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20 Sci-Fi Directorial Debuts That Became Genre Classics

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THX 1138.
THX 1138.
Image: Columbia Pictures

Years before he visited a galaxy far, far away, scruffy University of Southern California grad George Lucas made his directorial debut with 1971 dystopian tale THX 1138. In honor of that movie’s release 49 years ago this month, we’ve gathered up a list of 20 other first-time director efforts that have since become sci-fi classics.

20) Westworld

The HBO show just kicked off its third season, but the source-material feature film was the directorial debut of Michael Crichton, primarily a best-selling author (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain) and screenwriter whose previous directorial effort was made-for-TV techno-thriller Pursuit, based on his novel Binary. Though the Evan Rachel Wood-starring series expands rather wildly on its source material, the core concept of 1973's Crichton-scripted Westworld—in which eerily lifelike theme-park robots, designed for the whims and pleasures of mostly awful humans, begin to “wake up” and fight back—is still very much intact.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone as wee young things in Donnie Darko.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone as wee young things in Donnie Darko.
Image: Newmarket Films

19) Donnie Darko

Richard Kelly’s moody 2001 indie about a high schooler (Jake Gyllenhaal) who survives a freak airplane accident—then starts having visions of a giant rabbit-man predicting the apocalypse—fizzled when it came out right after 9/11. But in true cult-movie form, its just-so-slightly-off blend of memorable characters, trudging through small-town life as time and space begin to fracture around them, eventually found its fan base. Kelly’s made just a handful of movies since, and while it’d be great to see him put out another sci-fi project, even the most prolific artist would have a hard time topping something as eerie and unique as Donnie Darko.

18) Phase IV

Before he made 1974's Phase IV, a movie that’s somehow both full of existential dread and several million hyper-intelligent killer ants, Saul Bass had already achieved fame for his stylized, graphic movie posters and title sequences—including Alfred Hitchcock classics like Psycho, North by Northwest, and Vertigo. Later in his career, Bass and his wife and creative partner, Elaine, created memorable title sequences for films like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and The Age of Innocence. Along the way, he also designed instantly memorable corporate logos for companies like Quaker Oats, United Airlines, and Wienerschnitzel. All of that is to say, Bass was a versatile, talented, commercially successful artist who made just one feature film—and it’s this strikingly gorgeous, cosmically dosed, somewhat impenetrable spin on the classic animals-attack narrative.


17) Gattaca

Andrew Niccol (In Time, The Host, Anon) earned a lot of acclaim—including an Oscar nomination—thanks to his script for 1998's The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir. But just prior to that, he’d written and directed Gattaca, his first feature, a dystopian cyber-noir thriller set in a world with a class system determined by eugenics. Ethan Hawke plays a guy who dreams of being an astronaut even though his genes aren’t up to snuff; Jude Law plays a disenfranchised member of the golden elite who helps Hawke’s character pretend to be him—no simple task in a society that requires frequent DNA screenings. It’s an intriguing and ever-more timely premise with the added bonus of being very easy on the eyes, and that goes beyond its cast, which also includes Uma Thurman. Its sleek, retro-stylish depiction of an insidiously fascist future earned the film its own Oscar nom, for Best Art Direction.

16) Dark Star

The great John Carpenter needs no introduction today, but in the early 1970s, he was just a kid straight outta USC with a Student Academy Award under his belt. That all changed with 1974 sci-fi comedy Dark Star, a collaboration with his film school cohort Dan O’Bannon (whose own legendary career went on to include scripting Alien, writing and directing Return of the Living Dead, and co-writing Total Recall, among other achievements). The tale of the surviving members of a long-range space mission whose boredom is punctuated by a series of malfunctions and disasters, Dark Star—which Carpenter directed, produced, and composed the music; he and O’Bannon co-wrote, with O’Bannon editing and co-starring—is obviously a bit rough around the edges. But you don’t need a big budget to showcase skill, style, and raw talent.

15) Another Earth

This one’s a little bit of a cheat, because director Mike Cahill (I Origins) actually made a documentary about young Cuban athletes called Boxers and Ballerinas several years before making his narrative feature debut with 2011's Another Earth. His creative partner on Boxers and Ballerinas, Brit Marling—now best-known for Netflix’s The OA—co-wrote the Another Earth script and stars as Rhoda, a woman whose brilliant mind can’t cushion her from some pretty intense emotional trauma, and whose life takes an odd turn when a planet that appears to be an exact mirror of Earth, dubbed “Earth 2,” is discovered. Marling completists will also want to check out another debut film that isn’t quite sci-fi enough—it’s on the fringes—to get its own entry here: Sound of My Voice, directed by The OA’s Zal Batmanglij, co-written by Batmanglij and Marling, and starring Marling as an enigmatic cult leader who may or may not be a time traveler.

