Riding high off the success of his twist-centric breakout, The Sixth Sense, budding genre auteur M. Night Shyamalan released his successful follow-up Unbreakable almost 19 years ago, and he’s threatened a sequel ever since. After a few more hits, Shyamalan’s career went decidedly off the rails with a damning string of flops (The Happening and After Earth, to name just two exhibits) until finding redemption as a low-budget horror director, making The Visit under the Blumhouse Productions banner. His inexpensive, multiple-personality psychological-horror picture, Split, was even more warmly received upon its release 16 months later, granting Shyamalan the green light to make good on the shared-reality implications of that film’s mid-credits cameo from Unbreakable’s David Dunn (Bruce Willis). Thus, in 2019, Shyamalan has finally released his (sort of) sequel in Glass, a highball of elements from Split and Unbreakable that’s sort of the Avengers: Infinity War of the small-scale, Philadelphia-based Shyamalan Cinematic Universe. As far as Universal-distributed, nearly-two-decades-late sequels to cultish films go, Glass is about as worth the wait as Blues Brothers 2000.
Glass finds Split’s Dissociative Identity Disorder-suffering Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) and Unbreakable’s inordinately strong, nearly invulnerable Dunn essentially where their respective films left them: Crumb’s 24 personalities (collectively known at The Horde) continue to hold teenage girls captive as sacrifice to their revered, super-powered alpha-personality, The Beast, and Dunn continues his patrol as Philly’s shadowy, crime-fighting sentinel, The Overseer. Having escaped Crumb’s clutches years prior, Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) alerts the city to the existence of this deranged, cannibalistic kidnapper, and Dunn is determined to find him before anyone else gets hurt. With the help of his Oracle-esque son Joseph (jarringly-grown-up Unbreakable holdover Spencer Treat Clark), Dunn tracks Crumb down fairly quickly, allowing The Overseer to free some captive cheerleaders and engage The Beast in some leaden, anticlimactic grappling. Before things can go too far, psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) and a swarm of police officers confront and neutralize (how she finds them is never really made clear) the pair of combatants, and remand them to the very same psychiatric facility in which Dunn’s arch-nemesis—the comic book-obsessed hyper-genius Elijah Price, AKA Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson)—has been incarcerated for years.
It’s in this facility that Dr. Staple, absurdly self-identifying as an expert on delusions of being a superhero, studies and engages the three superhuman men with the intent of convincing them that they’re delusional—their supposed powers and weaknesses nothing more than the product of coincidence and misunderstanding. Price is medicated to the point of catatonia, but Crumb and Dunn start to acquiesce to her arguments, lending credence to the ambivalence with which the previous two films treated their abilities. This are-they-or-aren’t-they, “maybe they’re just dudes” back-and-forth comprises the bulk of Glass, peppered by pedantic monologues about comic book tropes, perfunctory childhood flashbacks, and forced visits to comic book stores by the three leads’ familiars: Joseph, Casey, and Price’s mother (Charlayne Woodard ). This endlessly expository majority of the film is eventually rendered pointless because—of fucking course!—Price isn’t actually catatonic, and he masterminds a jailbreak of sorts for himself and his two brethren, with the intent of fulfilling his comic-books-are-real psychosis.
For two acts, Glass coasts along by being merely wordy, condescending (with it’s incessant I-know-comic-books dialogue), and plain boring; in the third act, it truly, almost admirably, goes to shit. Moments that were once melodramatic become full-on lugubrious, seeing respected actors shouting the most preposterous lines (“Have you ever been to a comic book convention? They sell teen TV shows there!”) with a straight face. Shyamalan shows he can’t shoot a fight scene worth a goddamn (POV rig shot, wide, security camera footage, repeat), and his climactic twists now seem pedestrian compared to contemporary comic books movies (say, Batman Begins), let alone to his own earlier oeuvre. (These spoiler-y, late-film narrative turns are intrinsic to the failure of Glass.)
Admittedly, Shyamalan does a few neat things (implying massive action by cutting away to an adjacent location, for example), but for every interesting choice he makes, he lays two more groaners. (1. He never lets you forget the color palette of each leads’ world and characters: green for Dunn, yellow for Crumb, purple for Price. 2. Of course he throws himself another cameo.) He can’t keep his actors on the same page, either: Willis is typically sleepwalking (It’s nice to see him a 12 Monkeys-esque psych ward, again, at least.), Jackson delivers a cringeworthy chunk of ham, and McAvoy amplifies his exhausting, overeager YouTube-character-reel stuff from Split—now thanks to a lame, hypnotic light device that creates rapid-fire personality switches. After crawling back from years of ill repute with two small-scale successes, Shyamalan seems alarmingly eager to get back to his normal arrogant, overreaching bullshit.
For a film he’s been wanting make since at least 2000, Glass is either a George Lucas-ian overthought-but-half-baked idea that’s transformed for the worse over the decades, or Shyamalan is full of shit about working on it for this long. (Dunn’s appearance at the end of Split could’ve very well been a bluff, with Glass being the hastily-thrown-together response once Shyamalan was called on it.) Unbreakable and Split featured some compelling-if-haughty concepts, but both took themselves too seriously as these heavy treatises on comic book archetypes. In light of 19 years of other comic book movies being made by better, more qualified filmmakers using worthy source material, Glass now comes off as even more ridiculously self-serious, while simultaneously negating—in its disastrous conclusion—the very foundation of its predecessors. Maybe Glass is indeed the culmination of Unbreakable and Split that Shyamalan always intended, but it’s kind of sad if he was aiming for “laughable blunder” all this time. Cineplexes are so regularly choked with increasingly-competent superhero fare that the director would have been better off leaving well enough alone. Glass is such a lazy, arbitrary conflation of two of his successful properties that he may as well have plopped Bruce Willis’s ghost in a farm fighting a bunch of water-averse aliens with a baseball bat.
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Studio: Universal Pictures
Runtime: 128 minutes
Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Samuel L. Jackson