We have to draw the line somewhere on genre movies. Not everything listed on Netflix is really a genre, in terms of having a common visual language, tropes, and audience. Action movies is not really a genre, it’s a collection of genres that meet a certain formula.
Then there are genres that we just don’t do because we don’t like them. Romantic comedies, for instance. But we also have to rule out some genres we do like, even love. I have seen all the Batman and Superman movies, most of the MCU movies, and other superhero movies as well (Unbreakable, for example). But though this is a genre, it is one that overlaps too heavily with the summer blockbuster movement. There aren’t many low-budget superhero movies, which means they are all built very carefully. The closest thing I can think of to an independent superhero movie is Birdman.
At the higher end, science fiction is not a genre with firm boundaries, not in the movies anyway. Low budget sci-fi movies can be a world unto themselves, with a defined fan base and a group of directors and producers who tend to stay within the genre. But when Spielberg and Lucas invented the summer blockbuster, they included big budget science fiction movies in the mix.
Directors who do the best work in science fiction are definitely not science fiction directors. They are great directors who do science fiction as part of their portfolio. Still, I wanted to pick out a top ten and it would be wrong to focus on just directors who stay within the field, because these are not necessarily the ones who have defined the genre and moved it forward.
However, I still set the bar so there was a minimum investment. The directors on my top ten list must have done at least TWO landmark movies that are clearly science fiction. Also, science fiction is not interchangeable with horror, fantasy, or super-hero fiction.
Because this criteria excluded some directors who are very important to the field but only have one major entry, I have listed a few of them afterwards. Also, there are a number of directors who seem like they should be on the list, but are not, and I explain why at the end.
Here is the list, more or less in reverse order. To be honest, the first two stretched my rules a bit.
Roger Corman: Of all the directors on the list, he is the one who is the most
defined by the genre. He is a legendary producer of low-budget sci-fi movies and has directed many as well. A lot of them are exploitation movies, but some are really stand-out pieces of work. Mostly he is here because the genre would not have the overall look and feel it does without him. This was a bit of a stretch because there is no one or two Corman movies that, by themselves, changed the genre or stand above it. But his huge body of work stands out anyway.
The Wachowskis: This is also a stretch because, to be honest, the only movie that the Wachowskis directed that I consider great science fiction is The Matrix. The sequels actually diminished the original. But The Matrix is not just a great movie, it transformed science fiction, adding a whole new visual language as well as taking deep themes, deeper. The story itself goes back to the one true original science fiction movie, the one that has been described occurring on screen but never actually happened on screen until The Matrix. That is, of course, the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic. The Wachowskis have continued to be influential beyond The Matrix, so I think they belong here. Speed Racer, Sense8, and Cloud Atlas all have large followings and people I respect love them. Also, though they did not direct V for Vendetta, they were very involved in that movie as well.
Terry Gilliam: Known more for fantasy and insane comedy, Gilliam has still contributed at least two iconic movies to the field, Brazil and 12 Monkeys. Both of these movies captured the tight twisting reality that science fiction can deliver better than any other genre. He also gave us Time Bandits, a great fun romp, though not as central to the genre.
Alfonso Cuarón:Children of Men is often listed in the top movies in the genre, and it is a classic. Some of the pure directorial skill in this movie set it apart and above, even if the plot itself is not revolutionary. Then there is Gravity. A spectacular piece of filmmaking that not everyone loves, but its power can’t be denied.
John Carpenter: Sometimes a John Carpenter movie transcends the genre, sometimes it is just the best example of something within the genre. Either way, though, science fiction movies would be a poorer place without him. The Thing is probably the best example of a high quality John Carpenter movie. The special effects still hold up, years later, but the intense isolation, growing dread, and deepening characterization are what drive this piece. On the other hand you have They Live, starring Roddy Piper, a professional wrestler with limited acting chops. This is a low budget movie with real reach, a classic of science fiction being what it really is. He has also directed other good science fiction, including the classics Escape from New York and Starman. Bonus film in the super-low budget category, (actually a student film project) Dark Star.
