Like many of you I was a pretty big fan of M. Night Shyamalan’s UNBREAKABLE when it came out in 2000. It was a different time. One year after THE SIXTH SENSE, the idea of Shyamalan as a master of suspense was not a punchline, and quiet, sad Bruce Willis characters were fairly new territory. It had only been about a month since the very first X-MEN movie came out, and would be years before Batman began and the Marvel Cinematic Universe followed, so when we were blindsided by the opening title card of oddly useless comic book statistics, and Samuel L. Jackson (THE SPIRIT)’s character proceeded to make grandiose generalized proclamations about the comic book mythology, it was semi-forgivable. The ads gave no hint of this, but the movie took the idea of super powers and put them in a grounded suspense thriller context that felt like a pretty new combination of flavors at the time.
Sixteen years later Shyamalan had been a laughing stock far longer than he’d been a respected auteur, and the popularity of SPLIT counted as a comeback. Though I found the “oh, this was actually a super villain origin story” ending a little anti-climactic, I thought most of the movie was effectively creepy and I was really impressed by James McAvoy’s playful turn as the many personalities of “The Horde.” And of course I enjoyed the wacko reveal at the end that it was I DON’T THINK THIS IS A SPOILER ANYMORE taking place in the same universe as UNBREAKABLE.
Now, finally, Samuel L. Jackson is… GLASS. Except he gets a “with” credit. McAvoy gets top billing, because he does the most acting, by many different meanings.
It begins as a SPLIT sequel. McAvoy’s psycho Kevin Crumb is at it again, with several cheerleaders (in uniform) chained up in a spooky abandoned factory, babbling to them as a 9 year old and a British lady and others while waiting for his muscly, ceiling-crawling serial killer personality “The Beast” to take over. And then it becomes an UNBREAKABLE sequel, which is more exciting, because it was so long ago that we gave up on waiting for one of those. Bruce’s David Dunn now has his own home security company and also takes walks around Philadelphia so he can brush against people and use his DEAD ZONE powers to see if they’re up to any murders or anything so he can vigilante ’em. (When he gets to that stage he still wears the rain poncho, both to look scary and I guess to symbolize his dislike of water [because he’s an alien and this is also the same universe as SIGNS? I don’t know].)
The biggest upgrade to his operation is that he has a headset and he talks to his Robin or Whistler who looks up maps and addresses and what not on his computer and talks him through things from headquarters. This is his son Joseph, which is kind of nice because in UNBREAKABLE he was a little boy dead set on his dad being a super hero. I was excited when I looked at him and realized holy shit, that is the same actor, Spencer Treat Clark (LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN remakes), who was around 12 or 13 in the first movie and now is 31. They never bring back the kid actor to play the adult version. But Shyamalan did!
In fact GLASS has such a respect for actor continuity that it brings back Charlayne Woodard (THE METEOR MAN) as Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price’s protective mother even though she was mainly in childhood flashback scenes in the first film and therefore is five years younger than Jackson! That’s kinda weird, but I respect it. Also, in the tradition of PHANTASM OBLIVION, they incorporate unused footage from the first film for flashbacks. I thought that was kind of cool in the case of a little scene with Joseph, because they were able to show off the aging of the actor, BOYHOOD style. But there’s also a Mr. Glass flashback where little kid Elijah (not played by Samuel L. Jackson) goes on a carnival ride and smashes himself up. The scene adds no new character insights and makes him and his mom look like dummies for not being more careful, so it made sense when I was told that was also a deleted scene that had been on the UNBREAKABLE DVD.
(I still think it would be great if they did new childhood flashbacks with the original actor, Johnny Hiram Jamison, playing thirteen even though he’s in his thirties. Next time, maybe.)
David Dunn’s detective deeds do discover the dastardly dude’s den of dirty doings. (You see, comic books sometimes use alliteration, that’s why I wrote that sentence that way.) But during their battle they’re both apprehended by a SWAT team and one Dr. Ellie Staple (you see, comic books sometimes are stapled, that’s why that’s her name) played by Sarah Paulson (THE SPIRIT). She brings them to a specially equipped (though lightly staffed) psychiatric hospital that can contain them. She specializes in what she considers a disorder of people who believe they have super powers, so she also gets Elijah (still in a wheelchair, now sedated into near-vegetable state) transferred there with them. In the tradition of DIE HARD 2‘s “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?,” Bruce’s disgusted “You gotta be kidding me” nimbly made me accept that they’d bring a terrorist to therapy with the sole survivor of one of his attacks.
