Following the release of Unbreakable in 2000, M. Night Shyamalan had plans to make two more films in the series. But while Unbreakable was a modest success, it didn’t shatter (Sorry) box office records the way The Sixth Sense did. So Shyamalan moved on for better (Signs) and for far worse (Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth).
This brings us to Split, an unlikely follow up to Unbreakable that was a success both critically and financially. Shyamalan was officially back and fans were eager to see him complete his grounded superhero trilogy.
A common theme in both Unbreakable and Split is trauma. More specifically, that trauma is possibly the source of these character’s heightened abilities. David Dunn’s (Bruce Willis) near drowning as a boy somehow prevents him from ever getting hurt or sick again as well giving him superhuman strength and reverse clairvoyance (Seeing people’s sins of the past).
In Split, Kevin Wendell Crumb’s (James McAvoy) abuse by his mother as a child creates 23 different personalities. Including one where he literally transforms into a beast. The beast finds “pure” women to act as sacrifices to fuel the beast and somehow ease Kevin’s painful past.
These are interesting ideas from Shyamalan, particularly in the case of Unbreakable, because it’s arrival in theaters marked the beginning of the superhero boom we currently reside in. He could get away with having Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) expound upon the importance of superheroes and comic books without it coming off as too pretentious because we didn’t have nearly 20 years worth of comic book movies under our belt yet.
But with the release of Glass, Shyamalan attempts to bury the mythology he built in the two previous films by having Dr. Staple (Sarah Paulson) convince Dunn, Crumb and Price that they are suffering under a delusion of being superheroes and that her work needs to free them of this delusion.
Using psychology as a through-line with these three characters is an intriguing angle in terms of possibly leading us down an uncertain path (Maybe they don’t really have super powers). But it goes nowhere fast. Although, you’d expect it to; considering the amount of time spent inside the institution.
The problem is, Shyamalan saps any momentum the movie has once we arrive at the institution and the film turns into a series of scenes where characters, particularly Dr. Staple, talk again and again about the tropes and conventions of comic books as if we haven’t been to a movie theater in the past 20 years.
There’s very little character development because it’s the third film in a series and Shyamalan is relying on the audience to have seen the previous films. So Dr. Staple becomes sort of the main character for a large chunk of the film which is a mistake.
We’re not sure who’s movie this is and it’s certainly not all three. After an entertaining opening 20 minutes revealing where Dunn and his son, Joseph, (Spencer Treat Clark) have been all these years, Dunn becomes second (or third) fiddle while at the asylum.
Crumb is then the focus and McAvoy once again shines. His ability to switch personalities on a dime, many in one shot, are staggering. He can be funny, vulnerable and terrifying all in one scene.
The first two films match the tone of their main character. Unbreakable is an idiosyncratic and somber superhero movie about realizing one’s potential. Split is a manic and disturbing horror movie about overcoming trauma.
With the title being Glass, you’d expect Price to be the focus. But he literally doesn’t speak for half of the movie. When he does, it’s all part of his master plan to escape and reveal to the world that people with special abilities do exist. Jackson is certainly having fun once he has something to do. But he’s nothing more than a mustache-twirling villain. Glass should have been about Price finding his purpose in life. He believes he was a mistake from the beginning due to his brittle bone disease.
Shyamalan simply doesn’t trust his audience. He has to step outside the narrative to tell you about the narrative. And Staple and Price are the main culprits. It’s clunky and saps the film from any momentum it builds. He’s known for having twist endings too. In this, there are three! This drains the film from feeling like the conclusion of a trilogy and instead attempts to expand the universe. By then, we’ve had enough of this franchise.