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John Scalzi – Ten Great Directors Who Flopped in Sci-Fi

Back in April, I made the point that some of the best science-fiction films out there were directed by filmmakers not generally associated with the genre — showing that science-fiction film is not a hermetically sealed world. But there’s a flip side to this: directors who have been successful outside of science fiction but who find themselves falling flat in the world of spacemen and speculation — thus showing that, if it’s not a closed-off genre, a filmmaker still has to do his homework.

To make this point, here’s a list of notable, celebrated, and even legendary directors who didn’t quite get a grip on science fiction, in the order they’ve come into my head.

Tim Burton
If there’s any working director whose creative chops would lend themselves to science fiction, it should be Burton, who has an decidedly otherworldly way of viewing reality. But his Mars Attacks! spoof of alien-invasion films was tedious when it should have been funny, and his Planet of the Apes remake was simply tedious, period. Burton gets credit for Edward Scissorhands, which does feature Johnny Depp imitating Robert Smith imitating Frankenstein, but ultimately his best science-fiction-related film is Ed Wood, about the man who made the worst science-fiction film ever. There’s irony for you.

Chris Columbus
Columbus proved that he could find his way around fantasy with the first two Harry Potter films, and of course Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire made him an A-list comedy director. But when he made Robin Williams the world’s most mawkish android in Bicentennial Man, he showed that science fiction really wasn’t his thing.

Mike Nichols
An Oscar winner for The Graduate and the director of classics ranging from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to The Birdcage. But in his roll call of classics, neither The Day of the Dolphin nor What Planet Are You From? is likely to be brought up with any seriousness, although, to be fair, they’re both better than Regarding Henry.

Ivan Reitman
Another director you’d think would be a natural with science fiction, considering that he’s got Ghost Busters under his belt. But neither Junior, with its pregnant Arnold Schwarzenegger, nor Evolution, with its slacking David Duchovny, got much in the way of traction with audiences or critics. But, hey, Ghostbusters III is supposed to be coming sometime.

Barry Levinson
Rain Man brought him an Academy Award, and he’s shown his versatility as a director with films that range from Young Sherlock Holmes to Good Morning, Vietnam to Wag the Dog. But Sphere ranks as the most tedious Michael Crichton adaptation to date, which, given the fact that Congo is lurking out there somewhere, is saying something.

Brian De Palma
An undisputed master of horror and suspense, and his Untouchables ranks as one of the most stylish and engaging gangster films out there. But Mission to Mars? The only good thing you can say about it was that at least it was not as aggressively stupid as Red Planet, the other Mars movie that year.

Steven Soderbergh
An Oscar winner (for Traffic) and nominee (for Erin Brockovich) and a director known to alternate classy mainstream entertainments like the Ocean’s Eleven with “difficult” indie films like The Good German and a two-part epic on the life of Che Guevara. His Solaris, a remake of a seminal, challenging Russian film, falls into the the latter camp, despite starring George Clooney and having James Cameron as a producer. It’s not a bad film at all, but it doesn’t really suggest
that Soderbergh was doing much more than checking science fiction off his Genres of Films to Make list.

Cameron Crowe
Beloved chronicler of a generation with Fast Times at Ridgemont High (which he wrote), Say Anything…, and Singles who nabbed an Oscar for writing Almost Famous (which he also directed). But while his Tom Cruise-starring Vanilla Sky grossed $100 million, it was an empty exercise in style and in nearly every respect an inferior version of Abre los ojos, the Alejandro Amenábar film of which it was a remake. On the other hand, it did bring Penélope Cruz to our shores. Let’s call it a wash.

Kenneth Branagh
The brilliant modern adapter of Shakespeare looked to be a perfect fit to update Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, especially with Robert De Niro as the monster. Instead, it was a melodramatic mess. A shame. Let’s hope he does better with Thor.

John Boorman
Yes, yes: Excalibur. Deliverance. Hope and Glory. The Emerald Forest. I have one word for you: Zardoz. For God’s sake: Zardoz. We’re done here.

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