Despite boasting one of the rockiest careers of any contemporary filmmaker, nobody can accuse M. Night Shyamalan of being scared to take risks. In the early ’00s, Shyamalan was referred to in print as “the next Spielberg;” it was around the time that “Signs” was premiering, before he’d yet produced any mainstream movie that failed.
Many film fans since have assumed that this title went to his head, and may ultimately have led to his downfall as a quality auteur. In this regard, I’d compare Shyamalan less to Spielberg, and more to George Lucas; a filmmaker with niche talents who had one or two unexpected mega-hits very early in his career, which ultimately warped the gravity under his own feet, and ingited decades of rough-and-tumble creative output, even in franchises he’d nailed in the past.
The director’s newest film, “Glass,” is a testament to that spirit; not an awful movie by any means, but hollow and imperfect enough to still disappoint.
“Glass” serves as a trilogy capper to two previous Shyamalan outings, 2000’s “Unbreakable” and 2017’s “Split.” As one might expect, this is a very difficult film to watch, let alone review, without the foreknowledge of those other films’ content.
A quick re-cap: “Unbreakable” introduced us to David Dunn, played by Bruce Willis, and Elijah Price, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who discover throughout the course of the film that they may potentially embody the roles of real-world comic book archetypes. It sounds kitschy, but “Unbreakable” actually towed the line quite well — for my money, it might be Shyamalan’s best-ever film.
“Split” introduced us to Kevin Wendell Crumb, played by James McAvoy, a DID sufferer with 23 distinct personalities who has a pension for abducting young girls to sacrifice to his most insidious personality, The Beast. Odd and outlandish as the movie seemed as a stand-alone thriller, the closing minutes revealed that “Split” was the origin story for a supervillain in the “Unbreakable” universe, a reveal that seemed to reinvigorate viewers for Shyamalan’s content the world over.
“Glass,” of course, is meant to serve as the connective tissue that unites these three colorful characters in a single narrative, and potentially, set them up for a climactic showdown.
For its sheer audacity and charm of vision, Shyamalan set himself up perfectly for a career reinvigoration with this project; all he had to do was stick the landing. Unfortunately, he didn’t so much stick it as slide to a skidding halt on his rear.
“Glass” is one of those frustrating films that come along every so often, where even if you might be entertained scene-to-scene, you’re left feeling short-changed after the credits roll. It has elements in play that completely make the viewer feel justified in buying their ticket, while on the other hand boasting cinematic offenses that could ward off viewership with equal vigor.
For those who do see “Glass,” they can rest assured that they’ll get amazing performances, at least. All three of the film’s primary characters are reliably compelling on-screen (particularly McAvoy, who is credited with 20 different character names in the cast listing.) Those three actors are backed up by solid supporting work from the likes of Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Spencer Treat Clark, and most scenes devoted to dialogue and interplay between these various characters are consistently watchable. The movie is so actor-centric, its others flaws could nearly be written off as undercooked on purpose.
Where the film really fails, however, is in the execution of its themes and ideas — certainly in the writing, but also in the production itself.
What many may not realize about “Glass” is that it was made for a paltry $20 million. In Hollywood, that’s quite sparce for a movie featuring this caliber of talent. For comparison, the production budget on “Unbreakable” was $75 million, and that was 19 years ago. While budget isn’t usually a vital factor in reviewing a film, it’s notable this time, because keen viewers may notice all the places throughout “Glass” where corners were not-so-creatively cut in order to produce this thing on the cheap.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the film’s basic story structure, where after a promising and energetic opening 15 minutes, all three main characters are locked down in a psychiatric facility, where the vast majority of the rest of the film takes place. In episodic television, this singular-location technique is referred to as “bottling,” and episodes that feature the technique are referred to as “bottle episodes.” These episodes feature storylines that take place largely on one set with limited cast and effects, and they generally happen either to save money for pricier episodes later that season, or mask the fact that the team is short on money altogether. In this sense, “Glass” is, effectively, a “bottle movie.”
It’s unfair to condemn the concept entirely, as other films have used it to great effect. “Reservoir Dogs,” “12 Angry Men,” “Rope,” and “10 Cloverfield Lane” are just a few examples that showcase the technique being utilized cleverly. In the case of “Glass,” the content doesn’t feel well-serviced so much as shoved and jammed to fit.
The film’s finale, which informally pits Willis’ hero against McAvoy and Jackson’s villains, is not the climactic showdown the rest of the film continuously promises is impending. Granted, it’s arguable that this was an intentional subverting of viewer expectations (as Shyamalan is wont to do), but as previously noted, it feels less like that and more like an easy way to save money.
The ending itself also brings on a strange creative decision (that only Shyamalan would dare attempt, by the way) which I presume will cause a lot of viewers to instantly dump whatever goodwill remained.
I suppose the main point is, if you’re going to attempt a franchise-affirming, cross-over project like “Glass,” it’s very important to a.) decipher clearly what it is your audiences hope to see, then try to deliver that in your script in an engaging and satisfying way, and b.) before cameras roll, make sure adequate funding is in place to service what’s on the page.
Shyamalan did neither of those things. This project is riding solely on the strength of the two films that came before it, as well as the admittedly game performances its three stars have come to deliver, and that lost potential is ultimately more the film’s undoing than of the film’s actual content.
To be clear, the movie is okay overall. True vitriol should be dismissed, because “Glass” isn’t nearly as offensive as other Hollywood productions, and the effort to produce original content is always appreciated. It’s just very easy to come down hard on “Glass” in review form, not so much because it’s bad, but because it’s massively disappointing.
“Unbreakable” and “Split” worked like gangbusters in fleshing out these characters, and any viewer with a modicum of imagination can immediately acknowledge that a better product should’ve come from this endeavor.
My honest hope for Shyamalan is that he swallows his pride and chooses to direct some scripts written by other people, at least for a while. His films are generally nicely composited enough as visual experiences, but the constantly faulty nature of his scriptwork ought to have proven by now that the writing process isn’t for him.
Or, sticking with the George Lucas analogy, maybe Shyamalan would be best suited to serve as an industry producer or “idea guy,” somebody who serves to point other aeteurs in the right direction and allow little films to get made just his name being attached. It honestly seems a more fitting role for him, to be a symbol for the spirit of cinema, rather than an actual soldier on the field.
At any rate, it’s January — what else is there to see?
Samuel L. Jackson stars in "Glass."
James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy star in "Glass."