10 great sci-fi directorial debuts

From Westworld to Mad Max – what attracts first-time filmmakers to the challenges of science fiction?

Neil Mitchell

Ex Machina (2014)

Ex Machina (2014)

Science fiction is a tricky genre to bring to the screen for even the most experienced of filmmakers, especially if the proposed project demands a substantial budget and the involvement of a huge production team. Sci-fi, by its very nature, deals in what if scenarios that are fantastical in concept, so they can be challenging to visualise convincingly. The genre demands a suspension of disbelief in viewers that’s far greater than that required for your average romcom or realist drama. What fledgling filmmaker would willingly take on such a challenge for their first movie?

In fact, over the decades, many budding directors have chosen exactly this route. What’s more, on occasion, one has come up trumps with a sci-fi film of true inspiration and precocious achievement.

The artistic freedom directors gained due to the collapse of the old Hollywood studio system, the subsequent rise in experimental, independent filmmaking and, more recently, advances in technology making the tools of production available on a wider, cheaper scale have all helped enable a wide variety of impressive sci-fi debuts.

Alex Cox, Andrew Niccol and Alex Garland, for example, struck instant gold with the vastly different but equally well received Repo Man (1984), Gattaca (1997) and Ex Machina (2014) respectively. Where first-time British director Alex Taylor only metaphorically skirts around sci-fi themes and imagery in Spaceship (2016), fellow Brit Gareth Edwards plunged feet first into full-blown sci-fi, catching the attention of Hollywood with the minor visual miracles he achieved for less than $500,000 on Monsters (2010).

Here are 10 key directorial debuts that boldly tackled sci-fi and thereby fired their creator’s careers into orbit.

THX 1138 (1971)

Director George Lucas

THX 1138 (1971)

Six years before George Lucas hit financial pay dirt and pop cultural superstardom with the release of the epic space opera Star Wars (1977), the then fledgling filmmaker delivered a science fiction film of a very different kind in THX 1138. Based on Lucas’s 1967 student film Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, and co-written by Walter Murch, Lucas’s debut feature is a sparse and socially conscious dystopian vision of life in the 25th century.

Bearing shades of both 1984 and Brave New World, THX 1138 stars Robert Duvall as the eponymous member of an underground dwelling society in which intercourse and reproduction are outlawed. When Duvall’s character stops taking the mind controlling drugs the state supplies, falling in love in the process, THX 1138 immediately becomes a danger to the strictly maintained equilibrium. The film’s minimalist sets, arresting costume design and oppressive sound effects fittingly complement the bleakest of narratives.

Silent Running (1972)

Director Douglas Trumbull

Silent Running (1972)

One of a number of post-apocalyptic eco-disaster/environmentally conscious sci-fi movies to appear in the 1970s, along with the likes of No Blade of Grass (1970), Soylent Green (1973) and Logan’s Run (1976), Silent Running saw visual effects pioneer and filmmaker Douglas Trumbull take the directorial reigns for the first time. A thoughtful slow burner, it takes place in a future in which all plant life on Earth is extinct, with preserved specimens housed in enormous bio-domes attached to six orbiting space freighters. Bruce Dern delivers an engrossing performance as the crew’s botanist Freeman Lowell, who rebels after financially motivated orders are given to destroy the domes and return the freighters to Earth.

Beautifully designed and confidently directed, Silent Running feels like the work of a seasoned pro, which makes the fact it was Trumbull’s first time behind the camera all the more impressive.

Westworld (1973)

Director Michael Crichton

Westworld (1973)

The first film to use 2D CGI, the popular sci-fi/western hybrid Westworld also saw the big screen feature debut of author Michael Crichton. This influential slice of science fiction posited a frightening what-if scenario as the thrill-seeking vacationers at the Delos theme park get way more than they bargained for after the park’s sophisticated androids malfunction and embark on a murderous rampage.

Yul Brynner – in a neat inversion of his character from The Magnificent Seven (1960) – stars as the lethal black clad proto-Terminator known only as the Gunslinger, who relentlessly hunts down two recent arrivals to Delos, John (James Brolin) and Peter (Richard Benjamin), with the intention of ruthlessly gunning them down. A simple tale well-executed, Westworld spawned a less successful sequel, Futureworld (1976), and a rapidly cancelled TV spin-off called Beyond Westworld (1980), before being re-imagined by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy in the critically acclaimed HBO series of the same name in 2016.

Dark Star (1974)

Director John Carpenter

Dark Star (1974)

A lack of toilet paper, an unruly pet alien and a malfunctioning talking bomb are just some of the distractions that darken the claustrophobic, ennui laden mood of the crew of the scout ship Dark Star in John Carpenter’s sardonic sci-fi comedy debut. Released with the tagline ‘The Spaced Out Odyssey’, and co-written by Carpenter with Dan O’Bannon, Dark Star is a stoner-friendly midnight movie that has gained a cult following over the years.

The crew has been charged with a mission to destroy unstable planets that may hamper mankind’s plans for colonisation, but any sense of wonder or pride that they may have once felt exploring the universe has long since faded. Personal grievances, a deteriorating ship and 20 years away from home have taken their toll as events conspire to wear the crew members down even more. The film’s downbeat but still humorous climax is entirely in keeping with the overall mood of this uniquely oddball sci-fi misadventure.

