Hardcore science fiction fans don't need the mainstream to validate their love of the genre, thank you very much. Still, it's always intriguing to see how a mainstream director -- for the purposes of this article I'll define "mainstream" as a filmmaker not known for his previous interest in the genre -- approaches a science fiction property.
Martin Scorsese, for example, has not tackled science fiction yet, but his knowledge and love for all types of cinema is clearly felt in his latest film, Shutter Island. The thriller reeks (in a good way) of atmosphere, mood, and tone informed by the classical brand of horror movies, the kind practiced by James Whale and Val Lewton. In a similar way, Ridley Scott's The Duellists placed the action in foreboding, menacing, gorgeous settings, allowed the story to unfold at its own pace, and displayed respect for the the genre (if Napoleonic sword fighting pictures can be termed a genre), qualities that would serve Scott well with Alien and Blade Runner.
Here, then, are the top mainstream directors gone sci-fi. These are not (all) among the best films ever made, but are fascinating nonetheless -- sometimes like that car wreck you can't tear your eyes away from.
1. Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey
As brilliant as his previous pictures were, Kubrick exceeded himself with this carefully-crafted, mind-blowing masterpiece. Science fiction allowed him to let slip the surly bounds of gravity -- and narrative convention. It marked a turning point in his career, as his films became increasingly poetic and untethered to earthbound reality.
2. Robert Wise, The Day the Earth Stood Still
Having worked with both Val Lewton and Orson Welles, Wise initially made films that were crisp and efficient. (The House on Telegraph Hill, for example, is a very good, stark thriller, made just before this one.) Working from a well-balanced script by Edmund H. North, Wise treated characters with empathy and respect, whether human or alien, setting a high standard. Much later, of course, he made The Andromeda Strain and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. For similar, riveting 50s sci-fi by mainstream directors, see Howard Hawks' The Thing and Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
3. Woody Allen, Sleeper
One of his 'early, funny ones,' Woody Allen's social satire rarely gets the respect it deserves as a combustible mixture of science fiction and comedy that gets all the ingredients right. Yes, it's very funny in its early mocking of political correctness (before it was known as such), but Allen's 'fish out of water' tale also pokes delicious fun at sci-fi conventions and plot twists.
4. Jean-Luc Godard, Alphaville
Naturally, when the French New Wave first swallowed up sci-fi, it would be Godard who would blast away at all the genre tropes and traps, fashioning an indelible cocktail of art, noir, and the future.
5. Francois Truffaut, Fahrenheit 451
Naturally, when the French New Wave adopted the old guard of sci-fi, it would be Truffaut who would alternately romanticize, sentimentalize, and undermine the well-intentioned concerns of Ray Bradbury about the future of literature and media.
6. Robert Altman, Quintet
Time and time again, Altman expressed his disdain for screenplays as some kind of holy writ. More often than not, his merry brand of chaos succeeded in pulling out diamonds from the rough. But Quintet showed the limitations of that approach. In order to succeed, science fiction films need to make clear the rules of the universe before breaking, expanding, or improvising on them. In Quintet, nothing was clear.
7. David Lynch, Dune
It's been said that Lynch works from his own subconscious, which might explain why so few people like this movie, but I remain a stubborn, if lonely defender of its virtues. Oddly enough, to the degree that it works, notably on a visual level, it's because Lynch abandoned Frank Herbert's source material (wonderful as it is) and pursued his own muse.
8. Mel Brooks, Spaceballs
The last of his great comedies, Spaceballs left me gasping for air when I first saw it, exhausted from laughing so hard as Brooks mocked all the things that I loved about the original Star Wars trilogy and space opera in general. It still brings a smile to my face, because Brooks and his merry gang of cohorts knew what they were talking about.
9. Mike Nichols, What Planet Are You From?
For a dunderheaded example of a mainstream director with no clue as to the genre, look no further than this woebegone movie. Of course, Garry Shandling, who co-wrote and stars, gets the majority of the blame, but you'd think that Nichols would have brought something to the project -- even the comic timing is off. Nichols gave horror a better stab with Wolf.
10. Brian DePalma, Mission to Mars
DePalma's hands were tied on this one, even more so than the by-the-numbers Mission: Impossible. His vision occasionally shines through -- I'm partial to the 'waltzing in space' scene -- before being bludgeoned to death by mediocrity.