Science fiction on film has been around almost as long as cinema itself. Starting in 1895 when the first public showings of motion pictures commenced in France and the United States, and as filmmakers began to realize that they could string scenes together to tell a complete, coherent story, the genres of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy were part of the equation.
Celluloid offered ambitious storytellers the chance to put images on the screen—crude at the time, but still groundbreaking—that had only been glimpsed in the pages of novels, short stories, and later, comic books and pulp magazines. And as filmmaking techniques themselves progressed, and the motion picture industry began to take shape in the early 20th century, visionaries came along with audacious ideas that moved the art form, the technology, and the genres forward well into the new millennium.
Below are 16 such visionaries; men and women who either grew up on a diet of science fiction and wanted to translate what they read into moving images, or else had images of their own in their heads and yearned to share them with the world. It may have been just one or two movies, or it may have been hundreds, but each of these directors (many of them also writers and producers) helped advance science fiction into a genre that can offer up awe, wonder, terror, and spectacle, as well as some of the most profound statements on the human condition in all of cinema. Hopefully, there’s more to come.
It all started with Georges Méliès. Not film itself—although he was there at the earliest stages of cinema—but filmed science fiction was arguably born in 1902 when Méliès released his classic A Trip to the Moon. Based primarily on the work of author Jules Verne, this now iconic short featured the title voyage in whimsical, fantastical imagery (no one would call it hard sci-fi, even then) and was the first moving picture to send human beings into space.
Even before that, however, starting with his earliest shorts in the late 1890s, this French illusionist and actor turned director popularized the use of visual effects in his more than 500 productions, creating the prototypes for many kinds of in-camera special effects that are still in use to this day. The Lumière brothers may have been the inventors of the motion picture, but we might not have genre filmmaking as we know it without the groundbreaking, wondrous work of Georges Méliès.
If Georges Méliès pioneered sci-fi cinema, then it could be said that Fritz Lang created the sci-fi blockbuster. While this Austrian director (who fled the Third Reich in 1933) made many influential and classic films both in Germany and the U.S., his 1927 film Metropolis was perhaps the most epic vision of the future produced up to that point. Set in a futuristic city where tensions between the elite ruling class and the workers who toil to keep the city running reach a boiling point—thanks in part to the machinations of a vengeful scientist and an android—Metropolis has been an influence on just about every dystopian vision of the future ever since.
Lang explored sci-fi again with Woman in the Moon (1929), which envisioned rocket technology decades ahead of NASA, while his Die Nibelungen (1924) was an epic fantasy long before there was The Lord of the Rings. Films like The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) even anticipated the supervillains and spies of the James Bond franchise. Lang had a hand in it all.
Learning filmmaking while he was in the military during World War II, Jack Arnold started out with dreams of becoming an actor before segueing into directing with several acclaimed documentaries. A journeyman director who handled all genres across the big and small screens (directing episodes of everything from Gilligan’s Island to The Bionic Woman), Arnold is remembered now for a string of classic 1950s sci-fi movies that defined the decade and helped elevate the genre toward respectability.
Arnold’s films—among them It Came from Outer Space (1953), Tarantula (1955), and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)—brought intelligence, empathy, and literacy to filmed sci-fi, not to mention genuinely exciting stories and often striking production values and visual imagery. His masterpiece, without question, was The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), based on the novel by Richard Matheson, which transcends its rather silly title to become a thoughtful, frightening meditation on the loss of self, the loss of masculinity, and the existential question of who we are and why we’re here.
George Pal/Byron Haskin
We’re stapling George Pal and Byron Haskin together essentially because they did their greatest work as a team. Pal started out with a series of short films called Puppetoons before becoming a “showman” type producer, promising—and often delivering—eye-popping spectacles like When Worlds Collide (1951), 1960’s The Time Machine (which he also directed), and Destination Moon (1950), specializing in the kind of high-concept entertainment that producers still salivate after today.