Speaking of victims coming in close contact with their tormentors, SPLIT’s heroine Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, THE WITCH) comes to the hospital and wants to see the man who kidnapped her – not to confront him, but to try to get through to his original personality Kevin, who she has sympathy for. You could argue that it’s Stockholm Syndrome, but it comes across more as an act of compassion based on their shared experiences with childhood abuse. It’s kind of touching when she’s excited to tell him that she got her molester uncle locked up.
But the Horde schemes to get out and Dunn tries to figure out if he can stop him and Mr. Glass seems to be only able to blink and twitch and yet keeps ending up wheeled out of his room somehow and may be planning some shit. For a while I was completely enjoying it on its own terms and for the novelty of a sequel to two mostly unrelated movies. I’d forgive a thing here or there – like the unnecessary update on the life’s journey of Shyamalan’s drug-dealing-security-guard character (which I later learned was also explaining that his building superintendent cameo in SPLIT is the same character). But eventually they started to pile up too much. Maybe what broke me was the scene where one of the nurses (Adam David Thompson, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES) launches into a not-remotely-natural conversation about vitamins. But it’s all the clueless attempts at meta comic book shit that bury the movie and then dig it up just to slap it around and then re-bury it.
As I mentioned earlier, X-MEN came out less than a month before UNBREAKABLE. Then it had sequels and actually got recast with McAvoy himself starring as Professor X and that got sequels and seems not to far off from the point where it gets re-recast. It was already kinda laughable when UNBREAKABLE came out, but at this point there really shouldn’t be a question in absolutely anybody’s mind about whether or not regular moviegoers know the very most shamefully basic shit about what a comic book or a super hero is.
Enter Shyamalan. He has Elijah announcing that he is “a comic book expert” and then he (sometimes second hand through his mom) explains such fascinating analysis as that there is sometimes a thing called a “showdown” between the hero and villain. He proudly announces “ah, the main characters meet” when the main characters meet. Which is not necessarily a thing from comic books, it is also from all other forms of storytelling, in my opinion. And there is a big deal about how the showdown happens in “a limited edition,” this is mentioned a couple times.
Unlike Mr. Glass I am not a comic book expert, but I feel confident in stating that almost all comic books, being monthly periodicals, are limited editions. He might mean some kind of special collector’s edition alternate metallic cover or some shit, but in that case the “showdown” scene would not only be in that version, so what the fuck is he even talking about? Did the mom remember it wrong?
I think maybe Shyamalan thinks he’s making the SCREAM of comic book movies, but if so I think he needs to do more studying, because Mr. Glass is worse than Randy. Or maybe there just isn’t enough there there. These types of super hero and super villain cliches were already parodied and deconstructed to the point of boredom before the Final Girl concept was a glint in Carol Clover’s eye. You’re gonna have to know ’em way better and have something way more interesting to say than this, bud.
I don’t think I’ve seen UNBREAKABLE in at least 15 years, but catching part on cable last night reminded me of the silly scene where an asshole comic book store employee yells “You better not be jacking off to the Japanese comics, I swear to God” to Glass and threatens to call “5-O” on him when he knocks some stuff over. The same actor, Bostin Christopher (THE SCORPION KING 3: BATTLE FOR REDEMPTION) returns in GLASS, still lording over what looks like the same gigantic comic book store (now heavily stocked with Funko Pops) where much more labored and laughable things go down. Casey, Joseph and Dr. Staple each have separate scenes where they browse comics there and suddenly realize something about what’s going on because of a book they see or a thing that some person says out loud that doesn’t seem like a person who had ever heard people say anything out loud would write down for a person to say out loud. But my man did it.
