When M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable was released in November of 2000, expectations were unreachably high. His previous film, The Sixth Sense, was a worldwide sensation, grossing nearly $300 million domestic (on a $40 million budget), introducing one of the all-time great twist endings, and branding its writer/director as the next Spielberg. Unbreakable hit theaters barely a year later, and though reviews were positive and box office was respectable, Shymalan was (unsurprisingly) unable to replicate its predecessor’s success.
Yet as the years passed, as more viewers discovered Unbreakable on video and sung its praises online, and as similarly brooding, adult-oriented superhero movies found favor, the director and stars would occasionally mention how they’d wanted to continue the story – but it seemed unlikely, given the first film’s disappointing box office (and Shyamalan’s subsequent fall from critical grace). And even when he snuck a cameo for Bruce Willis’s Unbreakable protagonist, David Dunn, into the end credits of his 2016 thriller Split, it felt more like a winking in-joke than an actual commitment to bring back the character.
But now he’s done just that. Glass is a rare and strange beast, a combo-sequel that continues both the stories of Unbreakable and Split, and does so rather uneasily. It’s much more a new Split movie than a new Unbreakable movie (a point underscored by James McAvoy’s top billing, though second-credited Willis’s recent filmography probably didn’t help), presumably due to its closer proximity to Split, and that film’s greater profitability. In other words, to finally make his Unbreakable sequel, Shyamalan probably had to also make it a Split sequel. And that’s too bad, because not only are the Unbreakable scenes the best in Glass; they’re also largely at odds with the rest of the picture.
Set only three weeks after the conclusion of Split, Glass finds Willis’s David Dunn living a life of discipline and solitude. His wife Audrey (played in the first film by Robin Wright) died five years earlier of leukemia, but he’s gone into business with son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark, also returning from the original), owning and operating a home security company. And, when he can, he still dons his poncho and goes out into the night to protect the people of Philadelphia.
Early on, he faces down the multiple personalities of Kevin Wendell Crumb, but their confrontation is interrupted by Philadelphia police and one Dr. Staple (Sarah Paulson), who, in her words, specializes “in a particular type of delusion of grandeur… those people who believe they are superheroes.” She has them shipped off to the local psychiatric research hospital for close study, where they will join – as promised in those terrible title cards at the end of Unbreakable – Elijah Price, aka Mr. Glass (a tic-ing and twitching Samuel L. Jackson).
Glass thus spends most of its running time as a good old-fashioned booby-hatch thriller, sometimes scary, sometimes kooky, often silly. Shyamalan struggles to keep all of his plates spinning – particularly in the last half-hour, when a promised big scene at a giant public event turns into a “we’ll just have the big fight out in the front yard” climax, like Roger Corman showed up midway through the production and slashed their budget. (Shyamalan also imposes a strikingly dumb plot twist, and a character turn for Split’s Anya Taylor-Joy that feels like a complete betrayal of her character’s previous journey.)
But ultimately, this peculiar, discombobulated movie doesn’t work because its director is trying to create a hybrid sequel for two films that are fundamentally incompatible – in tone, in style, in pace, and in perspective. Unbreakable and Split are different experiences in nearly every way, from their opening credits onward: the earlier film’s titles roll out slowly and leisurely, during long dialogue scene, shot peering between the seats of a passenger train, whereas Split’s titles slam on and off the screen as quickly as possible. The filmmaking in Unbreakable is patient – long, medium-wide shots, deliberate pacing, actors who barely speak above a whisper – stylistically the antithesis of Split, a movie where action happens as quickly as possible (within the first ten minutes there’s kidnapping, trauma, an attempted rape, and a childhood flashback) and at top volume.
Split does what it aims to do well: it’s a nasty, brutish piece of genre filmmaking (and an impressive actor’s showcase for McAvoy and Joy). But it’s barely recognizable as the same filmmaker; there’s a general nastiness to it that’s miles from the quiet heroism and character-based drama of Unbreakable. That was a film notable for its humanity; note, as just one example, how brilliantly he makes us care for, and scared for, Samuel L. Jackson’s “Glass,” who really seems like he could smash to pieces at any second, and whose mid-film injury is not only suspenseful, but genuinely harrowing. Title or no, there’s none of that in Glass, because there’s just not room for it.
Which is too bad, because in the scenes of Glass where Shyamalan is able to break free from Split, to honestly revisit Unbreakable(a film that, it is increasingly clear, is his masterpiece), he recaptures its virtues: a quiet contemplativeness, an adult-oriented approach to the superhero mythos, a performance of melancholy and resignation that reminds us of what Bruce Willis is capable of when he’s not phoning it in. But those beats are few and far between. He peppers the movie with deleted scenes from Unbreakable, and at its end, a flash of that film’s closing scene, when David silently puts his finger to his mouth, indicating to his son that his secret identity will stay between them. And all that clip does, in that particular moment, is remind us how little of Glass has landed with anything resembling that moment’s emotional force.
“Glass” is out Friday in wide release.