In light of the recent news that Quentin Tarantino might make a Star Trek movie—an R-rated Star Trek movie, at that—we picked our jaws up off the floor and starting thinking about other directors who took one notable, unexpected detour into the realms of scifi or fantasy. Here are seven favorites.
Back in the early 1980s, when America was gripped with Annie fever, a much less successful musical comedy made its way to the screen, based on E.C. Segar’s comic strip. Robin Williams, in his first starring role, played the sailor with amusingly huge forearms; Shelley Duvall was the more physically obvious choice to play Olive Oyl. The movie is kind of a mess overall, though it does have some funny moments and Harry Nilsson’s soundtrack is a standout of the era. But maybe the strangest thing about Popeye is the fact that Robert Altman directed it, apparently in a bid to find mainstream commercial success after a string of critically-acclaimed films like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, and A Wedding. Its failure didn’t really harm Altman’s career; in fact, it might’ve actually encouraged him to re-embrace his favored style of making films with overlapping storylines and large ensemble casts—which means we got The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park to go with one of the weirdest comic strip-based cult movies ever.
Francis Ford Coppola doesn’t really make movies these days, but in 1992, he was still very much in the Hollywood mix. The director of Apocalypse Now and the Godfather trilogy had ventured out of drama before (with films like the comedy Peggy Sue Got Married, and, lest we forget, Michael Jackson’s Captain EO), but never so boldly as with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a lavish interpretation of the gothic horror classic. The film won well-deserved Oscars for its make-up and costumes, and it’s still a gorgeous example of what happens when an A-lister dips into a genre outside of what they’re usually known for, with A-list resources to back him up. In front of the camera, Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins—as the title vampire and his nemesis, Van Helsing—allow just enough camp to creep into their heavily-accented performances. On the other hand, a Point Break-era Keanu Reeves is distractingly miscast as Jonathan Harker. It’s best just to think of him as comic relief.
Jonathan Glazer was best-known as a music video and commercial director before he started making features, but his 2000 debut Sexy Beast brought him big-screen acclaim. He followed the crime thriller with Birth, a drama about a maybe-but-not reincarnation that didn’t meet with as much success. But his most recent film, Under the Skin, took a somewhat familiar jumping-off point—alien comes to Earth, assumes an attractive form, and starts consuming victims—and made it into one of the most visually innovative scifi films in recent years. Some scenes were filmed using hidden cameras, making the interactions between an in-character Scarlett Johansson and random strangers almost documentary-like. On the other hand, the scenes where the alien devours her prey are totally stylized, backed by an eerie experimental score by Mica Levi. But like Johansson’s otherworldly hunter, Under the Skin is more than just its carefully-constructed surface. It’s also deeply thoughtful, offering a raw, often uncomfortable examination of humankind at its best and worst.
Director Philip Kaufman has had a varied career that encompasses writing credits on two Indiana Jones movies, erotic tales The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June, and the Sean Connery-Wesley Snipes action thriller Rising Sun. He is nothing if not versatile. He’s only made one scifi film to date, but it’s up there with John Carpenter’s The Thing as one of the greatest genre remakes ever. His Invasion of the Body Snatchers picks up the McCarthy-era paranoia of the original film and repurposes it perfectly in post-Watergate San Francisco, a decade past the Summer of Love, with uneasy winds of oppression in the air. It’s tense and terrifying, with a killer cast (Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Leonard Nimoy). And it’s not without surreal weirdness, thanks to the script by W.D. Richter (Big Trouble in Little China, Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension). Once seen, the human-faced dog will haunt you forever, as will the unholy shriek emitted by pod people when they spot a human holdout in their midst.
Michael Winterbottom has made historical dramas, romantic comedies, literary adaptations, and at least one bona fide cult classic (24 Hour Party People, though there are some mighty passionate fans of The Trip films, too). But he’s only got one scifi film under his belt: The noirish Code 46, scripted by his frequent collaborator Frank Cottrell-Boyce. It imagines a near future where genetic codes are monitored and regulated, and all travel between the world’s sleek, affluent cities is tightly controlled. This dystopia seems an unlikely place for star-crossed lovers, but we get a passionate pair: insurance investigator Tim Robbins, who has an “empathy virus” that makes him unusually emotionally tuned-in, and working-class document forger Samantha Morton. (If they seem like an odd match, you’re already catching onto one of the movie’s big plot reveals.) There’s a slight edge given to Code 46's vivid worldbuilding, but the relationship drama—hey, it’s hard to find love in a place where memory wipes are just as common as human clones—is also surprisingly effective.
Alan Parker has made some interesting choices in his career, with a filmography that spans kiddie gangster musical Bugsy Malone, Madonna musical Evita, civil-rights drama Mississippi Burning, and the big-screen adaptation of famed memoir Angela’s Ashes. But only horror noir Angel Heart stars Robert De Niro as a mysteriously malevolent character whose very name, “Louis Cyphre,” announces his Satanic true identity. That said, it takes almost the entire movie for poor ol’ private eye Mickey Rourke to figure everything out, but on the way to act three there are horrific ritual murders, voodoo ceremonies, incest, cannibalism, and heaping helpings of sweaty New Orleans atmosphere.
After breaking out in Asia with films like Eat Drink Man Woman, then finding art-house success stateside with Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm, Ang Lee became a household name when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon became a global sensation. His next film was... 2003's Hulk, which starred Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, and Sam Elliott, with a cameo by OG TV Hulk Lou Ferrigno. Though it was received relatively politely by critics, the brooding would-be blockbuster didn’t garner enough interest for a sequel; instead, a reboot—The Incredible Hulk, directed by Louis Leterrier and starring Edward Norton—hit theaters five years later and was greeted with a similar shrug. Those two films may blur together for audiences in 2017, especially now that we have a totally different, and way more popular, version of the Hulk character stomping through the Avengers films—but Lee came out all right, going on to win two Best Director Oscars (for Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi) in rapid succession. Also, if Tarantino does make that Star Trek movie, Lee’s Hulk will no longer be the quite the most unexpected pairing of director and genre movie on record.