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From “Unbreakable” to “Glass” the ever-unexpected twists and quality of Shyamalan part 1

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Trey McCabe, Memorial Staff Writer

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Spoilers follow for the first two installments of  M. Night Shyamalan’s trilogy, Unbreakable and Split. Seeing both films before Glass is highly recommended, as the third film would be confusing without the context the first two provide.

 

In 1992, an Indian-American filmmaker named M. Night Shyamalan wrote, directed and starred in the cultural drama Praying With Anger, his feature film debut. The film did not gain enough traction to be distributed, and remains largely unseen. He was unknown.

In 1998, Shyamalan released his second feature film, Wide Awake, a light-hearted comedy about a young boy searching for God. It received mostly dismissive reviews, and none were clamoring to see Shyamalan’s next project. He was worthless.

In 1999, Shyamalan established a precedent for the unprecedented with his third feature film, The Sixth Sense. The film’s twist ending, and the execution thereof, garnered him comparisons to Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock. It was a cinematic sensation, and quickly cemented itself as a permanent piece of pop culture. He was unstoppable, and yet from this point on his career was bound to disappoint.

At the turn of the century, Shyamalan let the world down with his unsung masterpiece Unbreakable, the lowkey, sublime superhero origin story.

The auteur Quentin Tarantino, a notable apologist for the film, described its plot as such: “What if Superman didn’t know he was Superman?”

Bruce Willis plays this oblivious hero, David Dunn, a stadium security guard whose marriage is slowly dissolving and whose young son can’t stay out of trouble. He was the sole survivor of the disastrous Eastrail 177 train wreck, a fact he doesn’t seem to think much about.

Enter the ever-charismatic Samuel L. Jackson (pre-Avengers Initiative) as Elijah Price, an eclectic comic illustrations dealer who suffers from a rare medical condition where his bones are hyper-susceptible to breaking. He is a fervent believer in the power of the comic book mythos, and he is convinced that Dunn is a manifestation of this same mythos, pointing to Dunn’s survival on the train as irrefutable proof of his true identity as a hero. Throughout the film, he works his way into Dunn’s psyche, picking apart his self-perception until Dunn accepts this fact.

In the years since its release, it has finally begun to receive the recognition it deserves. Not only was it a grounded superhero film before they were even relatively vogue, it understood the importance of comic books within the wider cultural sphere, presenting a cinematic thesis on the form alongside a truly engrossing character study.

Unbreakable’s twist, though, left many feeling cold, mostly due to its sudden nature and debatable lack of foreshadowing throughout the film. In the final minutes of the film, Price reveals himself to be the cause of the Eastrail 177 train wreck, which was his first successful attempt at finding his polar opposite: a man as unbreakable as he is brittle. Dunn is stunned: the very man who showed him his purpose was, simply speaking, the villain, a mastermind of deception capable of horrific acts of terror, all done in the name of comic books. To call this dynamic brilliant would be an understatement. But sometimes, great films of every caliber have a curious way of waiting years to be truly appreciated (see also: Citizen Kane, Blade Runner).

Shyamalan would go on to redeem himself in the eyes of critics and audiences with Signs in 2002, but his public perception was more or less permanently reversed for the worse in 2004 with The Village, following that film with such maligned fare as The Lady in the Water, The Happening, and After Earth. Shyamalan was a has-been, a once-great filmmaker who had somehow lost his magic.

Fast-forward to 2016, following his commercial first hit in years, the found-footage horror-comedy The Visit produced by the prolific Jason Blum, Shyamalan unveiled Split, a horror-thriller revolving around the abduction of three girls by a man with 23 personalities, some of whom insist there is a 24th lying in wait, ominously referred to as “The Beast.”

The man in question was performed to perfection by James McAvoy, and critics hailed the film as a return to form for Shyamalan and a divine sign that the old Shyamalan never truly left. For the first time in recent memory, he was able to deliver an effectively atmospheric film with an emotional strand that is every bit as moving as his work on Signs. Granted, part of the film’s success can likely be attributed to his collaboration with some of the greatest names in horror right now; namely, producer Jason Blum (Insidious, Sinister), actress Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch), and cinematographer Michael Gioulakis (It Follows). The alignment of these five made for a truly great film.

