In 1999, three filmmakers broke out into mainstream popularity. First, Andy and Lana – formerly Larry – Wachowski came out with The Matrix, which wowed the world with its revolutionary effects, thought-provoking philosophies, and inspired ideas. A few months later, M. Night Shyamalan came out with The Sixth Sense, which took audiences by storm with its clever symbolism, strong performances, and killer twist ending. It appeared that the Wachowskis were destined to become the next Spielberg and Lucas while Shyamalan was championed as the next Alfred Hitchcock. How wrong we were.
Subsequent to The Matrix, the Wachowskis directed one disappointment after another with those silly sequels, the dull Speed Racer, and their latest turkey, Jupiter Ascending. While Cloud Atlas is finding a cult following, reception is still mixed at best and the box office results were disastrous. Likewise, Shyamalan suffered a downhill spiral unlike any other, going from the good with Unbreakable and Signs, to the bad with The Village and Lady in the Water, to the ugly with The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth. How did such promising filmmakers go from being on top of the world to being laughingstocks?
On one hand, we’re partially to blame. As a society that’s always looking for the next big thing, we’re often too hasty in praising new talent. That’s not to say the Wachowskis and Shyamalan are untalented directors. Their breakout films still hold up and even some of their earlier work is commendable. It’s clear now, however, that we gave them too much money, power, and responsibility before they were ready.
This wasn’t the first time Hollywood jumped the gun and it wasn’t the last. Just look at Neill Blomkamp, who celebrated an enormous success with District 9, but has since directed the mediocre Elysium and the forgettable Chappie. It also doesn’t help that Hollywood is full of spineless yes men that’ll tell acclaimed filmmakers what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. That’s one of the reasons why Lucas disappointed with The Phantom Menace in 1999 after building up so much goodwill with the original Star Wars trilogy. The lesson: We can’t put too much stock into anyone.
On the other hand, the Wachowskis and Shyamalan must be held accountable for making some of the most awkwardly written, lazily acted, and flat-out stupid movies of the past decade and a half. To be fair, a lot of gifted directors have hit speed bumps throughout their careers. After the success of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg produced one of his biggest bombs ever with 1941. Rather than being bitter about the film’s failure, Spielberg learned from his mistakes and walked away from the experience a wiser man. The Wachowskis and especially Shyamalan meanwhile just seem incapable of learning from their mistakes or acknowledging that they’ve made mistakes.
Granted, every filmmaker has the right to stand by his or her vision, even if the public is dead-set against it. When a director is constantly crafting art that’s universally hated, though, it’s clear that they’re doing something wrong. You could argue that some art is under-appreciated in its time, but the Wachowskis and Shyamalan are no Van Gogh.
Is there any hope for these filmmakers? As somebody who still loves The Matrix and The Sixth Sense, I’d like to think so. They’ve had some recent success on the television front with the Wachowskis co-creating Sense8 and Shyamalan producing Wayward Pines. As far as feature films go, though, their futures aren’t looking too bright. Maybe Shyamalan will make a comeback with The Visit in September. Maybe the Wachowskis will return to form with their next endeavor, which will likely have a much smaller budget. To get back on track, however, they need to recognize where they went wrong in the dialog, storytelling, and direction departments.
Actually, there was one more filmmaker that broke out in 1999: Sam Mendes, who won an Oscar for his directorial debut, American Beauty. While not every film from Mendes has been a masterpiece, he has proven to be a consistently entertaining, well-rounded director. That’s largely because he’s constantly tackling different genres, from The Road to Perdition, to Jarhead, to Skyfall. At the same time, Mendes has never taken on a project that was beyond his capability like Shyamalan did with The Last Airbender. You get the sense that Mendes is confident in every project he helms. The Wachowskis and Shyamalan may be confident too, but their blind self-assurance is only more reason for us to lose faith in them.