10 Directors Hailed as Visionaries Too Soon

The expectations that come with a "visionary" label are high. Just ask the Wachowskis. We list 10 directors who struggled with it.

Hype is a dangerous thing. Sometimes, the excitement shared by those who discover a new talent early can provide essential word of mouth and needed buzz for a fresh voice. But the lofty expectations placed on young filmmakers by critics, fans, or even marketing departments can quickly become an albatross. That “visionary” label is amazing and terrifying when it’s premature.

One of the prime examples of this may be the Wachowskis, who have written and directed one of the most beloved science fiction films of the last 20 years with The Matrix, a feat they’re still trying to live down with this weekend’s Jupiter Ascending. You can read our review here and decide whether they succeeded.

We’ve compiled a list of directors labeled as “visionary” at various points when the hype was at a fever pitch. While there’s no denying the level of talent at work, one can question whether they ever lived up to the impossible expectations saddled on them by critics and fans.

The Wachowskis

When Andy and Lana Wachowski burst onto the scene with The Matrix, they had already found critical respect for 1996’s fascinating Bound (they also wrote the wacky Sylvester Stallone vehicle Assassins), but it was their voyage into a cybernetic VR hellscape that left moviegoers joining Keanu for a “woah.”

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As a highly stylized film that combined Eastern wire-fu and philosophy with a messianic narrative and some kick-ass CGI action sequences—as well as great turns by Laurence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving—audiences believed they were witnessing the birth of genius. And maybe they did, but the ponderous and self-satisfied 2003 sequels were a tremendous let down. Whereas the first film delivered the thrills that The Phantom Menace lacked, and did so while harnessing every major science fiction concept of the last 20 years into a wonderful cinematic sucker punch that floored the world, the more plodding sequels postured as highbrow entertainment. Both Matrix sequels’ flatness and meat-headed action narrative, complete with Neo doing a Christ pose as he dies, ended with filmgoers greener than the pictures’ color palettes.

Since leaving the world of Zion behind, the Wachowskis’ best film has been one they didn’t direct: the Alan Moore adaptation V for Vendetta, which had a Wachowski script that was admittedly updated for the Bush Years. But while that bit of political (conspiracy) theory mixed with comic book violence very well, every effort since has been garish (Speed Racer) or bizarrely empty despite high-minded intentions and stunning visual stylings (Cloud Atlas).

After unexpectedly becoming popular mainstream action directors, it almost seems like commercialism has rewritten their creative code as effectively as an invading Agent Smith. Upon its release, Sight & Sound wrote of the original Matrix, “As Neo turns cartwheels, blazing away behind wildly exploding decor, it seems clear that the Wachowskis have discovered a gleeful utopia of their own.” Over 15 years later, one senses they haven’t succeeded at returning to that paradise, especially after scenes like this.

Michael Cimino

I remember seeing 1978’s The Deer Hunter, the second film from director Michael Cimino, in a theater as a young teen and being blown away by it; it was one of several films from that era (along with Apocalypse Now, Coming Home, and Hair) that expanded my then-limited view of the Vietnam War, the military-industrial complex, and politics considerably; it even helped define some of the core beliefs that remain with me to this day. The movie’s juxtaposition of small-town life and how our catastrophic Southeast Asia adventure was able to rip the guts out of such simplicity was unforgettably moving and a searing indictment of our relentless war machine. The New York Times praised Cimino at the time as “an original, major new filmmaker.”

But The Deer Hunter’s schedule and cost overruns – forgotten in the wake of the film’s tremendous success – foreshadowed problems to come for Cimino. It was difficult enough for him to get The Deer Hunter down to a manageable length; when he was given carte blanche on his next film, a Western called Heaven’s Gate, disaster struck.

His meticulous way of working and unlimited resources led to an overbudgeted, overlong mess of a movie that is considered one of the epic Hollywood failures of all time. It mostly ruined the studio (United Artists) and brought about the end of the “New Hollywood” era in which directors like Coppola and Scorsese had been given free rein. It also nearly ended Cimino’s career, which was never quite the same again.

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His later films—Year of the Dragon (1985), The Sicilian (1987), Desperate Hours (1990), and Sunchaser (1996)—have all been critical and box office disappointments, and he has gone silent as a filmmaker now for nearly 20 years. Although, he was once described by author Michael Bliss as occupying “an important position in today’s cinema,” those days are long gone. Did Cimino’s own self-indulgence and reported megalomania do him in, or is it possible that he was one of those directors who really had just one great film in him? The answer, like the man himself, remains elusive.

