M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable trilogy

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In 1999 M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense was hugely successful and deservedly so. However, in 2002 I thought Signs was dreadful (I’m sorry but who the hell collects water, maybe if the aliens had been allergic to baseball cards I would’ve enjoyed the film more). In 2004 I decided to stop going to see Shyamalan’s films after The Village totally failed to surprise me – for some reason I knew the village was a modern day backwards cultish enclave. Oh yeah, spoiler alert! Don’t read on if you haven’t seen the Unbreakable trilogy yet.

A few years later I saw Lady in the Water and thought it was mediocre (although I don’t think I realised at the time it was a Shyamalan film). Then I found The Happening to be truly madly deeply awful and was disappointed by the outcome of Devil although I liked the ideas behind the film. I recall at the time being saddened by the apparent demise of Shyamalan’s filmmaking.

I gave the The Last Airbender (2010) two stars and described it as ‘a terrible Hollywood whitewash conversion of a beloved comic’ as part of a post lamenting the passing of LoveFilm. Again I don’t think I realised it was a Shyamalan film at the time. And then we were served up the sloppy dish of piss that was After Earth (2013). Here’s what I had to say on that score back in 2015:

Oh dear. I burst out laughing when I saw M. Night Shyamalan on the credits. It explains a lot. I am so not a fan of this Emperor in new clothes. This film is really quite bad. Where X-Men is full of neat ideas After Earth is full of things that have been done a million ways to death.

Jaden Smith actually comes out looking like the better actor than his poor old pops overacting as the estranged father. Scenes from old Tarzan and Sinbad movies, Avatar and The Lord of the Rings are played out on a sci-fi canvas designed for 3D cinemas. While some of the spacecraft and prop design is quite interesting it doesn’t seem to shout out (like Star Trek) that it could actually work and some of the creature design is just woefully unimaginative. Also if they are on planet Earth then why is everything designed to kill humans? No explanation is given. This film is like the polar opposite of X-Men, avoid.

I avoided visiting The Visit in 2015 and also watching Split (2016) and Glass (2019) at the cinema. Although I had heard good things about the latter two films, I was so fed up of being disappointed/infuriated by Shyamalan that the praise fell on deaf ears. It wasn’t until someone pointed out that the two films were the culmination of the long ago promised trilogy for which Unbreakable (2000) was meant to be part one that my curiosity was piqued.

I have such a soft spot for Unbreakable. Despite being a little disappointed with it when I saw it originally at the cinema, it left a lasting impression. So much so that I think that it has influenced my writing – especially the ‘supernaturals’ series Broken / Lucky / Bad Blood / Black Book which are never quite superhero stories but treated in a different way might be seen to conform to a lot of the tropes.  I also wouldn’t be surprised if Radiohead’s lyrics to their song ‘Lucky’ which had an influence on me writing Lucky were inspired by the film – Pull me out of the air crash / Pull me out of the lake / Cos I’m your superhero…

So based on that love for Unbreakable, I temporarily switched off my Shyamalan-is-shit attitude for three nights and watched the trilogy. While I’m not going to write an open letter of apology to the writer/director I will say to you up front that if you liked Unbreakable, then you must watch the other two films. They are not without their flaws but they are pretty cool when viewed as a whole. Did I just describe something by Shyamalan as ‘cool’..? Yipes.

Unbreakable (2000) stars Bruce Willis as David Dunn who is the lone survivor of a terrible train crash. Dunn goes on to question the fact that he has never been ill or taken a sick day off work. Dunn works as a security guard at a football stadium where he benefits from his uncanny instinct to spot troublemakers. In a typically awkward cameo appearance Shyamalan plays a drug dealer stopped and searched by Dunn.

The brittle-boned wheelchair bound comic book gallery owner Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) a.k.a. Mr Glass reads about Dunn in the local paper and contacts him, convinced that Dunn is in fact a superhero. Dunn takes some convincing but eventually embraces his abilities – strength, resilience and the ability to ‘read’ people by touch and uses them vigilante style to rescue two kids from a home invasion situation. Glass then reveals himself as an evil genius behind the the train wreck and countless other naughtiness.

As an origin story it is very good, however as a stand-alone film it is rather peculiar. There’s a lot of memory-checking, staring off into the distance and reluctant hero bullshit until the last twenty minutes when stuff actually starts happening. Glass pontificates a lot about comics and figures out Dunn’s kryptonite (drowning in water) and then pretty much holds his hands out to be cuffed for all his terrorist activities. Well-balanced storytelling this is not.

