I’ve been reading a lot over the past few months about how M. Night Shyamalan “screwed up” his adaptation of The Last Airbender. Given that the movie has only eight percent on Rotten Tomatoes, that’s probably not an assertion that you’d want to argue against. Most of the narratives I’ve read about his career lament the fact that he’s really run it into the ground over the past few years, especially given that his first two or three movies were so great.
How could someone who had so much promise quickly turn into the butt of a joke any time his name is mentioned?
Easy. M. Night turned into another George Lucas.
This isn’t another hit job article on either director, its just that the parallels between their careers have really fascinated me since I started putting more thought into it. But I have to be honest, I was an M. Night apologist for a while. I thought The Village had a vast political subtext that wasn’t really appreciated by most and thought Lady in the Water was misunderstood. And while The Happening was clearly an idiotic movie, I thought it was still redeemed by the fact that it seemed as if it was only attempting to be a purposefully bad B-movie.
But even as an apologist for his movies, I couldn’t deny that they were getting worse as time went on. M. Night was originally named “The Next Spielberg” during happier times, but he quickly disassociated himself with that moniker with the declining quality of his movies.
Now let’s look at that in comparison to George Lucas. There is one debatable difference in that George Lucas didn’t have a gradual decline, he just fell off of a cliff. If you’re my age, you remember a time prior to May of 1999 when there was a lot of promise for the Star Wars prequels. Lucas hadn’t directed a movie since the original Star Wars, and American Graffiti as well as THX-1138, his other movies prior to that were just as awesome.
However, after the newness wore off, we realized with everyone else that The Phantom Menace was pile of garbage. It had its redeeming moments with a great lightsaber fight and a really fun podrace, but it was otherwise embarrassing for those of us who followed its production so closely. Episodes II and III slowly crawled back into somewhat better territory, but Lucas forever tarnished the image of himself and the franchise over those six years.
Both Lucas and Shyamalan took beloved properties and just trashed them before handing the remains back to their fans. But it’s not as if they meant to. In fact, in their eyes they were doing a service to the franchises. The problem is that both directors have surrounded themselves with an army of Yes Men. Shyamalan made two or three genuinely awesome movies, and suddenly had critics, fans, and studios kissing his butt left and right. He suddenly sees himself as nothing less than a visionary because, well, everyone is telling him that he is.
Same goes with Lucas. He owned the late 70’s and 80’s in terms of pop culture. But as Star Wars and Indiana Jones cooled off, he broke off his own piece of the multimedia empire and became both fiscally and physically fat off of the returning residuals for the next decade. Both of these guys became so overwhelmed in their own fantasy worlds and became entirely disconnected with both their fans and their trade. When they continue making movies after this point, the end product is a bunch of garbage that’s the end result of that equation.
However, here’s where I think their similarities end. While both of them have more or less universally loved movies listed in the older parts of their IMDB pages, Lucas has proven himself to be a better businessman and “Geek Godfather.”
Many fans are reluctant to give the Clone Wars CGI animated cartoon a chance because of how they felt wronged after a decade of crappy Star Wars films. And that’s a darn shame, because The Clone Wars is mesmerizingly good. Lucas knows his franchise is his legacy, and ultimately is more important than he is. So just like he did for Empire Strikes Back, he’s handed the reigns to more capable hands and for lack of a better description has become the CEO of Star Wars.
Shyamalan doesn’t have a franchise to oversee and attach his legacy to. He’s got two or three arguably memorable movies, but they remain that: arguable. Many thought he would redeem his legacy with The Last Airbender, and certainly he intended for this to be the case. But both veterans and newcomers to that franchise hate what he’s done to it. He’s now producing a trilogy of interconnected films called …wait for it… The Night Chronicles.
Lucas does have the edge in my book, mostly because of his ability to create and curate a whole sect and community of geek culture. I do think both guys are masterful storytellers, but neither are capable movie directors. They both just happened to have a streak of beginner’s luck at that job.