Eli Roth

No less an authority than Quentin Tarantino called this Massachusetts-born filmmaker “the future of horror” when his first feature, the independently financed Cabin Fever, emerged in 2003 and became Lionsgate Films’ highest-grossing movie that year (this was before the heady days of Twilight and The Hunger Games and instead was when Lionsgate still trafficked mostly in B-flicks). Cabin Fever did make Roth an instant star in horror cinema with its wicked gore, pitch-black humor, and nasty undertones that recalled the grimmer fare of the ’70s and ‘80s.

But then Roth made Hostel (2005), another financially lucrative film that nonetheless associated him with the controversial “torture porn” subgenre, while also drawing criticism from the governments of Slovakia and the Czech Republic for the movie’s xenophobic portrayal of those former Soviet bloc countries as dens of lawlessness, prostitution, and sadism. But Roth forged ahead in 2007 with Hostel: Part II, only this time he didn’t get the box office success or fan appreciation to back up his efforts; it made less in its entire U.S. theatrical run than the first one did in its first weekend.

I was never a Roth fan: I thought Cabin Fever was overrated and found the Hostel movies dreadful. They sacrificed solid stories and characters for leering gore and violence, giving credence to the “torture porn” label. If this was the “future of horror,” the outlook for the genre was bleak indeed. And Roth himself seemed to run out of ideas after that: his first feature in seven years, The Green Inferno (not yet released in the U.S.), is said to be a homage to the mondo cannibal jungle movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and his newest film, Knock Knock with Keanu Reeves, just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to mixed reviews, despite indications that he has moved away from the heavy emphasis on gore.

A number of other projects, such as Endangered Species and Cell, have failed to make it to the screen, and his producing resume (The Last Exorcism, The Sacrament, the Netflix series Hemlock Grove) has been mixed—I did like him as the Bear Jew in Inglourious Basterds though. The Eli Roth “brand” seemed to come into existence way too fast for someone with such a small resume of films and such a narrow vision of the genre.

Guy Ritchie

When this British filmmaker made his debut in 1998 with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, he was immediately heralded as a fresh new voice on the scene, and his movie was rightly acclaimed as a fantastic post-modern update on the crime genre. The movie’s fusion of gangster thriller and comedy hit all the right notes and introduced names like Jason Statham, Vinnie Jones, and Jason Flemyng to moviegoers. He kept the momentum going with the slightly less effective but still witty and caustic Snatch, this time landing Brad Pitt as a star and featuring a headspinning narrative approach that enhanced his reputation as a stylistic auteur to watch.

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Ritchie’s film with Madonna, a remake of Swept Away, was a critical and commercial disaster that found the director jettisoning everything his first two movies were known for, and instead expending his energy on an ill-conceived vanity project. He never really regained his footing after that: his next film Revolver took him back to his crime roots but was poorly received, although its follow-up, 2008’s RocknRolla, fared better. Since then he has helmed two Sherlock Holmes movies for Warner Bros. and Robert Downey Jr. that have been the epitome of soulless blockbuster “product.”

Next up for Ritchie: a movie based on the cult TV spy series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. Can Ritchie bring the same kind of sharp style and unique characterizations to the spy genre that he once did with crime movies? Or has the original, edgier filmmaker behind Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels been lost to us forever?

George Lucas

His first feature was a commercial failure. His second was a hit with critics and audiences that put him on the map as a major filmmaker. His third changed the face of film and pop culture forever—and then he didn’t direct another picture for 22 years. But when he got behind the camera again, the hype surrounding his next three directorial efforts (and last to date) gave way to disappointment and derision that he never quite shook off.

Lucas was a product of the legendary USC film school where he studied non-narrative approaches to filmmaking. The result, THX-1138, was his first full-length feature and an experimental piece of science fiction cinema that is almost nothing like the space operas that came to define his career. The original vision of THX gave way to more commercial considerations in Lucas’ second feature, American Graffiti, which was nevertheless one of the most resonant, rich and emotionally honest coming-of-age films ever conceived; its subject made even more poignant by its early ‘60s “end of the innocence” setting.

Lucas was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director (the film itself was nominated for Best Picture) but he still had trouble getting his next project financed. When he did, however, he hit paydirt beyond his wildest dreams: the original Star Wars was a phenomenon that changed the cultural landscape and, following Jaws just two years earlier, launched the era of the “summer blockbuster” that is still with us and now stretches from March to August.