Phase IV (1974)

Director Saul Bass

Phase IV (1974)

Having forged a now legendary career as a graphic, film title sequence, poster and logo designer, working with the likes of Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick along the way, Saul Bass directed his one and only feature length film in 1974, the monumentally weird Phase IV.

Esoteric, intelligent and visually striking, Bass’s vision of an unexplained cosmic event triggering rapid intellectual evolution in ants, and the insects’ subsequent hive-mind plans to assimilate the human species, proved to be too strange for the distributor and film audiences on general release. Bass’s original ending, a wonderfully psychedelic, wordless montage sequence, was ruthlessly cut before the film’s theatrical release (and presumed lost until 2012) and Phase IV was, sadly, a box office dud. Now a cult movie, it’s imbued with a genuinely off-kilter atmosphere and showed that Bass was just as accomplished behind a camera as he was when employed on the design work that made his name.

Mad Max (1979)

Director George Miller

Mad Max (1979)

In terms of its production, George Miller’s gritty, violent and now iconic debut, Mad Max, displayed a flagrant disregard for health and safety and is tangibly possessed with a punkish, DIY spirit. Shot largely on the hoof, and featuring spectacular vehicular carnage courtesy of a stunt team headed by Grant Page, Mad Max is pure Ozploitation from beginning to end.

Helping to propel Mel Gibson to international, and latterly controversy-laden, stardom, Miller’s tale starred the then 23-year-old actor as ‘Mad’ Max Rockatansky, a Main Force Patrol pursuit cop living in a near-future world that is on the brink of collapse. A brutish, dystopian tale of societal breakdown, murder and revenge, Mad Max was made for the paltry figure of A$400,000 but would reap almost $100m at the box office. With such a low budget, Miller kept it simple, and the rewards were evident on screen and off.

Primer (2004)

Director Shane Carruth

Primer (2004)

If there were any lingering doubts that you need a substantial budget to shoot a successful sci-fi movie, then Shane Carruth’s Sundance prize-winning debut, Primer, extinguished them. Shot for the ridiculously low figure of $7,000, Carruth’s ultra-smart, complex and bold time-travel story – which the fledgling director also wrote, scored, edited, produced and starred in – is refreshingly mature in terms of its dialogue and narrative structure.

A former engineer with a degree in mathematics, Carruth treated his potential audience like adults and wrote a script heavy on technical dialogue, which enriched the intellectually engaging tale of two engineers who accidentally discover time travel. More interested in the philosophical implications of the discovery than in special effects or futuristic action, Primer draws the viewer in by foregrounding the human drama at the centre of its fantastical scenario. A confident exploration of actions and their consequences, Carruth’s film is independent genre cinema at its experimental best.

Timecrimes (2007)

Director Nacho Vigalondo

Timecrimes (2007)

Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo hit the ground running with his time travel-themed debut movie, Timecrimes, a gripping, playful and intricately constructed thrill ride. Though it recouped only a fifth of its $2.6m budget at the box office, Vigalondo’s self-penned debut is as impressive as any sci-fi movie released since the turn of the millennium.

Like a dog frantically chasing its tail, Timecrimes twists and turns throughout its 92-minute running time as Héctor (Karra Elejalde) is inadvertently transported one hour back in time after seeking to hide from a heavily bandaged attacker in what turns out to be a time machine. An isolated rural setting, a mysterious assailant and a central protagonist running in ever decreasing circles is all Vigalondo needs to weave a hugely entertaining tale in which the identity of the bandaged attacker comes as much of a head-scratching shock to Héctor as it does to the viewer.

District 9 (2009)

Director Neill Blomkamp

District 9 (2009)

Adapted from the director’s earlier five-minute short film, Alive in Joburg (2005), Neill Blomkamp’s full-length debut, District 9, looked and felt like it had a budget at least three times the actual $30m it cost to make. Co-written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, District 9 explores the themes of segregation, racism and (in)humanity through a sci-fi scenario in which extraterrestrials live in oppressive, slum-like conditions, having arrived on Earth almost 30 years earlier.

The film’s exemplary special effects, created by companies including Weta Workshop, Image Engine and The Embassy Visual Effects, seamlessly blended in with the dusty, economically deprived Soweto streets where the film was shot. A vérité-style shooting style enhanced the kinetic feel of Blomkamp and Tatchell’s metaphorical vision of apartheid, a justifiably sensitive subject in the director’s native homeland. Explosive action and a mordant streak of black comedy made District 9 a riveting and punchy debut.

Moon (2009)

Director Duncan Jones

Moon (2009)

For Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), the imminent end of his three year solo shift at a lunar mine brings with it dreams of returning to Earth and being reunited with his wife and daughter. Unfortunately for Sam, everything he thinks he knows is revealed to be a cruel lie in Duncan Jones’ compelling feature film debut.

Shot for a relatively modest $5m, Moon features impeccable retro production design that gives the film the look and feel of a vision of the future as imagined in the 1970s. Clint Mansell’s naggingly insistent electronic score underpins Jones and co-writer Nathan Parker’s melancholic tale of existential crisis, isolation and identity as Rockwell’s character inadvertently discovers he is just one of many unauthorised, cost-cutting clones of the original Sam Bell. Rockwell ably performs the dual roles of two Sams, whose mutual horror at the revelation leads to a daring plan to expose the unethical practices of the mining corporation.

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