Saturday, June 08, 2019

"Glass": review

[NB: spoilers.]

M. Night Shyamalan's "Unbreakable," a story about superheroes and their relationship to comic books, came out in 2000. Seventeen years later, "Split" continued the oddball superhero story from a very different angle. This year, "Glass" appeared and seemingly completed what was supposed to be the director's trilogy.

The theory that Shyamalan puts forth in his movies is that comic books aren't fiction so much as veiled descriptions of an actual phenomenon: the existence of special people born with particular powers, abilities, and inclinations. Further, the theory—propounded in "Unbreakable" by Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), is that pairs of opposites will appear at roughly the same time. In the 2000 film, Mr. Glass—who suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, a disease that renders his bones extremely brittle—believes that his opposite number, someone utterly "unbreakable," must exist somewhere in the world. Price is an evil genius, so he sets up a series of disasters to see who might survive them. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) survives a train crash that kills everyone else on board, and when Price gets wind of Dunn's survival, he's pretty sure he's found his man. Dunn, along with being phenomenally strong and impervious to everything but water, also has the telepathic power to touch people and see some of their major sins. When Dunn finally meets and shakes hands with Mr. Glass, he realizes that Glass is the "supervillain," if you will, who caused the train crash that killed hundreds of people. For Glass, meeting Dunn is a moment of great vindication: his theory about the existence of superheroes has been confirmed.

Fast-forward seventeen years to the movie "Split," and Dunn appears in a post-credit scene that establishes that Kevin (James McAvoy), who contains over twenty personalities, exists in the same world as Dunn and Glass. Kevin contains, among his multiple personalities, a hulking, feral berserker known as the Beast, and the Beast is obsessed with the idea of purification through suffering. What the Beast doesn't know is that Kevin's father was also on the train that David Dunn had been riding all those years ago, and it was the death of Kevin's father that sent Kevin spiraling into his dissociative identity disorder. This fact isn't revealed until late in the movie "Glass."

In this final entry in the trilogy, the three superhumans—Dunn, Glass, and Kevin—find themselves captured and placed inside a mental institution. Dunn's and Kevin's rooms have been set up to blast them with their respective weaknesses should they try to escape: Dunn's room has a brace of hoses that will incapacitate him (remember: water is his weakness); Kevin's room is rigged with hypnotic, flashing lights that randomly activate his various personalities, preventing him from acting coherently. Mr. Glass, meanwhile, has been catatonic for years, much like the Joker in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, so his room has no special measures built into it. Supervising these three characters is Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson in creepy mode), who brings the three superhumans together to tell them that they are not really superhuman—they merely think they are.

But bringing these three people together proves to be a mistake: Glass revives from his catatonia and contrives a way to break himself and Kevin out of the institution. The mastermind leaves a message for David Dunn, telling him that he plans to reveal to the world that enhanced beings exist; he and the Beast will together wreak havoc at the opening of a new glass tower in Philadelphia, so if David wants to stop them, he'll have to rely on his super strength to break out of his cell. Dunn, who had almost been convinced by Dr. Staple that he was no one special, eventually manages to escape. This takes us to the movie's final act, which takes place in the parking lot in front of the mental institution and not at the glass tower. David's son Joseph, who arrives at the institution as the fighting begins, tells the Beast about how Kevin's father had died in the train crash that Glass had engineered. The ploy only partially works: the Beast thanks Elijah/Glass for creating him, but crushes his bones, anyway. The Beast fights Dunn, but only inconclusively, and Dunn ends up being killed by black-suited commandos who drown him in a puddle inside a pothole in the lot's asphalt. The Beast, meanwhile, sees Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), the girl he had tormented in "Split," and reverts to being Kevin through her kind and calming words. This allows the people who drowned Dunn to shoot Kevin with a sniper rifle (the Beast is arguably bulletproof, but the other personalities are not), and Kevin dies.

So the big reveal in this film is that Dr. Ellie Staple is a member of an old, clandestine society that tracks down and neutralizes superhumans in an effort to keep their existence a secret from the world, preventing people from knowing that "gods" live among them. Her commandos are the ones who drown David Dunn and shoot Kevin (Glass dies from the damage that the Beast did to him). As it turns out, though, Mr. Glass never intended to attack the glass tower: his goal was to garner video footage of the Beast and David Dunn performing superhuman feats, and to release this footage to the world. As he lies dying, Glass tells his distraught mother (who also arrived on scene) that this fight wasn't some final battle: it was an origin story. In other words: once the footage becomes known, other superhumans will come to realize they're not alone, and the world will undergo a revolution.

"Glass" is watchable, but it's also somewhat confusing and disappointing. The character of Glass himself requires a bit of unpacking. He's much like Magneto in the X-Men universe: a genius with something akin to a racialist agenda, someone with a deep conviction that more of his superior "kind" are out there. At the same time—and again, this is like Magneto—Glass is fine with killing masses of people to confirm his central conviction. This makes one wonder what will happen when the world wakes up and realizes that seeming gods walk among them. Since Glass's theory is also that these gods exist as pairs of opposites, then this means the superhuman community is a Manichaean one, representing a balance of good and evil. What's the point of making these special people aware that their "kind" is so numerous, especially if, once aware of who's good and who's bad, they'll array themselves into two tribes that will then battle it out? How does this benefit the world, exactly? Color me perplexed.

As for what was disappointing, it was once again the final twist—the revelation that this secret society exists. The whole point of 2000's "Unbreakable" was that Glass was the one to craft a theory and then confirm it. The existence of this secret society means that Glass merely stumbled upon something that a whole community of god-killers already knew about. Shyamalan's reveal of the secret society in "Glass" diminishes and cheapens the effort and actions of Mr. Glass in "Unbreakable." This is perhaps the most major disappointment for me. Another disappointment, though, was David Dunn's death. As the kids say, Dunn "went out like a bitch." Getting drowned in a shallow pothole-puddle is a horrible way to go, and you'd think the screenwriters could have contrived a better end for the character. Instead of the better end, alas, they went for the bitter end.

As a capstone to a trilogy in a year with several other capstones ("Avengers: Endgame" and "Game of Thrones" also capped off their storylines—reviews and remarks pending), "Glass" could have been much better. It wasn't a completely awful film; I enjoyed, for example, its use of 2000-era footage from "Unbreakable" as flashback material—a clever answer to today's wave of CGI de-aging. But when I compare Shyamalan's movie to something like the "Battlestar Galactica" finale or the "Breaking Bad" finale, it doesn't measure up at all. Sloppy writing is the basic culprit, here, and that's truly a shame because both "Unbreakable" and "Split" are good, solid films. Watch at your own risk.

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