But at what price? Star Wars was a pioneering work in terms of its special effects, but was still just retro pulp fiction at its heart. So was Lucas’ other major success, the Indiana Jones films, which he produced and had a hand in writing but did not direct (other movies produced through Lucasfilm, from Howard the Duck through Red Tails, have fared far worse). When Lucas returned to the director’s chair for the Star Wars prequels, starting in 1999, clearly something was off: his dialogue had regressed, his handling of actors less assured, and his reliance on CG overwhelming. The years away from the director’s chair evidently had an effect on him.

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Make no mistake: Lucas’ companies Industrial Light and Magic and THX have changed the way we watch and listen to movies, with ILM still a potent force in visual effects. American Graffiti and the first two Star Wars films remain two of the greatest American movies of the last 50 years. But Lucas—who continues to express a desire to return to making small, experimental films—never became the filmmaker he probably set out to be. He changed from an artist to a merchandiser, and although he was once called a “visionary” by Turner Classic Movies, even given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Film Institute, and his films reside in the Library of Congress, that artist somehow never got his due.

M. Night Shyamalan

While still a student at NYU, the Indian-born Shyamalan made his first film, Praying with Anger, in 1992 and followed it six years later with the limited release Wide Awake. While tackling spiritual and cultural themes that would crop up in his later work, neither film resembled his third feature, and the movie that rocketed him to the top of the box office: 1999’s supernatural classic The Sixth Sense. The movie’s understated tone, languid but suspenseful pace, well-timed scares and famous twist ending—along with a solid emotional core—became both a template for Shyamalan’s next few movies and earned him accolades as “the next Hitchcock.”

Somewhat underappreciated at the time, 2000’s Unbreakable was a deconstruction of the superhero film years before those came to dominate multiplexes. But 2002’s Signs, while a taut exercise in sci-fi suspense, was where the wheels began to come off: why would an alien race with a severe allergy to water invade a planet mostly covered in the stuff? The Village relied on an even more implausible twist, but was still moderately atmospheric and at times gripping. After that, however, Shyamalan seemed to lose control: the self-indulgent Lady in the Water (2006), the shoddy and unintentionally silly The Happening (2009), and the lifeless The Last Airbender (2010) put Shyamalan on a creative and financial losing streak that not even teaming with Will Smith on After Earth (2013) could halt.

So what happened? One could argue that Shyamalan got too enamored with his own peculiar stories or began to crack under the pressure of following up such huge hits as The Sixth Sense and Signs. And although Time magazine praised him early on for “balancing sophistication and horror” in his films, too many misfires led to that “next Hitchcock” tag being quietly retired somewhere along the way…which was probably just as well.

Zack Snyder

Zack Snyder has had an intriguing career since before joining forces with Warner Bros. His first and arguably best film was a perversely snappy remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, one that actually did reimagine its material with a slick studio aesthetic and even slicker characters. Coming from the commercial world of BMW and Audi television ads, Snyder brought a glossy sheen to screenwriter James Gunn’s tongue-in-cheek nihilism. Not the social allegory of Romero’s original, Dawn of the Dead (2004) was a far more box office friendly actioner that set Snyder on his current path.

What became Snyder’s calling card for almost a decade was his second feature: 300. As a near panel-by-panel recreation of the Frank Miller comic, the highly stylized film has its fans, but his overreliance on speed-ramping was already evident, if buried under gallons of CG blood and glorious speechifying by a beach-ready Gerard Butler.

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Upon 300’s release, IGN compared Snyder favorably, and after only two films, to Ridley Scott’s entire body of work, saying, “But keep in mind that it took [Ridley] Scott 22 years to follow Alien with Gladiator, and it took only four for Snyder to go from Dawn to 300.” Building on this growing sentiment, WB introduced Snyder’s next film with the trailer tagline “From the Visionary Director of 300.” That film was also a near panel-by-panel recreation of a graphic novel. Except this time, Snyder’s added penchant for speed-ramping, ultra-violence, and gore was jarringly counterintuitive to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen source material, which unlike Frank Miller’s 300 does not double as a love letter to fascism.

The first wholly original film Snyder ever made, 2011’s Sucker Punch, lacked either a subversive James Gunn script or an Alan Moore masterpiece for Snyder to draw from, leaving Snyder to his own devices as a co-screenwriter on the project. The visual slickness of punctuated slow motion and video game cutscene backdrops that seemed revelatory in 300 became redundant, and the film’s pixel-deep lip service to pushing the boundaries of reality played second fiddle to casting 20-something starlets in skimpy schoolgirl anime outfits.

By the time that Snyder was charged with rebooting Superman, his Man of Steel came with the mandate of no speed-ramping and the obligation of emulating executive producer Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight verisimilitude by supplanting as much of Snyder’s own “vision” as possible. WB has since dropped this for the Marvel-chasing sequel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. From WB’s marketing-hailed “visionary” to their dutiful franchise manager in less than a decade, it’s a breakneck pace that Ridley Scott also hasn’t attempted.

