Friday, 18 January 2019

Glass: Shyamalan blows it

It's January 2019, and we're staring down the barrel of probably one of the biggest years for superhero movies since 2018. With Marvel about to shatter box office records worldwide, the X-Men due to reboot again for a new generation and DC set to, uh... do whatever it is they do, it would seem the time is ripe for a bold, original voice to bring some fresh commentary to the genre. Step forward M Night Shyamalan, who kind of had a stab at this with 2000's Unbreakable, then retroactively incorporated 2017's Split into the same cinematic universe in a tossed-off mid-credits scene that would have been a great MCU-referencing gag if only he hadn't then decided to turn into a full-length feature.

So does Shyamalan bust open the superhero mythology? Can we ever see caped crusaders in the same way again? Does Glass have anything useful to add to the global conversation whatsoever? Respectively: no, yes, and kind of, eventually.
"Who painted this room, Stevie Wonder?"

An extended prologue reintroduces us to Bruce Willis' indestructible - you might even say unbreakable - David Dunn and James McAvoy's alarmingly ripped multiple schizophrenic Kevin Crumb, whose many personalities are collectively known as The Horde. The former is on the hunt for the latter, and with the help of Dunn's son (played, wonderfully, by the same actor who played him as a kid nineteen years ago) these two super-powered (or ARE they?, etc) weirdos briefly face off before being captured and chucked into a loony bin by Sarah Paulson's psychiatrist Ellie Staple, who appears to have been taking make up tips from a psychotic ventriloquist's dummy.

And so we're off into a whirlwind of adventure, as these two freaks of nature are pitted against each other in a tense battle of strength and wits that will - oh no wait sorry hang on, silly me, I was thinking of something fun. What I meant to say is that Dunn and Crumb spend the best part of an hour locked in their cells having long, boring chats with Dr Staple about whether or not their powers are genuinely "super" or just exaggerated everyday skills. Dunn's original nemesis, Mr Glass, is conveniently locked up in the same hospital, but in a typically Shyamalanesque twist the director has hired the effervescent Samuel L Jackson and then told him to sit motionless and silent for an eternity.
"You mean I don't even get to say 'muthafucka', muthafucka?"

All of this seems deliberately anti-superhero-movie, and fair enough, but goodness me is it patience-testing. It's unclear what any character wants from any of this or why we should care, it goes nowhere for a really long time and it revolves entirely around the "are they superpowered?" question, which frankly just boils down to semantics. Batman and Iron Man aren't superpowered but you don't see Robin or Pepper Potts sitting down and yakking about it for days on end.

At one point Shyamalan seems to realise that as he's spent millions of dollars and several years getting these three actors in the same film, maybe he should get them in the same scene, so sets another tedious blah-fest in a large, inexplicably pink room where they sit next to each other but don't interact at all. It's all so dull that you start to pick holes in the film, like how Dr Staple was able to whisk two dangerous individuals off to a psychiatric hospital just like that, or why that hospital only employs one nurse at a time and a handful of guards who are the dictionary definition of useless, or why - with all this talk of superheroes being fictional - nobody ever says how much they're looking forward to Avengers: Endgame. In fairness, some of this is arguably explained in the film's climax. Explained, perhaps, but not excused: if you're going to have a big reveal, it helps if the audience have been invested in the mystery all along (cf The Sixth Sense), rather than alienated to the point of contemplating how long it is till Captain Marvel comes out.
"Seven weeks? SEVEN WEEKS?!"

The plot does thicken a little, there is, perhaps, a vaguely new and interesting take on the old "can vigilantism be justified?" chestnut and Shyamalan offers a neat idea surrounding that question in the dying moments of his film, but it's not enough. After hinting towards the kind of big-budget climax we've been itching for, he delivers a tussle in a car park; James McAvoy's jaw-dropping performance in Split is repeated here to considerably lesser effect, and Samuel L Jackson's genuine superpowers as an actor are completely wasted. But most crippling of all is that Dunn and Crumb's stories barely connect, and when they do it feels like Shyamalan's desperately trying to justify the idea of bringing them together and never truly succeeding.

Kudos to Shyamalan for pushing the real-worldliness of his superhero trilogy, but it's unlikely to find its place as a key text in the annals of the genre. Unbreakable took a hundred minutes to get going and then promptly ended, Split boasted a magnificent central performance and little else, and Glass is a weak and ultimately misguided attempt to tie the two together. It's still better than anything DC have curled out in the last five years, but you'll have a better, cheaper time if you just stay at home and stick the Spider-Man: Far From Home trailer on again.

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