But Pal found his true sci-fi collaborator in Byron Haskin, who directed four movies for the producer: The War of the Worlds (1953), The Naked Jungle (1954), Conquest of Space (1955), and The Power (1968). The first is still possibly the definitive version of H.G. Wells’ novel, and was groundbreaking for its time in terms of its scale and visual effects. Conquest of Space (1950) presented a “realistic” version of space travel with mixed if ambitious results, while The Power is an underseen and underrated gem. Haskin was no slouch on his own either: he directed the classic Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), as well as several episodes of the seminal 1960s TV series, The Outer Limits, including its finest segment, “Demon with a Glass Hand.”
When Robert Wise did anything on film, he took big swings. One of his earliest assignments as an editor was Citizen Kane (1941), for example, and after he graduated to directing, he helmed some of the greatest films in whatever genre he was working in, including horror (1963’s The Haunting), musicals like The Sound of Music (1965) West Side Story (1961), and war film (1966’s The Sand Pebbles).
The same applied to science fiction. Wise’s first film in the genre was 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, regarded to this day as one of the landmark films in the field. Two decades later, he helmed 1971’s The Andromeda Strain, a tense, claustrophobic adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel about scientists trying to contain a deadly alien microbe. And time has been kind to 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which Wise completed under difficult conditions and which has been reassessed over the years after initially being derided by both fans and critics. Wise is known for much more, but his contributions to sci-fi are as important to this genre as his work elsewhere.
Like a number of cinema’s most important filmmakers, Stanley Kubrick seemed to enjoy working in science fiction (or maybe speculative fiction might be the better, more specific term for his output), so much so that he spent nearly an entire decade in the genre, from 1964 to 1971. During that time he produced and directed three films—Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and A Clockwork Orange (1971)—that are both milestones in the genre as well as cinema history overall.
Dr. Strangelove was the ultimate nuclear nightmare comedy, in which generals and politicians behave like spoiled children while the world hurtles toward atomic obliteration. A Clockwork Orange was blackly humorous as well, while also a grim view of a dystopic society in which the eradication of free will is posited as the only solution for increasingly nihilistic behavior by disaffected youths. 2001, however, was a different beast entirely. Taking on nothing less than the entire evolution of humankind—and suggesting that we’ve been helped all along by cosmic intelligences far beyond our understanding—the film took both the art of visual effects and science fiction cinema to new levels, paving the way for many of the great sci-fi films to come in the decades since. It remains the gold standard in the field.
Clearly George Lucas belongs on this list, if only for his incredibly pioneering, pop culture-defining, history-changing directorial debut, THX 1138 (1971). Yes, that’s a joke, although THX—a student film that Lucas expanded into a feature, about an underground totalitarian society where sex and love are banned—certainly indicated that he was interested in genre from the outset and that his initial leanings were perhaps more cerebral at first.
But c’mon: We all know why he’s here. Star Wars (1977) changed the world, changed the culture, and changed film, creating a modern mythology rivaled in scope, reach, and world-building perhaps only by superhero comics in all their forms. It brought space opera properly to the screen, and even if Lucas’ own directorial follow-ups (the Prequel Trilogy) didn’t really pass muster, he did shepherd The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) to the screen as well, even if he wasn’t the one calling “action.” It’s a shame that he never directed anything else in the genre, and decided to retire on his Star Wars money. We’ll never know what else he might have created.
John Carpenter’s name will probably always be associated first with horror, thanks to Halloween (1978), but he started his career with science fiction and is one of a handful of filmmakers—including one a little further down on this list and one (David Cronenberg) who didn’t quite make it on—who found the sweet spot between the two genres in a big way, influencing scores of directors since.