[related article – Everything You Need to Know About Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice]

John Milius

John Milius is the man responsible for the genesis of the U.S. Indianapolis sequence in Jaws. As this is my favorite scene from my favorite film, I will always be indebted to him (and Robert Shaw) for his role in film history. However, Milius has often enjoyed that spot being elevated in the same breath as his contemporaries and friends, who include Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese. Given his recent personal struggles, I don’t wish to throw any shade on this rebel filmmaker, however the self-professed “Zen Anarchist’s” rebellion may have always been a lost cause.

After being rejected from the U.S. Marines due to asthma, Milius attended the legendary film school at USC where George Lucas and Basil Poledouris were classmates. Milius had early success in Hollywood as one of the screenwriters on the first two Dirty Harry films, the latter of which he co-wrote with Michael Cimino. He also would do script doctoring on American masterpieces like Jaws and Apocalypse Now. However, his own directorial projects where his pen and lens took center stage included numerous curiosities, such as when he cast Sean Connery as a North African Muslim in The Wind and the Lion, but never the classic, unbridled visions of the contemporaries like Coppola and Spielberg that he helped make better in his writing collaboration.

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By the 1980s, the two defining films of Milius’ directorial career became Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. Conan is a camp classic in its own kitschy right, with echoes of Poledouris’ soaring score flying over superfluous Nietzsche quotes and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dead-eyed performance. Red Dawn, on the other hand, remains a Reagan-era red meat propaganda piece—an uncomfortable firearm nut’s fantasy about defending Small Town, USA from those no good commie bastards after the Soviets have killed everyone who didn’t bend to Russian rule or, worse, complied like the Vichy French by rounding up their countrymen.

Milius’ subsequent blacklisting in Hollywood following Red Dawn was undeserved given his gregarious storytelling voice that’s still a welcome counterpoint to the Hollywood’s mainstream perspective, but the journey from co-writing Apocalypse Now with Coppola to masterminding the worst piece of jingoistic propaganda of the Reagan Years (which is saying a lot) is a noticeable drop. Still, do yourself a favor and watch the documentary Milius, which is currently on Netflix.

Rob Zombie

During the first high-octane trailer for 2007’s remake of Halloween, an ominous voice promises that Rob Zombie will release “an extreme vision of terror.” That was certainly one way of putting it.

The writer-director charged with resurrecting the Halloween franchise for Dimension, ironically after their own failed attempt with Halloween: Resurrection, may have been the director to put the knife in Michael Myers for good. His grungy, foul-mouthed, and thoroughly repellent take of the Myers narrative, told over the two films Halloween and Halloween II, was so grotesque that no studio has been able to bring the boogeyman back for six years.

While not necessarily a bad thing, as I even enjoyed the first hour of Halloween, the reason for the franchise-ending is less artistic purity than a rejection of what has always been Zombie’s modus operandi: extreme grindhouse violence pushed to the NC-17 limit and passed off as entertainment. While it rendered a genuine cult horror classic with The Devil’s Rejects, both Halloween films followed the path of House of 1000 Corpses, which took a pastiche of classic 1970s low budget horror elements (be they from Tobe Hooper or John Carpenter) and rearranged them for maximum sleaziness.

The effect wore off by 2013’s The Lords of Salem, a film that pulled back on the violence in favor of attempting a Polanski-style psychological horror about covens and demonic babies. But with its truly unholy plot and listless pace, it revealed a talented filmmaker who can’t get out of the way of his own 40 year old inspirations.

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Kevin Costner

While the exact word “visionary” was not thrown out (to my knowledge) for Kevin Costner’s directorial career, the fact that his first feature, Dances with Wolves, beat out Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas for both Best Picture and Best Director feels egregious enough to merit a spot. To be sure, Dances with Wolves is a beautiful film on its own standing (though it has been criticized over the years as a “white savior” film), but the level of acclaim that accompanied it, such as when Roger Ebert mused that Costner showed a command of story structure that was “startling” feels all the more premature when Costner’s follow-up was the laughably earnest would-be epic, The Postman.

[related article: The Top 25 Kevin Costner Movies]

Two of Costner’s three directorial efforts are excellent westerns (Wolves and Open Range), but even if the Academy looked back to the fawning the industry did over America’s most bankable movie star getting behind the camera, there would likely be some uncomfortable silence. Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas! That would be akin to Tom Hooper winning an Oscar over David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky. Oh yeah…