5 Directors That Should've Stopped After Their First Movie
Some filmmakers are like marathon winners; they stay consistently strong and fast for an inconceivable amount of time, and when they finish, you are left inspired by their existence. And some directors have careers like my performance in my second grade's three-legged race. I fell at the start, busted my nose open, and writhed on the ground for a while as my partner walked away from me. The following five directors did similar things in their own metaphorical three-legged races. What began as a burst of glorious potential devolved into something hideous and often embarrassing.
Zack Snyder With Dawn Of The Dead
Zack Snyder has always been the Mountain Dew Code Red to Christopher Nolan's iced coffee. They both direct grand adventure movies, but while Nolan's philosophy is that of the kid in the back of the freshman year writing class with the scarf, Snyder's is frat bro existentialism. Snyder is pretty great at examining the darkness that lurks in the hearts of men, but only when those men are grunting at each other, "HOLD ME BACK BEFORE I LAY THIS DUDE OUT,"-style. In any other case, it's a toss-up. For example, in Watchmen, he totally got the plight of radioactive superman Dr. Manhattan. But the only female on the team, Silk Spectre, was shot like she was in an impromptu Axe Body Spray commercial.
The only movie that Snyder has done that's consistent throughout is his first, the 2004 Dawn Of The Dead remake. If you haven't seen it, it's about a bunch of people being eaten by zombies at the mall. It's also fantastic in a way that few remakes actually are, mainly because it does not seek to replicate or expand upon the original. A lot of times in horror remakes, directors try to cram in "answers" to questions that they think viewers have, which totally robs the movies of their potency. We're scared of the things we don't know. When we say "Oh, man. He uses a chainsaw? That's weird. Why?" we don't want the director to respond with, "Well, he got his chainsaw from the old slaughterhouse he used to work at." There's nothing terrifying about learning where Freddy Krueger shops for his sweaters.
Instead of that route, Snyder actually chops off any of the rough edges of the source material. The original ends with a bunch of bikers attacking the mall that the heroes are in, which leads to a lot of cool gore effects, but bites the face off of the movie's sense of pacing. It robs us of the intimate climax that Dawn Of The Dead could've built to. Snyder's version doesn't have that problem, as it's a horror/action film from the very beginning. Sure, it's not as satirical as the original, but it doesn't need to be. Snyder is not interested in creating a horror film that's also an allegory. The zombies don't have to represent anything. They can get by when they're just being spooky zombies. Constantly reminding me that "The real villain ... is man" is the best way to get me to hate both zombies and English teachers.
Sadly, Zack Snyder's next project would be 300, which had cool action scenes but was the movie equivalent of a guy whispering motivational quotes to himself in the mirror at the gym. And since then, all of his films have either been bloated epics or that thing about warrior owls. It's a shame. Because when Snyder makes films that aren't really about anything other than what's on screen, he shines.
Terrence Malick With Badlands
Terrence Malick is the #1 "Well, I appreciate his work" director in the world. "Well, I appreciate his work" directors are a rare breed, as they're usually either obsessively loved or "appreciated." And by "appreciated," I mean "I know a lot of time probably went into putting all of those pretty colors on screen, so I can't hate this one too much." I truly appreciate Terrence Malick, even though his films feel like staring matches with an old computer's screen saver.
His first film, though, is a refreshing take on a genre that needs all of the fresh takes that it can get. Badlands is a serial killer movie, and the biggest problem with the serial killer subgenre is that very rarely do such films actually make us disgusted with a serial killer. Instead, we marvel as the killer says awesome quips and performs super sweet serial killer melee moves. Silence Of The Lambs is a great movie, but it's hard to feel bad about a guy who eats other guys when he's Jason Bourne-ing his way out of police custody. Yeah, the hero should be the person who hasn't wantonly killed multiple innocent people, but I saw the killer do a double backflip off the diving board once, so my vote is set.
Badlands makes serial killing look really awful. Like, "Dude in front of you that doesn't know how to work the self-checkout lane" awful. It's the story of a 15-year-old girl who becomes enamored of a 25-year-old man, and then gets swept up in a life of theft, violence, and cross-country travel when he decides to start murdering South Dakota. So we see the killer through her eyes, and as her opinion of him grows sour, any chance that we have of admiring Martin Sheen's sweet bangs slowly evaporates too. Sheen is an awful dude in this one. Like, "Friend who doesn't put your Blu-ray back in its case and instead just lays it bottom-side-down on the floor" awful. THAT awful.
Roland Emmerich With Universal Soldier
From the mid '90s to the present, Roland Emmerich has been a constant source of the loud and mediocre (Independence Day, White House Down, Stargate), the loud and dull (Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012), and the loud and very, very historically inaccurate (The Patriot, 10,000 BC, Anonymous, Stonewall). He is the "Hold my beer" to Michael Bay, and no matter what trends are popular in Hollywood or how financially successful his previous film was, we can always count on Emmerich to deliver something that somehow damages the intellectual standard of the explosion.