Carpenter always had an indie spirit and launched his career in 1974 with the space mission satire Dark Star (1974), yet another student film (like Lucas’ THX 1138) that expanded into a feature and is now a cult classic. But it was Carpenter’s sci-fi action thriller Escape from New York (1981) that really established his genre bona fides, and then his masterpiece The Thing (1982) came along and became—along with Alien (penned by Dark Star writer Dan O’Bannon)—the template for all sci-fi/horror hybrids to come. He’s blended the genres again and again since, in Prince of Darkness (1987), They Live (1988), and Ghosts of Mars (2001), and his clear passion for both only added to his legendary status.
Speaking of legendary status, what can be said about The Beard that hasn’t already been repeated exhaustively over and over? Arguably our greatest living filmmaker, Steven Spielberg has made (and excelled at) all kinds of movies, from war epics to autobiographical dramas, to horror and musicals. But his first science fiction film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), was an instant masterwork, and he’s returned to the genre consistently ever since, often setting new standards for visual effects while telling compelling, awe-inspiring stories in his own specific way.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Jurassic Park (1993), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Minority Report (2002), War of the Worlds (2005)… each and every one of them is a classic or milestone in its own right, and when you add the films that Spielberg has produced or executive produced, including the Back to the Future trilogy, the Transformers franchise, and the Men in Black series, his footprint on the genre of sci-fi has been enormous. But it’s as a director that his genre work has been profound and enormously influential. We hope he has a couple more in him before he wraps up his long, incomparable career.
It’s amazing to think that Alien (1979) was only Ridley Scott’s second feature film—and that he followed that up with Blade Runner (1982). Within just a three-year span, the director created two of the most influential films in all of sci-fi. The grimy, gritty, clanking “working class” aesthetic of the ship and crew in Alien has been seen in countless films since, while the xenomorph itself set a new standard against which all future space-based monsters were judged. As for Blade Runner, in addition to its literary pedigree, the movie is one of the most visually inventive and influential of all time.
These two movies (and the original Star Wars before them) changed how science fiction looked on the screen while Alien also made the groundbreaking move of casting a female lead and giving her agency. Scott has struck sci-fi gold since, most notably with The Martian (2015), but the ambitious yet deeply flawed Prometheus (2012) and the woeful Alien: Covenant (2017) have messed with the legacy of the brilliant film they tried to follow up. Still, for Alien and Blade Runner alone, his place on this list is secure.
A pioneer almost every step of the way, James Cameron has spent most of his career, with two exceptions, working in the science fiction genre, and along the way not only has he revolutionized the craft of filmmaking, ushered groundbreaking visual effects into his films, and pushed the boundaries of technology as far as they could go (with breakthroughs in motion capture, 3D, and high-frame rate), but has consistently featured strong women at the center of almost all his movies—no mean feat in a genre that was so male-centric for generations.
Almost all his first era of films, which include The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), are among the best the genre has to offer, and with the two Avatar films to date he has taken immersive world-building to new heights. If anything, we kind of wish that Cameron wasn’t going to spend the next decade or so (and possibly the rest of his career) on Pandora. We’d love to see this master craftsman exercise his fierce talent on something new.
In the final analysis, Robert Zemeckis may ultimately be considered a poor man’s version of Steven Spielberg, making both populist entertainment and movies that could be considered “important” (maybe less so on the latter), and his track record is certainly a hell of a lot spottier than that of his sometimes collaborator/producer. But Zemeckis seems to have a real taste for genre, and in Back to the Future (1985) alone, he made one of the most perfect movies in all of sci-fi and arguably all of film itself.
The entire BTTF trilogy is a little wobblier on the individual merits but ultimately one of the more satisfying multi-film narratives of its kind. And Zemeckis also has Contact (1997) on his resume, the strangely underrated yet still profoundly wondrous adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel that remains perhaps the closest vision we’ll get of actual first contact anytime soon. For that film alone, he earns our respect, and when you add BTTF to the mix, that’s an impressive contribution to sci-fi cinema (his next film, Here, in addition to being a Forrest Gump reunion, will have genre elements as well).