Split (2016) in my opinion is probably the best film of the bunch as a stand alone offering. It doesn’t rely on viewers having seen Unbreakable and it rather feels like Dunn is bolted onto the end of the film in a quick Willis cameo to link the films together. The scene features the clumsiest bit of scriptwriting I’ve heard in a while. It stands out like a sore thumb after a brilliant performance from James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb and his 23 other identities (of which we see about eight).

James McAvoy makes this film what it is with some great character acting and a very convincing portrayal of the villain The Beast. Any Taylor-Joy, who we’ve recently seen also in this year’s excellent season of Peaky Blinders, is also very good as Casey the single surviving girl. All the rest of the actors in the film pretty much suck. The dialogue is dreadful in places which doesn’t help. I really think Shyamalan would fair better as a co-writer as he has some great ideas (and is a great director stylistically and visually) and then always seems to falter in delivering them in the script.

The story can also be considered as an origin story – this time for the villain of the trilogy who will then be pitted against Dunn in the final film Glass. Something I really liked, apart from the main lead actors’ performances and the story was the way the opening scene with Casey looking in the car mirrors and the swaying side to side pan mirrored the scene on the train in Unbreakable where we see Willis’s character through the gaps of the seats in front. And we get to see this scene (and a deleted scene from Unbreakable in the third film) again in Glass where Shyamalan has connected the story of Crumb’s father to that of Dunn and Glass. I actually gave the writer a little clap for that scene. Like he needs my approval.

While I was watching Split I was reminded somewhat of the 2003 film Identity and of course more recently Fight Club and Mr Robot. But that’s not a bad thing at all, and actually I remember Identity being a bit lame actually. Split has a more satisfying ending and made me want to watch Glass all the more. A Shyamalan film that made me want to watch another Shyamalan film… who would’ve thunk it!

Glass (2019) doesn’t not make a good stand alone film at all, but it certainly fulfils its role as the third film in the Unbreakable trilogy with aplomb. The reason I say this is that the promised ending – the big face off in a huge new tower block – is used as a diversion by Glass to cover his true intentions – revealing the existence of superheroes/villains to the world via YouTube (I know come on, it’s a Shyamalan film!). The films go against the rub of the studio cash cow Marvel and DC films and I like that about them. So instead of  special-effects laden CG-fest smash up in a huge office block we get a scrap in a car park. And who doesn’t like a scrap in a car park (the first rule of Fight Club is…)?

It was great to see Spencer Treat Clark reprise his role as Dunn’s son – now all grown up (it’s been nineteen years!) and playing the role of computer back-up to the hero. Any Taylor-Joy, is back as Casey – who seems to be the only one who really understands and wants to help Crumb, and Charlayne Woodard is back as Mr Glass’s mom. These actors plus the three principles are fine. Even the ‘I’ve turned over a new leaf’ Shyamalan cameo reprise isn’t so bad. However, as usual the rest of the actors are pretty dreadful and I’m sorry to say that includes American Horror Story‘s Sarah Paulson. Again maybe their hearts weren’t into delivering the lines and it shows in the performance.

The film’s a bit of a hot mess but it’s an entertaining mess and I like the fact that Mr Glass isn’t as much of an out and out bad guy in this film. I suppose most of McAvoy’s characters aren’t either – we get to see a lot more of them albeit briefly in this film. I like the ambiguity of it especially when it’s juxtaposed with the very monolithic Batman-esque attitude of Dunn’s. Also I love the colour palettes used for all the main characters which evokes the idea of comic book inking.

I’m not sure about the cloverleaf ‘kill the specials!’ secret organisation, but if you’re exploring tropes then fair enough I guess. It worked for Jumper and the X-Men film franchise so why not glass? As usual Shyamalan wants to provide a twist and he couldn’t exactly wheel out another character from another film. Wind machine anyone? It certainly confused the hell out of me for a bit. I was like ‘Err why is that man drowning Bruce in a big puddle?’. And moreover whats’ Shyamalan’s problem with water?

All in all a very satisfying trilogy for fans of the original film. I do doff my cap to Shyamalan on this occasion, but I won’t be eating my hat quite yet.

By the way there’s a bunch more Honest Trailers for most of Shyamalan’s films which are well worth a look if you’ve seen them. And if you haven’t, why have you got this far down the post!?

“I add depth and shading to give the image more definition. Only then does the drawing truly take shape…”

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