Let me pose this scenario: you’re a geek (shut up, you are). You’re marooned on Mars (shut up, just go with this). You’ve got enough food and water to last until the resupply mission arrives in eighteen months. You may pick the cinematic corpus of only one director to entertain you until the rescue mission arrives. You are only permitted to watch their speculative fiction films, not their mainstream tedium.
I’ve done this experiment before, with actors, the results of which are here.
It’s tough – perhaps even moreso than actors – but you’re stuck in a cold, dark bunker under the Martian surface, and decisions must be made.
My criteria for SF excellence are listed below.
- Has made a one-off classic;
- Has helmed a franchise;
- Has made lots of SF films – you’re going to be on Mars for a while, after all,
- (And had high quality results with those outings);
- Ranges across the genre: science fiction, fantasy, horror, and everything else we collectively call ‘speculative fiction’;
- Is a geek in real life;
- Receives bonus points for making an adaptation of a Philip K Dick story;
- Loses points for chasing the money with a shitty sequel or reboot.
Without further preamble, here follows the most authoritative and scientifically accurate list of the greatest directors of all time:
14) The Wachowskis
They’ve made one classic film – and oh, boy, what a classic – that became a franchise. The second and third Matrix films sucked donkey balls, however, giving the franchise overall a rather shitty status out of sync with the masterpiece of the original (so much so I can’t help but think the first is way dumber that it appears).
Jupiter Ascending was bad. Not so-bad-it’s-good-bad, just a shit burger no-one can crack a smile while eating. The Wachowski’s portrayal of cleaner as-secret-queen-of-the-universe told me they’ve never met a cleaner in real life, and don’t quite understand how being queen of the universe works, either.
I enjoyed Cloud Atlas a lot more than most others did apparently, and as a writer I very much enjoyed Tom Hanks (playing a writer) throwing a critic off a thirty story building.
- The Matrix (1999)
- The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
- The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
- Speed racer (2008)
- Cloud Atlas (2012)
- Jupiter Ascending (2015)
13) Guillermo del Toro
Look, he probably should be higher on this list; you could argue he’s a better director overall than George Lucas for starters, but Guillermo’s still pretty young at 52, and will be making films for some time to come. He hasn’t made any classics as such – which is a strike against him – though Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim were both very good, (while also being very different types of films). He’s helmed a franchise in Hellboy, and a pretty decent one at that.
- Cronos (1993)
- Mimic (1997)
- The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
- Blade II (2002)
- Hellboy (2004)
- Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
- Hellboy II (2008)
- Pacific Rim (2013)
- Crimson Peak (2015)
- The Shape of Water (upcoming – 2017)
12) George Lucas
Wait, what? The director of Star Wars, the biggest franchise of all-time, at number 12? Well, here’s the thing: the ground-breaking geek-brain-exploding glory of Star Wars is kinda the only good thing George has ever done. He didn’t direct Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, and the abortion in the three parts that is the prequels nullifies most of the kudos he gets for the original Star Wars. He even went back in time to weaken the original three films with a series of head-desk changes (exhibit A: the Jedi Rock)
- THX 1138 (1971)
- Star Wars (1977)
- The Phantom Menace (1999)
- Attack of the Clones (2002)
- Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Kinda takes the gloss off things, when you think about it.
11) George Romero
Not only gave us the zombie genre of films (a dubious honour in the eyes of some, but I quite like it), but his Night of the Living Dead was a seminal moment of modern horror cinema (partly because its ultra-gore was unheard of at the time; partly because it was the most profitable horror movie of its day; and, after many decades, now has a ‘cult’* following and overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics) (I mean: shit, the US Library of Congress even added the mother fucker as a ‘significant’ film).
From all accounts George is a horror geek, turning up at conventions all over the place, plus has an ongoing involvement with comic books and video games.
Unfortunately, in the early 21st century, George switched from trying to create satirical, original horror films to pimping for his retirement. We got three more Dead films – each with ever-diminishing returns on quality and box office. Zombies that learn, zombies are people too – fuck you George, you’re missing your own point about mindless consumerism, and the masses being largely brain-dead on a good day.
- Night of the Living Dead (1968)
- Season of the Witch (1972)
- The Crazies (1973)
- Martin (1978)
- Dawn of the Dead (1978)
- Creepshow (1982)
- Day of the Dead (1985)
- Monkey Shines (1988)
- Two Evil Eyes (1990)
- The Dark half (1993)
- Bruiser (2000)
- Land of the Dead (2005)
- Diary of the Dead (2007)
- Survival of the Dead (2009)
* If it makes a shitload of money, I’m not sure how a film can be considered ‘cult’. I define cult films as being box office – and sometimes critical – failures in their day, only to either a) have their status reassessed in subsequent decades by film critics or b) have a posse of ardent fans who will stab you with a trident if you dislike it. Blade Runner belongs to the former category, They Live for the latter (though I’d be inclined to punch sternums for anyone disliking either).
10) David Cronenberg
Mr body horror. Which I don’t like, which is why he isn’t higher up the list, so don’t freak out, snowflake. Creator of cult films (Scanners, Videodrome, Naked Lunch) and commercially successful films (Dead Zone, The Fly), plus a fair few straight-up failures. He hasn’t made any SF since 1999* – though the quality of the films if anything has increased since then, with A History of Violence and Eastern Promises being perhaps his best he’s done.
- Crimes of the Future (1970)
- Shivers (1975)
- The Brood (1979)
- Scanners (1981)
- Videodrome (1983)
- The Dead Zone (1983)
- The Fly (1986)
- Naked Lunch (1991)
- EXistenZ (1999)
*Note here and elsewhere I don’t include films that are horror, but with no supernatural or speculative elements (such as Crash).
9) Paul Verhoven
Limited output, and one of them very ordinary, but by god Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers are all classics of science fiction cinema. As I’ve said before Starship Troopers is the greatest science fiction satire of all time. Robocop ridicules the culture of corporate corruption and mindless consumerism (‘I’d by that for a dollar’), and Total Recall has more memorable liners per square inch than just about any other action films out there, while being the one of the best PKD adaptations to boot.
8) James Cameron
Cameron quit his job as a truck driver after seeing Star Wars in 1977, which gives him some geek cred, and early on he did special effects on Carpenter’s Escape from New York: more cred. Created one of the best female science fiction characters ever on film: more cred. And coined the term ‘tech noir’ for Terminator. Actually, this bloke has a lot of fucking cred.
Cameron would have been higher up this list if he hadn’t made Titanic, a film so bloated and tedious it performs the magic trick of making the audience forget the boat is going to sink (and by god did I cheer when it did). And he’s a vegan: also annoying.
- The Terminator (1984)
- Aliens (1986)
- The Abyss (1989)
- Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
- Avatar (2009)
His reputation is such I’d assumed he’d directed more films. I can’t see him him making any more good SF films, unfortunately. At best we’ll get a couple more turgid musings about unobtainium.
7) Stanley Kubrick
Look, he’s meant to be the best director of all time, yada yada yada, and it’s probably true, if you take his entire corpus. But Kubrick on Mars, and only him, and only three movies? Watching Stanley always feels like doing homework. I mean, it’s probably mind expanding and good for you and all that, but there’s little pleasure in it.
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
- A Clockwork Orange (1971)
- The Shining (1980)
Stay tuned. Top six coming soon (edit, Part 2 is now up).