the last living specimens of plant life. Not just a great film, and another like MOON that largely is a crisis of conscience, SILENT RUNNING is also notable because it is the feature film debut for Trumbull as a director amidst his notable career in visual effects, which includes a trio of Oscar nominations for his work on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, and BLADE RUNNER. As if that trifecta wasn’t enough, Trumbull started his career in VFX as a special photographic effects supervisor on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Trumbull’s only other feature as a director was 1983’s BRAINSTORM, another sci-fi flick with Christopher Walken that’s also notable for being the movie Natalie Wood was making when she died. Fun fact: SILENT RUNNING’s script is co-written by Michael Cimino (THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, THE DEER HUNTER).
PRIMER (2004) dir. Shane Carruth
This is lo-fi, cerebral sci-fi at its absolute best, a film that doesn’t benefit from special effects or great visuals, rather just taut, engaging storytelling that lays its focus on the realm of ideas. Ostensibly a time-travel flick – written, directed, and starring Carruth (UPSTREAM COLOR, which is even better) – PRIMER is the kind of film Stanley Kubrick would have made if he’d started his career 50 years later. It’s elegant in its simplicity, stark in its realizations, and unapologetic about its heady premise and execution. I’m telling you, this is the best 7K anyone ever spent on anything (that wasn’t, like, I don’t know, humanitarian aid or something).
THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8th DIMENSION (1984) dir. W.D. Richter
This is hands down the best movie about a surgeon-cum-rock star and his band fighting off an alien invasion (with all due respect to VOYAGE OF THE ROCK ALIENS), and it’s also the directorial debut of Richter, primarily a screenwriter. Up to BUCKAROO he had found success in the genre with his script for the 1979 remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and a couple years after BUCKAROO he’d cement his place in cult history as the screenwriter of John Carpenter’s BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. This flick gives DARK STAR a run for its money as the zaniest on this list, and recently it’s been in the news again because it’s being adapted into a television series (for Amazon) by the one and only Kevin Smith.
CUBE (1997) dir. Vincenzo Natali
This might be my favorite Canadian movie of all-time, and is the highest-concept work on this list. Basically, a bunch of strangers are trapped in a giant structure made of various cubes, and they have to get out. Think CLUE meets SAW, or just HELLRAISER from a POV inside Lemarchand’s box. Brutal in its simplicity as it is in its imagination, Natali’s debut spawned two sequels – CUBE 2: HYPERCUBE and CUBE ZERO – neither of which he had anything to do with. His other feature film of note is SPLICE, another sci-fi sleeper hit, and he has a segment in ABCs OF DEATH 2. Mostly these days he’s in genre TV, having directed episodes of ORPHAN BLACK, HANNIBAL, THE STRAIN, WAYWARD PINES, and an upcoming episode of Starz’s hotly-anticipated AMERICAN GODS.
So what do you think? What films did I miss? Sound of on Twitter and help me build the next list.