Say what you will about M. Night Shyamalan, he’s left his mark on culture in a way that few of us will achieve: he’s gotten terms named after him. A movie’s third act plot twist forces you to reconsider everything that came before? That’s a Shyamalan twist. It’s not all good, though: like the Weezer of movies, Shyamalan has also become synonymous with filmmakers who destroy their once-promising careers. After making his name with solid thrillers like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and the first 100 minutes of Signs, Shyamalan directed some duds and some crimes against God and man.
His 2016 film Split wasn’t a dumpster fire, so the optimists among us began declaring Shyamalan’s comeback. Admittedly, the movie had a novel premise: Kevin Crumb, a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder and 24 personalities, kidnaps three teenage girls at the behest of an alternate self. Like actual sufferers of DID, Kevin’s body chemistry would undergo small changes when switching personalities—but Shyamalan took this to a ridiculous extreme. Kevin could transform himself into The Beast, a monster with supernatural strength and a taste for human flesh. It made for a half-decent B-movie. But Shyamalan couldn’t leave well enough alone.
Split ended with a credits scene that put it in the same universe as Unbreakable, a genuinely great Shyamalan effort from 2000. Unbreakable was a metacommentary on the superhero genre before the superhero genre got big: the movie’s villain, wheelchair-bound Mr. Glass, was driven to criminal acts by his obsession with comic books. Indulging in stories of heroes and villains indoctrinated him into a moral binary of good vs. evil. He chose the latter, but he wasn’t a supervillain—he was a dangerous case of life imitating art.
As you can probably tell from the title, Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) returns in Glass, Shyamalan’s finale to his loose trilogy. Also returning is Unbreakable protagonist David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a man with incredible strength and a sixth sense for anticipating crime. David, Mr. Glass, and Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy) all end up under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who specializes in delusions of grandeur. By questioning the existence of superhumans, Staple challenges the self-perceptions of her three patients.
After a dull setup—Bruce Willis is bored out of his mind and Shyamalan’s idea of millennial-speak is hard to listen to—Glass seems like it might build to interesting places. Where Unbreakable examined life’s imitation of art, Glass begins by noting that art imitates life, shifting the blame for moral binaries away from comic books. But it doesn’t take long for the movie to devour its own tail.
The screenplay continually circles back to its main question without adding anything. “But have you considered,” Shyamalan asks, “that art imitates life imitating art imitating life?” And so on. Glass treats the mere connection between comic books and reality like some profound realization. When a character tries to prove that superhumans are real by pointing out that Metropolis is based on New York, it’s just exasperating.
But then it gets so much worse. With a signature twist that redefines the entire movie, Shyamalan not only shoots Glass full of holes—he also breaks Unbreakable. The third act’s message is the exact opposite of what Unbreakable suggested 19 years ago. The movie reveals a world of black and white morality that would make Mr. Glass feel at home. Shyamalan literally becomes his own villain. The irony is painful.
And that’s not even getting at the movie’s numerous other flaws. The stigmatization of mental health and psychiatric providers is even stronger here than in Split; some of the dialogue is borderline dangerous in that regard. Countless moments meant for drama are instead unintentionally funny. The action scenes, some of which are awkwardly shot in POV, are downright pathetic and carry no momentum. Glass is only saved by knockout performances from James McAvoy and Samuel L. Jackson—McAvoy in particular is a lot of fun to watch as he slides effortlessly between personalities.
But that’s really all Glass has going for it; the rest is just further erosion of Shyamalan’s (accidental?) legacy. I’m disappointed that The Last Airbender exists because I’d like to call this Shyamalan’s worst movie. At least it’s close.