GLASS is a pretty great illustration of the strengths and weaknesses of Shyamalan. I still like his storytelling instincts. I like how he strategically takes his time getting to things, and the thought he puts into camera moves and angles. It’s especially helpful on this Blumhouse budget, where he creates super-strength fights largely through clever camera placements and trickery. I might notice that he has the camera locked on McAvoy’s face while wrestling to avoid expensive FX, and when the camera’s out of focus as he runs at a guy I can assume it’s a muscleman body double, but I like it. It gives it a style that’s refreshing after so many years of (sometimes great) “live action” animated super hero fights.
And he can also be thoughtful about tone. There’s a sequence where Dunn does his vigilante thing, going after some young doofus street thugs who punch people out for Youtube hits. The natural way to play it is as an audience-pleasing comeuppance. I like that Shyamalan treats Dunn more like a serial killer breaking into their house, stalking in silently, his face covered in shadow. Similarly, he has some scenes and plot turns that seem sympathetic toward Elijah, despite being a mass murderer.
My problem is the director often comes off as completely out of touch about people, how they behave, how they talk. Shyamalan must not be aware of the world outside of himself, or he would know how laughable all this comic book shit is. Poor Anya Taylor Joy has to pretend to believe that the super-powers she’s witnessed can be proven by the fact that there are comic books where similar things happen. She has a ludicrous line where, during a dramatic discussion, she brings up the entry-level trivia that in the early Superman stories he wasn’t able to fly. After that first talk with Kevin all her scenes really let the character down.
Yeah, you get your Shyamalan twists. But one of them is not a surprise to anyone who was readin, about SPLIT on movie nerd websights when it came out – people already picked up on this detail about The Horde’s past that’s played like a “I am your father.” Then the big thing happens and THIS IS THE BIG SPOILER but I feel it’s worth discussing. It’s revealed through the sudden appearance of a HALLOWEEN 6/HOSTEL type tattoo that Dr. Staple is part of a secret society bent on suppressing those with super powers, either by convincing them they don’t have them or, if that fails, by killing them. And our three lead characters are killed so casually that I assumed at least Dunn would gasp back to life and take part in a big climax. And then after a few more scenes I realized oh, I guess they really are supposed to be dead. Kinda weird.
The thrilling conclusion is the USUAL SUSPECTS moment when the doctor realizes that Glass was actually on a “suicide mission” to demonstrate the super powers in front of the hospital’s security cameras and upload them to his private server (an iMac, I liked that) and the survivors – Dunn’s son and Glass’s mom and Horde’s victim – upload the videos to The Internet and sit holding hands in what looks like a train station but actually is the lobby of the building that was heavily hyped as the intended location of a big fight scene that never happened (long story) and watch as the videos hit The Social Media and Go Viral and the people all around them are lighting up as their minds are blown because the world they lived in was just a sugar coated topping but there was another world out there, the real world, and now they have it right there on their phone, their iPad, the cable news on the monitor. We are through the looking glass, people. The eagle has landed on the looking glass and I’m not even sure which side it’s on. EVERYTHING is different now. NOTHING and NO ONE will EVER be the same. Because there was a Youtube video of a guy pushing a van over. And another guy bending a metal bar. Fuck the moon landing. Fuck the invention of electricity. This is it, says the music by West Dylan Thordson (FOXCATCHER).
I feel bad trashing a Shyamalan movie. I feel like people were always dicks to him even when he was on top (ha ha, your name is from a different culture than mine, fuck you) and even after really hating LADY IN THE WATER I’ve been kind of rooting for him as an underdog. I kinda liked the almost universally panned AFTER EARTH and I think THE VISIT was quite good even though it was fucking found footage. Hell, I probly shouldn’t bring this up considering the response I got at the time, but I am one of the only humans on record as having sort of enjoyed THE LAST AIRBENDER! Plus I always wanted to see an UNBREAKABLE sequel, and of course this is Bruce (who gets less focus than a true lead, but is pretty good in it, as are Jackson, McAvoy and Paulson). So I was rooting for this. I would much rather be saying I loved it.
I guess all those years when we said we wanted an UNBREAKABLE sequel we should’ve been more specific.
Nah. Actually we shouldn’t have. Part of why I wanted to see it was because I couldn’t even picture what it would be. Turns out it’s this. That’s fine. I appreciate that Shyamalan is always Shyamalan. He’s made plenty of movies that I consider bad, but so far I always find them interesting.