Paul Verhoeven: Science fiction explores ¨what if?” and one way to do that is satire. Sometimes this can be comic, almost farcical, like idiocracy. But other times you get the darker, cutting satire of Paul Verhoeven. His most classic movies include Starship Troopers, a military fascist fantasy piece, and Robocop. Less iconic, but still important is the original Total Recall with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
James Cameron: The top four remaining on the list are all big-budget directors. The films they have done that helped define the genre are big productions, and James Cameron is probably the biggest big budget director of all. After the first Terminator movie, a relatively low-budget affair, we got Terminator 2, Aliens, and finally Avatar. The last is not a personal favorite of mine, but its influence and the craft involved clearly earn it a place here.
Steven Spielberg: The invention of the summer blockbuster movie is commonly attributed to Steven Spielberg and he certainly was responsible for tying the science fiction genre into the summer blockbuster rotation. Some of his most famous science fiction movies that helped create the mold are Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., the Extraterrestrial, and Jurassic Park. He is also known for directing A.I., a film based on a screenplay and development by Stanley Kubrick. Spielberg is a genius as well as a crowd-pleaser, though he is sometimes inconsistent.
Stanley Kubrick: The ultimate master craftsman, Kubrick was obsessed with getting every detail, every frame right. His masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is still a great movie watching experience though the pacing is slow for the modern viewer. He also directed Dr. Strangelove, a comic/satire masterpiece that starred Peter Sellers and Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers, and Peter Sellers.
Ridley Scott: Two of most foundational movies for modern science fiction film are Alien and Bladerunner, both directed by Ridley Scott. He has also had some very expensive whiffs, most notably Prometheus, recently. But what he gave us in those two masterpieces is enough to put him on the top of this list. At least until Luc Besson has a true second masterpiece, which could happen this summer, even.
One Great Movie
Any list of the greatest science fiction movies of all time would include one movie from each of these guys. If they had done more than one, it would be a challenge keeping them out of my top ten directors list.
Not in any particular order:
Robert Zemeckis directed Back to the Future. Actually three movies, but all part of one continuous story, so he only gets credit for one.
George Miller directed the great Mad Max: Fury Road. Other Mad Max movies were also good, but more or less along the same lines.
George Lucas is certainly one of the founding fathers of the modern genre. His movie, Star Wars, is one of my all-time favorites. But Lucas did not direct the other parts of his original franchise, and his other directorial efforts have been … difficult.
Fritz Lang stands for above the field having contributed Metropolisto the list. It was not the only science fiction movie he directed, but the only one that has produced such a lasting impact.
Fred M. Wilcox directed Forbidden Planet, a great serious movie that probably strikes modern viewers more as a B movie. The robot from this movie went on to be a more comic Robbie the Robot in the Lost in Space TV show, and the lead actor, Leslie Nielsen, transitioned to comic leads in great movies like Airplane and Police Story.
Finally Luc Besson is famous for a number of great movies and few stinkers. Only one of his great movies is science fiction, but it is one of the greatest genre movies ever: The Fifth Element.However he has another movie coming out this summer that has a similar visual potential. If it turns out to be an equally great movie overall, we will have to move Besson up into the top ten directors list.
Now Some of the Ones We Missed
There are a few major directors that are sometimes associated with Science Fiction who I can imagine some would expect to see on this list.
J.J. Abrams? HIs primary contributions are re-boots, not really the kind of thing that drives the genre. And Super-8, while enjoyable, is practically a tribute film, again not ground-breaking. He is an interesting director, but he has not yet broken any new ground in science fiction.
Neill Blomkamp is also interesting, but new. District 9 showed he has potential, but his other contributions are very flawed.
Kathryn Bigelow? Or for that matter, why are there no women on the list? I think she is a great director, but her best work is definitely not science fiction. Strange Days was good, but not really genre defining. I hope that women take a more prominent role in the future of this genre, I believe they have a lot to contribute. But that’s for the future to say.
Christopher Nolan? Well, Inception is certainly a great movie, but I don’t think it is that influential. Interstellar, more recently, is flawed. I loved half of it, but can’t in good conscience rank it up there with the best. Superhero movies are off in a different genre.
Finally, there are great directors like Andrei Tarkovsky and David Cronenberg whose work can be considered science fiction, but who really are not part of the genre mainstream. I am open to arguments for either, though, as I am not sufficiently familiar with their work to really say.
Who did I miss? What will change soon? Let me know in the comments, or on Facebook!