Although science fiction films tend to be box office winners (more than half of the all-time domestic grossing films fit that genre), “sci-fi” is still considered by some experts to be a “lesser” genre. It’s “lesser” in the sense that it gives itself to exploitation and imaginative ideas that, while entertaining to watch, typically lacks artistic or historic value.
Despite that, however, many famous directors got their start in science fiction. Ridley Scott is a prime example of this, starting with films like Alien and Blade Runner. But Scott has also had a successful career with historical epics (Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven), military action films (Black Hawk Down) and dramas (Thelma & Louise). There are many other directors that fit this same build, but before we discuss them, it is important to have an idea of what science fiction actually is.
Analog Magazine editor, Stanley Schmidt, said during a 1999 interview that science fiction is “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 definition is great because it allows some stories which exist in other genres, such as fantasy or horror, to be included as well.
A director who got his start in science fiction, and has even lived most of his directing life in the genre, is James Cameron. Terminator and Alien were the first of his hits to gain him national exposure, and his more recent works, such as the breakout movie that revolutionized the 3D experience, Avatar, fit the genre of science fiction as well.
David Fincher made his feature film directorial debut with the movie Alien 3. He followed that up with movies such as Se7en and The Game, but has now left the genre-specific work to make character-driven dramas like Zodiac, The Social Network, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. By the above definition, I would argue that his movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, would fall into the science fiction genre as well, as it involves the unique element of reverse aging.
Tony Scott, Ridley Scott’s younger brother, got his feet wet in genre fiction before becoming the action director we see him as today. That film came in the form of The Hunger, based on Whitley Strieber’s book, The Hunger, and tells a tale of two vampires who engage in an affair with a sleep and aging specialist. In this film, which I would consider to be horror and science fiction, the scientific reasoning behind vampirism is explored, which sets it apart from a typical horror movie. That is why I would consider this movie to be science fiction.
Ron Howard, known for being a young actor on shows like Happy Days and The Andy Griffith Show and for his Oscar award winning movie, A Beautiful Mind, also had his start in science fiction, believe it or not. Splash (in which a lead character is a mermaid) and Cocoon (which features an alien-fueled fountain of youth in an old folks’ home) were early movies in his career. Now, though, he tries to make serious films like Frost and Nixon.
Oliver Stone, to some, may have gained notoriety with his 1986 Vietnam tragedy titled Platoon, or when he made the Oscar-nominated war film Salvador. But it was his directorial debut that gave him exposure into the science fiction category. That film was titled Seizure, and that film as well as his 1981 psychological thriller, The Hand, gave him his start in mainstream directing. Since those two films, he has not returned to genre fiction films and instead has stayed with his war films and political remunerations.
In 1982, Frank Oz got his feet wet in the science fiction genre while directing the movie The Dark Crystal and the 1986 musical Little Shop of Horrors. Since then, he has maneuvered into more speculative genre fiction like 1995’s The Indian in the Cupboard. But, of course, how can we forget the most interesting part of his career: being the puppetry master behind such characters as Grover of Sesame Street, The Muppets’ Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy, and Star Wars’ Yoda. The latter one, of course, is definitely in the realm of science fiction, and Star Wars, in general, has probably been one of the most successful science fiction films ever produced.
Although now dead, James Whale should be considered one of the founding fathers of the science fiction genre for movie producers. It was his guidance that made 1931’s Frankenstein a timeless classic. Not only that, but he later directed The Invisible Man in 1933 and The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935. And, although some people may look at these as horror films, let us not forget the definition that we are applying to science fiction. By using Stanley Schmidt’s definition from above, it is very easily seen that these movies can all be considered science fiction.
David Lynch is a director who, at first glance, may be considered an only-science fiction sort of director, with his surreal technique. And although that may be tempting, do not rush to those conclusions. Instead, let’s look at his earlier works, which definitely fall into the category of science fiction. It started with his debut movie in 1977 called Eraserhead which is otherwise undefinable, genre-wise, except that it contains many bizarre facets that would categorize it as science fiction. That movie 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 the movie Dune in 1984. The latter of those movies most definitely falls into this realm, and all are arguably among the most noted science fiction films.
Finally, although there are a great many directors who started their careers in science fiction and have since moved on to directing other genres, let us look at directors who are known for science fiction, but started their careers elsewhere. George Lucas, known for the ever-popular Star Wars films, had a notable movie (pre-1977) with the coming-of-age film American Graffiti. Steven Spielberg is remembered for science fiction, but he actually directed a half-dozen other films (including the movie Jaws) before really jumping into the genre with Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977. And also, Stanley Kubrick’s popular films, A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey, came after his being a director of dramas and war films.
As you can see, directors come from a wide array of different backgrounds and areas of expertise. By dipping their toes in more than one genre, though, they become better directors because the more knowledge you have about anything, the better you are able to perform. It is interesting to see where science fiction will lead us in the future, especially with the news of the new Star Wars movie coming out and the continuation of epics like Star Trek: Into Darkness. Who are some of your favorite science fiction directors?