14) District 9

Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 feature debut arrived with the not-insignificant boost of being produced by Peter Jackson (more on him in a bit), but District 9 is so distinctive and startling in its own right that its impact and influence continue to be felt over a decade later. Years after their initial arrival in a giant ship that appears over South Africa, “prawns” remain sequestered in a slum and demonized by the humans that interact with them. It’s a situation that gets even tenser when a Department of Alien Affairs wonk (Sharlto Copley) accidentally becomes infected with a substance that starts mutating him into an alien and subsequently becomes drawn into an alien plan to flee the planet. The themes are broad, but District 9's gritty style and depiction of its alien characters as refugees—“others” who are treated with disdain—still resonate.


13) Silent Running

Douglas Trumbull was born into the visual effects biz—his father, Donald Trumbull, worked on 1939's The Wizard of Oz, one of Hollywood’s splashiest early showcases for what was then a new art form. Douglas followed a similar path in his career, bringing his own special effects talents to films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Blade Runner. He’s only directed a few feature films to date, but his first effort, 1972's Silent Running, stars Bruce Dern as a botanist (solo, save for his robot helpers) tasked with tending a forested outer space bio-dome, intended for future use to restore Earth’s dying plant population. When the isolated world he’s protecting is threatened, he rebels as best he can. Silent Running’s story is simple, but Dern is quietly great—and the special effects, it probably goes without saying, are ahead of their time.


12) Demolition Man

Artist Marco Brambilla has only directed one feature film so far; his career has largely been devoted to creating video installations, most recently working with Marina Abramović on her opera-themed performance 7 Deaths of Maria Callas. But in 1993, he gave us supercop Sylvester Stallone versus supercriminal Wesley Snipes, frozen in the past and brought back to life in dystopian Southern California, circa 2032. The good guy-bad guy plot is familiar, but the oversized world that Demolition Man invites us to witness—its Taco Bells, its sanitized language, its toilet rituals revolving around “the three seashells”—remains a singular wonder, much like Brambilla’s Hollywood filmography.


11) Night of the Living Dead

Before anyone gets their flesh-suit in a twist because Night of the Living Dead is technically horror—OK, yes it is, and there are tons of excellent horror directorial debuts that could fill their own list. But we’re co-classifying George A. Romero’s 1968 monumental breakout as sci-fi because its script vaguely suggests that the zombie outbreak is sparked by a space probe returning to Earth. Though the writer-director himself was said to prefer the “no explanation” explanation for the undead awakening, one could certainly infer that something extraterrestrial was to blame.

10) Attack the Block

The presence of a pair of future mega-stars—John “Finn” Boyega and Jodie “the Doctor” Whittaker—is just one reason Joe Cornish’s entertaining sci-fi comedy is such an impressive debut. Boyega, heading up an ensemble cast that also includes Shaun of the Dead’s Nick Frost, plays a teenage ne’er-do-well who becomes an unlikely hero when aliens invade his tough London neighborhood. While Attack the Block’s kids-fight-back plot isn’t entirely original, the highly specific setting (with all the accents and slang to go with it) and infectious, youthful energy somehow make it feel unique anyway.


9) The Iron Giant

Brad Bird’s directorial resumé is filled with both live-action and animated blockbusters, including The Incredibles and its sequel, and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol. But his first feature, 1999's The Iron Giant, wasn’t initially a big hit; these days, of course, it’s revered as a classic. Set in small-town Maine at the height of Cold War paranoia, it’s the tale of a massive alien robot (voiced by Vin Diesel) who befriends a young boy who teaches him about Superman, and encounters a freaked-out military that can’t comprehend he might be benevolent. Lessons are learned, tears are shed, and the retro art style matches perfectly with both the setting and the earnest (but never cloying) themes urging peace and acceptance.


8) Repo Man

Totally original, totally quotable, and totally punk rock, Alex Cox’s 1984 debut takes on Reagan-era America as it weaves its story of repo men (including a very young Emilio Estevez and the timelessly cool Harry Dean Stanton) doin’ the do on the mean streets of Los Angeles, at least until they get caught up in the hunt for a very special 1964 Chevy Malibu. What makes it special? Just know that it involves aliens, and that under no circumstances should you try and see what’s glowing in the trunk. Thanks to its quirky cast, bonkers script, and unique vision of new wave aliens, Repo Man holds up under multiple viewings, with a killer soundtrack to boot—a true cult classic, in other words.


