The Unbreakable trilogy that started in 2000 at the peak of M. Night Shyamalan’s powers, then went subterranean during his dark ages (the brutal run of films that spanned Lady in the Water to After Earth), and stealthily re-emerged in the midst of his recent revival of sorts (the one-two punch of The Visit and Split re-ameliorating the Indian director with American audiences) has officially ended. Along with the hopes of a true Shyamalanasance (say that three times fast.) And folks, Glass concludes the promise of a 19-years-in-the-making unprecedented movie triptych in the worst way possibly imaginable.
Shyamalan’s superhero-tangential world took shape in a curious way in Unbreakable, that film a slow-moving but thoughtfully constructed subversion of the superhero mythos that explored the duality of good and evil in new and interesting ways – positing the notion that there is always a yin to a yang; a super-villain for every superhero. Delivered in rather sneaky manner, a la Shyamalan’s trademark. The dialogue could be a bit silly and grandstandy (dialogue has never been Shyamalan’s strong suit) but the film effectively created a world that looks familiar enough to ours except dotted with flesh and blood Übermensch living among us.
Split too revealed a world that based its supernaturalness in reality – going so far as to try and convince audiences that the most talented rock climbers can scale walls by using the tiny cracks in the paint or whatever. It didn’t always compute, but at least Shyamalan was cooking up a storm and most of it was tasty enough to swallow and line up for more.
By the end of Split, we know of three such “super” humans; David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a man with nigh unbreakable strength and an impossible threshold for pain; Kevin Wendell Crumb, et al., a.k.a. “The Horde”, (James McAvoy, acting up a storm), a dissociated serial killer with a superhuman animalistic alter known as “The Beast”; and Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), an evil-doing mastermind with a terror rap sheet comparable to Osama Bin Laden. As promised in the admittedly tantalizing final scene in Split, their worlds are primed to collide in ways we can only guess at.
Which brings us to Glass, a full-tilt comic book movie that has all the twisty promise of a subverted super-tale but so badly misses the ball that it strikes itself in its head, topples over, and collapses. Narrative bones as broken as the titular Mr. Glass. If every superhero has their kryptonite, being the least bit engaging is apparently Glass’ weakness, the 129-minute faux-epic casting a super sleepy spell over this entirely disappointed film critic.
To his credit, Shyamalan does lead us down dark unexpected pathways, but in doing so walks confidently into brick walls, proving that different is not necessarily good, and there’s nothing worth celebrating about wandering blindly. As if captive to “The Horde”, we’re dragged through a tremendously tedious first half, made up of wordy comic book mytho-busting and armchair psychology, until Glass shifts into Shyamalan overdrive and becomes flat-out awful. Like please bring-us-back-to-The-Village-awful.
It certainly doesn’t help that mere minutes into the film, Shyamalan dumps the three main characters into a psychiatric ward and leaves them there for the entirety of the film. Under normal circumstances, the idea of a superhero movie taking place in a mental health facility would more than pique my curiosities (in fact, the promise of Fox’s New Mutants has long been a tantalizing twist on the super-genre, if it ever sees the light of day) but Glass goes about such in entirely the wrong way, turning its three interesting characters into passive bystanders to superhero-delusion-specialist (???) Dr. Ellie Staple’s (Sarah Paulson) psychoanalysis, handicapping them from doing anything that might be confused for the least bit entertaining.
Glass, by proxy of Dr. Staple, spends so much time trying to convince us that these characters are not indeed special and that there are no such thing as superheroes, that by the time Shyamalan reveals what we already know to be true, it results in an exercise is round-robin storytelling that lands us exactly where we started without anything relatively interesting happening along the way. Sure, Shyamalan sneaks a few surprises in the end but the road there is so grueling, filled with dialogue that would feel awkward even in a speech bubble, with minimal spurts of action that are shot with such passive, unfocused disinterest (an obvious product of budgetary constraints but wholly lacking in energy and oomph nonetheless) that it’s impossible to even pretend to care about the outcome.
True to form, Shyamalan takes an intrigue premise and pummels it into oblivion. It’s not that Glass should be a Marvel copycat or even hue closely to darker superhero fare like Chronicle or even Hancock. The world Shamalayan crafts is different from that of the box office champions because it has limitations and that makes it potentially even more interesting. But that opportunity is overlooked and instead we’re left with a Venn diagram of the director’s best and worst instincts. On the one hand, the idea of railroading the vigilante careers of three would-be super-entities in a psychiatric ward seems like a premise with some unique juice. And yet, Shamalayan’s hammy writing wrings all the wrong fruits, leaving us to screw our faces at the sour grapes he offers up and only wonder at the missed opportunity left on the tree.
Both Unbreakable and Split work as standout films. (In fact, they work better as separate entities, despite the untoward push for connected universes in this modern era of franchise filmmaking.) Glass, simply put, does not. It requires the viewer to be familiar with both its predecessors but even that doesn’t help encourage our attachment to their plight in this banal story. It doesn’t help that by-and-large the performances don’t help sell the emotion behind the goings-on. Bruce Willis, per his last decade of onscreen appearances, doesn’t really seem to give two shits. McAvoy is frankly exhausting. And Samuel L. Jackson plays vegetable for the vast majority of the film (he’s still the highlight). Then there’s the likes of Spencer Treat Clark whose acting prowess belongs more on C.W. serials than Hollywood blockbusters and Anya Taylor-Joy is dragged to set to deliver some nonsense about the power of love. And I haven’t even mentioned the obvious sound mixing hiccups that turn the big showdown into an auditory nightmare. By the time we’re in the endgame, everything works in synchronistic concert to deliver one big Epic Fail.
With Glass, my patience was tested and tried, a lab rat in Shamalayan’s ambitious failed experiment. By the time Mr. Glass says something to the effect of “It’s not over yet”, I audibly groaned. And by that sentiment alone, despite all the talk of superheroes and supervillains and the world seeing the truth, the battle was already lost.
CONCLUSION: The long-in-the-tooth Unbreakable trilogy ends on a broken note with Glass, a pretty-much-awful comic book movie that conjoins lofty aspirations to nonsensical execution. An early contender for one of the worst films of the year, this M. Night Shamalayan nightmare sees the director’s rollercoaster career plummeting once more.
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