Although the film’s masterful strokes were as surprising as one of his twists might be, it was the film’s second quasi-twist which caught everyone by surprise in a way never seen before: in the film’s final moments, it is revealed (by way of an admittedly corny scene) that Split takes place on the same timeline or in the same universe as Shyamalan’s forgotten masterpiece Unbreakable. And that brings us to Jan 18, 2019, the fateful day when Shyamalan threw it all away in one fell swoop. Glass, the highly anticipated finale to what Shyamalan now calls his “Eastrail 177” Trilogy, somehow managed the impossible of existing as a bad movie all its own, the likes of which have never been seen before, and will likely never be seen again. Oh M. Night, you are perpetually full of surprises.

Glass picks up with our characters 19 years after the events of Unbreakable and some weeks after the events of Split. Dunn, whose raincoat-clad persona has been given the name the Overseer by the media, continues to fight crime while managing a home security store with his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clarke, reprising his role from Unbreakable), who also operates as an amalgamation of Robin and Alfred for Batman. The Horde (the dominantly evil personalities of McAvoy’s multifaceted character of many names) have kept up their work abducting adolescent girls who have not suffered in their lives and are therefore “impure.” Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), the sole survivor of the first abduction of this sort in Split, is no longer in the custody of her abusive uncle, and really seems to be doing much better. Price, now better known as Mr. Glass, has not been heard from in nearly 20 years since his admission into a mental facility.

Dunn and Joseph have their sights set on the Horde, hoping to apprehend them before the next set of girls die. However, no sooner does the Overseer confront the Beast than they are both taken into custody by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychologist who supposedly specializes in treating those who are under the delusion of superheroic grandeur. She informs them that she has three days to convince them of their normality before she will be forced to hand them over to the the authorities.

The two are transported to a mental facility where they will receive this treatment, each being given a room specifically tailored to prevent their escape: the Horde’s room is fitted with high-powered lights which flash and force a different personality to take over, and Dunn’s is lined with a number of sprinklers, which effectively debilitate him much as Kryptonite does Superman. (It’s worth noting that the only other security, man-power wise, are two nurses.)

But where, might you ask, is the titular Mr. Glass himself? Don’t you fret, Shyamalan hasn’t forgotten about our man, and neither has Dr. Staple, who decided to bring him along for the therapeutic ride, in spite of the fact that he has been evidently unresponsive for the past 19 years.

It suffices to say that this setting (during which, I might add, the majority of the movie takes place) is every bit as half-baked as an earnest plate of cookies from your novice three-year-old niece. Now, it must be said at this moment that a fair number of superhero movies, even the better ones, rely on somewhat nonsensical plot points (see also: The Dark Knight Rises). Taken on its own merits (or lack thereof), this lack of foresight does not yet constitute a major fault for the film, although it is substantial nonetheless.

Glass’ general sense of contrivancy, though, does not end where it ought to, instead perpetuating it across two long hours of absolute drabness. While it is every bit as technically sound as its predecessors, it lacks Unbreakable’s contemplative ruminations and Split’s palpable tension, discarding both for something which falls flat on its face in the age of peak comic book movies, finding itself much closer to the misguided mash-up Batman v. Superman than to near-masterpiece The Dark Knight. The film’s arrival in a time where proper sequels can be delayed for years and still live up to their forerunners (Blade Runner 2049, Halloween, The Incredibles 2) only compounds its inherently disappointing nature.

In the end, Glass is worthy of recommendation, if only to witness its tragic shortcomings unfold before your eyes. Proceed with caution.

(If you have happened to see the film, read the spoiler review here, which picks up where this review left off.)

Contact Trey McCabe at [email protected].

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From “Unbreakable” to “Glass” the ever-unexpected twists and quality of Shyamalan part 1