7) Re-Animator

Stuart Gordon’s 1985 debut takes some cues from H.P. Lovecraft but is otherwise its own wonderfully gruesome creation, introducing us to medical student Herbert West (the great Jeffrey Combs), who is obsessed with resurrecting the dead. After his neon-green experimental serum revives his roommate’s cat, he moves on to human beings—though things immediately go hilariously (and horrifyingly) haywire once undead people start shambling around. Re-Animator is weird science at its very weirdest, and the kind of movie that makes you instantly want to see what else its director made (for more Lovecraft/Combs/Gordon goodness, check out 1986's From Beyond).


6) Bad Taste

The Lord of the Rings films are masterpieces; The Hobbit films may be a little excessive, but they’re certainly grand enough. But long before Peter Jackson was directing orc armies and wizard battles, or good vs. bad ghosts (in The Frighteners), or even Heavenly Creatures’ deadly teens, he brought a little something called Bad Taste into the world. I will shamelessly quote myself from the below article, in which I surmised that “Peter Jackson’s feature debut—a gory, schlocky scifi comedy about aliens in small-town New Zealand, which he shot over four years’ worth of weekends in the mid-1980s—was supposed to be bad on about every level imaginable, and he succeeded.” Still true. Still love it.


5) Primer

Made for just $7,000, 2004 indie sensation Primer is one of the most creative and carefully confusing movies about time travel ever made, willed into being thanks to Shane Carruth—writer, director, producer, composer, and co-star—quite obviously pouring his heart and soul into the finished product. It’s one of those movies that offers new discoveries every time you watch it, as the various timelines explored by the film’s few characters and their wondrous “box” come into focus. Carruth’s only feature since then has been 2013's “weird biology” tale Upstream Color, which is both more and less straightforward than Primer in its own ways. Here’s hoping the famously elusive filmmaker has another one in the works.


4) Moon

Duncan Jones’ 2009 debut is a movie so cleverly minimalist it’s hard to remember that several years later, he made a movie like Warcraft. (He also made Source Code, which was pretty good, and Mute, which looked great but was overall kinda uneven.) All of this is to say, Moon is still his best movie, but that’s not because his others are trash—it’s more that Moon is just exceptionally good. Sam Rockwell carries nearly the entire movie (with an assist from an AI voiced by, sigh, Kevin Spacey) as a solitary miner doing a three-year shift you-know-where. As his return to Earth nears, he learns some upsetting truths about the company he works for...and even more alarmingly, about himself.

3) Ex Machina

Alex Garland’s buzzed-about new series Devs has brought renewed attention to his earlier work, not that anyone had forgotten about his high-profile screenwriting credits (see: the suddenly timely 28 Days Later...) as well as his feature films, 2018's Annihilation and his 2014 debut Ex Machina. Eventual Star Wars foes Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac star as nerdy-guy Caleb and his supergenius employer Nathan, respectively, who hole up together to work on an artificial intelligence project involving some remarkably advanced androids, especially the alluring Ava (Alicia Vikander). Nathan’s intentions are murky, but his robots are even more difficult to read, and an intense blend of sci-fi and psychological thriller—Garland’s specialty, as it turns out—is the result.


2) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Another slight cheat here, since this Oscar-winning Best Animated Film had three directors—Rodney Rothman, Bob Persichetti, and Peter Ramsey—and only the first two made their debut with Spider-Verse (Ramsey had previously directed Rise of the Guardians). But two out of three first-time directors is still an impressive ratio to have produced such a creative, eye-poppingly gorgeous adventure starring Spider-Man and his many allies across the multiverse, dazzling audiences with its boundary-pushing exploration of just what big-screen animation can be. There’s no wonder we picked it as our top movie of 2018, and that we can’t wait for the sequel.


1) Mad Max

George Miller’s gonzo Mad Max, released in 1979, is still so influential you can just say its title in a context that has nothing to do with the film itself, and immediately evoke its distinctive brand of desert-dwelling, engine-roaring, chaotic post-apocalyptic style. Mad Max spawned three sequels (including 2015's majestic Fury Road) and still feels fierce as ever, and its lingering impact can be felt in the many imitators and homage-payers that followed.


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