Lana and Lilly Wachowski had one directorial effort to their name (the 1996 neo-noir thriller Bound) before taking the world by storm three years later with the pop culture hurricane known as The Matrix (1999). A passionate, eye-popping, mind-blowing mash-up of science fiction, comic books, martial arts, philosophy, history, action, and cyberpunk literature—not to mention a major career pivot for Keanu Reeves—it’s safe to say that The Matrix was as powerful an agent of change in sci-fi cinema as The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001, Blade Runner, or any other landmark that came before it.
The Wachowskis have frankly never matched or surpassed that first Matrix film, with the three sequels falling into near-incoherence and, in the case of the latest one (The Matrix Resurrections, directed solely by Lana), pointlessness. They scored again with the dystopian V for Vendetta (2006), but while Speed Racer (2008), Cloud Atlas (2012), and Jupiter Ascending (2015) all have their merits, chiefly in terms of visual splendor, they’ve all been ambitious misfires.
“A film by Christopher Nolan” is now a brand unto itself, whatever genre this austere British filmmaker is working in, and it’s a brand that promises (and almost always delivers) incredible visual imagery, nonlinear, experimental narratives, an attention to detail bordering on the fanatical, and a cerebral, reserved, yet still explosive approach to wellworn genre tropes. While he permanently changed the superhero genre with his Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan has also made a tremendous impact on science fiction.
His first foray into the genre, an adaptation of the steampunk novel The Prestige (2006), captured the flavor of that subgenre perfectly, while Inception (2010) explored the workings of the inner mind within the framework of a 007-style action thriller. 2014’s Interstellar has seen its reputation as one of the few space films worthy to stand next to 2001 only grow, and while we still can’t wrap our head fully around Tenet (2020), it was clearly made with the same care and scope that Nolan brings to all his films. Even Oppenheimer (2023) creates a sense of both wonder and terror over the awesome power that the title character helps unlock. We eagerly await what’s next from one of our finest modern directors.
Who woulda thunk that this French-Canadian director, who started off his career with a string of festival-bait indie psychological dramas, would become arguably the leading proponent of adapting intense, difficult, literary science fiction to the screen? Villeneuve gave his first indication that something was up with 2014’s Enemy, a surreal thriller about a man and his double that defied easy categorization and channeled bits of Davids Lynch and Cronenberg. But Arrival (2016), based on a story by acclaimed sci-fi writer Ted Chiang, signaled Villeneuve’s true passion for the genre. A moving tale of time, language, alien contact, and loss, it instantly became one of the best sci-fi films of the 21st century.
Villeneuve hasn’t stopped since either. Blade Runner 2049 (2017), while a bust with audiences, was a genuine attempt to expand on the original’s ideas and atmosphere. But it was his adaptation of Dune in 2021—a legendary book filmed twice previously with mixed-to-catastrophic results—that has firmly planted Villeneuve at the leading edge of the genre. Dune: Part Two is next and looks just as amazing (and will hopefully allow him to finish with an adaptation of Dune Messiah), and we hear he wants to tackle Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama after he finally departs Arrakis. If anyone can do it, it’s Villeneuve.
Along with Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan, Alex Garland represents a generation of filmmakers who grew up reading sci-fi, seeing seminal genre films in their youth, and embracing it as a genuine way to explore serious themes and subjects, and not just load up the screen with special effects and laser beams. Garland’s work as a screenwriter on 28 Days Later (2002), Never Let Me Go (2010), and Dredd (2012) is sterling, and when he made the jump to directing, he did it in style as well. His original Ex Machina (2015) is a gem while his adaptation of the novel Annihilation (2018) was an effectively eerie translation of difficult material.
His compelling foray into TV with the limited series Devs, about a quantum computer system manipulating time and reality, was on a par with his film work, and after a recent foray into folk horror with Men (2022), he’s returning to sci-fi with a near-future dystopian thriller called Civil War. As with his contemporaries like Villeneuve and Nolan, Garland utilizes the tropes of sci-fi to their fullest extent… and hopefully paves the way for more filmmakers to follow.