Emmerich started as a filmmaker in Germany, and most of the films that he made there are either impossible to find in America or were released years later and just on video. His first American film to receive a theatrical release was Universal Soldier, which features Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme as soldiers who get resurrected to become ... universal soldiers? I'm not sure what the "universal" thing means, but I guess it's because, now that they've been brought back to life, they're not limited by the earthly definitions of karate. They can now karate the whole universe. Side note: This theory is remarkably unconfirmed.
For Emmerich, Universal Soldier is amazingly subtle. And that's not just because Van Damme is given the emotional range of a yam in this film. It's mostly a big chase movie, and not just the typical Emmerich "Leave nothing in this major American metropolis un-fireballed" fare. Van Damme and his reporter girlfriend stop in a town, Lundgren catches up to them and shouts, Van Damme escapes, and Lundgren responds with more heavily accented shouting. Compared to Emmerich's other stuff, Universal Soldier is Driving Miss Daisy.
I don't know if "limiting the scale" is the key to fixing Emmerich, as he doesn't have much luck in crafting personal tales. So maybe the key is Dolph Lundgren. Maybe Emmerich made a movie that was one big combustion, but Lundgren absorbed it all, and then released that energy by yelling. I'm no professor, but I think the science works out.
Seth MacFarlane With Ted
Seth MacFarlane is a comedy titan. Not satisfied with ruling Fox's TV animation division, he's also branched out into movies. And he's made three so far: Ted, A Million Ways To Die In The West, and Ted 2. Guess how many of those were pretty solid? A hint is hidden in the title of this column.
Ted, the story of Mark Wahlberg and a talking stuffed bear, has some heart in it. There are plenty of movies about dude friends who have problems with each other whenever one of them gets in a serious relationship. They want to drink beer and compose fart songs, but SHE likes organizing the apartment! Whatever will they do? Ted is still crass, but in centering the conflict around Wahlberg not wanting to abandon a literal stuffed bear, it truly nails home how infantile the whole "bros before respectable type-A females" struggle is. You can still have a fun life and chill with your bear, even if you're married. And those who don't understand that are the true farters.
After Ted, MacFarlane made A Million Ways To Die In The West, which most closely resembles those Leslie Nielsen jokes-every-ten-seconds comedies, with the problem being that MacFarlane doesn't have the warm presence of Nielsen. Nielsen was the comedy genre's beloved uncle, while as an actor, MacFarlane is still its odd half-cousin. Ted 2 is about teddy bear rights, which expands a few jokes into a two-hour movie. It never ends up being as funny or likable as Ted, and feels like it was made not because MacFarlane wanted to make it, but because a Hollywood executive decided that Ted 2 was their only means of finally getting a third Jacuzzi installed.
Eli Roth With Cabin Fever
I'm always hesitant whenever a horror director says they're making a homage to a certain era of horror films. This is usually because they let the homage aspects outweigh the actually-being-a-good-movie aspects. "But it's a homage to '80s slasher films! It's not supposed to be a masterpiece!" Yeah, but it's supposed to be competent and somewhat exciting, instead of a 90-minute declaration that you've seen Sleepaway Camp multiple times.
One of the only really good '80s homages is Eli Roth's Cabin Fever, which is sort of styled after The Evil Dead, but mostly does its own thing. Now, Cabin Fever isn't perfect. Eli Roth's writing would actually peak with Hostel Part II, which is a statement that no man should ever be forced to make. But Cabin Fever feels less like a guy trying to remind you of how great 1983 was, and more like a guy who's trying really, really hard to make a fun, gory horror flick. Plus, it manages to pull off some gross-out moments that are sincerely shocking. Even in the age of things like The Human Centipede trilogy, which is edgy middle-schooler humor brought to life, Cabin Fever can still make you feel weird.
Roth's next film, Hostel, desperately wanted to be like one of the graphic Asian horror films that Roth is a fan of. The biggest difference is that stuff like Takashi Miike's Audition and Kim Jee-woon's I Saw The Devil manage to place interesting stories and dynamic characters around their torture setpieces. Roth's characters are a couple of dumb guys, which is meant to say something about how young American adults kind of treat other countries like playgrounds of vice, but it mostly comes off as Roth needing characters who explicitly won't grow or change, because an arc doesn't really vibe with a drill to the chest.
Roth would later make The Green Inferno, a movie that I saw on opening day because I can't be trusted with my own money or schedule, and his next movie is a Death Wish remake. Remember that series, the one about Charles Bronson putting bullets in crime and crime-related activities? I don't know whose idea it was to give that movie to the guy whose most famous scene involves cutting someone's Achilles tendons, but I feel like it might have been a bad call.
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