When the Segway first arrived on the market in 2001, it was thought to be the future of transportation, replacing bikes, skateboards and motorized scooters. Around the same time, tracksuits in “futuristic” colors such as silver and black became increasingly popular as everyday streetwear. And in 2002, famed director M. Night Shyamalan graced the cover of Newsweek, which hailed him as “the next Spielberg.”
In other words, a lot can change in just less than a couple of decades. Shyamalan’s latest venture — the ambitious but disappointing “Glass” — proves that the future where Shyamalan rides a Segway up to the stage to collect his Academy Award for Best Director while wearing a silver tracksuit is no more.
When Shyamalan released the comic book-inspired “Unbreakable” in the year 2000, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was still eight years away from coming into fruition. It’s fair to say that the director of “The Sixth Sense” was ahead of his time. Now, in the age of superheroes dominating the big screen, Shyamalan has set out to remind us of just that by resurrecting a 19-year-old story for today’s superhero-savvy audiences and adding to the mix a pleasurable dose of self-awareness with dialogue and story arcs that pose not so subtly as classic comic book fodder.
“Glass” is a sequel merging two of Shyamalan’s previous flicks — “Unbreakable” and “Split.” If you need a refresher, “Unbreakable” follows David Dunn (Bruce Willis) on his journey to understanding that his death-defying experiences and impressive strength are superpowers. He’s aided along the way by comic book connoisseur Elijah Prince, or “Mr. Glass” (Samuel L. Jackson), who is eventually revealed as Dunn’s foil, a villainous mastermind. “Split,” meanwhile, introduces audiences to Kevin (James McAvoy), a young man with 24 distinct personalities including “The Beast,” a creature that can scale walls and survive bullet wounds.
In “Glass,” Mr. Glass orchestrates a showdown between Dunn and “The Beast” in order to prove to the world that comic book characters live among us. It’s a movie that prides itself on being trope-tastic. It’s cliche on purpose and aggressively meta. Usually, this is funny. In moments, however, it comes across as lazy.
“Glass” leans heavily on McAvoy, whose seamless character-switching is a spectacle worth the watch. As he glides from the wide-eyed 9-year-old with a lisp into the classy “high priestess,” or from the stern germaphobe to the flirtatious young woman, we feel as though we’re simply changing channels on the television, flipping between radically different protagonists. If only it were as impressive the fourth time Shyamalan shows off McAvoy as the first three times — while McAvoy’s acting is more than a party trick, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get old.
And it’s not as if Shyamalan was short on talented actors to draw upon — Jackson’s Mr. Glass is wastefully rendered sedated for the first third of the film, while compelling performances from Sarah Paulson and Anya Taylor-Joy fail to bring value to their characters’ choices, which go woefully unjustified in the script.
Weak character development is not the script’s only failing. At this point, it’s become apparent that Shyamalan feels obligated to stick some kind of sneaky twist into every movie he directs, whether or not such a twist is warranted. “Glass” boasts more than a couple of twists, turns and revelations, but they aren’t earned and only inspire indifference. It’s an issue exacerbated by a low-stakes plot — not that “Glass” would ever have worked as a save-the-world big-budget endeavour — where the majority of the runtime is spent dragging its feet to a climax that never quite climaxes.
That being said, there’s something to be appreciated in the self-contained, unambitious narrative. A superhero movie that doesn’t boast of putting the entire universe on the line? It’s refreshing. And for all that they are misused, the wacky cast of characters that Shyamalan has assembled does a rock-solid job of toeing the line between committing to their choices and not taking themselves too seriously.
So, if we’re likening Shyamalan to Steven Spielberg, “Glass” is more “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” than it is “Saving Private Ryan.” We can only wonder what plot twist Shyamalan will bring next in his roller coaster of a directing career.