DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. M. Night Shyamalan's "Glass" is a direct sequel to two of his previous movies - his 2000 superhero drama "Unbreakable" and his 2017 multiple personality thriller "Split." The story unfolds in the director's hometown of Philadelphia and continues the adventures of three characters gifted with extraordinary powers, played by returning cast members Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson and James McAvoy. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Few filmmakers are as committed to their own preposterousness as M. Night Shyamalan. And after seeing his alternately tortured and inspired new thriller "Glass," I'm not sure whether to be sad or grateful. It's an eccentric, ambitious, perilously self-indulgent sequel that braids together two of his previous movies - "Split," his recent freak-out starring James McAvoy as a serial kidnapper with a severe case of dissociative identity disorder, and "Unbreakable," his melancholy 2000 drama with Bruce Willis as a shatter-proof superhero. Welcome, in other words, to the Shyamalan cinematic universe - a realm of rug-pulling twists and elaborately contrived mythologies, where coincidences don't exist and every childhood trauma is an origin story in the making.
"Unbreakable," as you may know, gave us an origin story for Bruce Willis' character David Dunn but also for his nemesis Elijah Price, a brittle-boned comic book obsessive turned maniacal mass murderer. Samuel L. Jackson is back as Elijah, who now goes by Mr. Glass and has spent almost two decades in a Philadelphia psychiatric hospital. His quarters are about to get a lot more crowded.
As the movie opens, David has embraced his vigilante hero identity. He walks the streets in a hooded poncho, sniffing out evil telepathically. It doesn't take him long to track down James McAvoy's villain, who goes by Kevin Wendell Crumb but has 23 different names and personalities, the most fearsome of which is the beast - a wall-crawling monster with an awesomely ripped torso.
Shortly after David rescues four teenage girls from Kevin's lair, the two men are apprehended by police and thrown into the asylum with Elijah, where they are studied by Dr. Ellie Staple, a psychiatrist played by an intense Sarah Paulson. Her theory is that David, Kevin and Elijah are not, in fact, superhuman beings and that their seemingly extraordinary capabilities have perfectly rational explanations. But Elijah knows better. At one point, he reassures Kevin or, rather, Patricia, one of Kevin's multiple personalities whose job is to protect him from harm.
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SAMUEL L JACKSON: (As Elijah) What's upsetting you, Patricia?
JAMES MCAVOY: (As Patricia) What if he can't do these extraordinary things? What if he's just unwell, like you?
JACKSON: (As Elijah) Everything extraordinary can be explained away, and yet, it is true. I think deep down you know this. Everything we will see and do will have a basis in science. But it will have limits. This is the real world, not a cartoon. And yet some of us don't die from bullets. Some of us can still bend steel. That is not a fantasy.
CHANG: Dr. Staple tells David, Kevin and Elijah that they are suffering from a delusion of grandeur, which might be Shyamalan having a joke at his own expense. Since his phenomenal success with "The Sixth Sense" 20 years ago, he's had one of the more erratic Hollywood careers, marked by high-profile duds and a very public fall from grace. He scored a comeback hit with "Split" two years ago, which suggested that his knack for audacious storytelling hadn't entirely abandoned him.
"Glass" does make good on some of "Split's" promise despite its workman-like action sequences. All those alter egos allow McAvoy to deliver another over-the-top acting tour de force, while Willis' dependable heroics and Jackson's subtle villainy provide a welcome counterbalance.
"Unbreakable" fans will appreciate the emotional continuity of having Charlayne Woodard and Spencer Treat Clark reprise their roles as Elijah's mother and David's son 19 years later. Also back for more is the remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy, who was resilient enough to survive Kevin's kidnapping spree in "Split," though here, she has the icky, Stockholm-ish task of trying to reconnect with her former captor. Eventually, David, Kevin and Elijah find a way to escape their prison and wage war against each other, perhaps, but also against a world that will always fear and persecute them because of their powers.
Shyamalan's lesson is that superheroes are real. Our stories are all connected. And whatever makes you different is also what makes you awesome. It's an inspiring message, but it doesn't feel like the stuff of revelation. The recent "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" succeeded against all reason in revitalizing the superhero genre and turning its derivative qualities into a clever meta-joke. But while Shyamalan has his own scholarly affection for fanboy culture - he even sets a few scenes in an old-school comic book store - his approach to the material feels belabored and obvious by comparison.
He still knows how to build tension inside the frame, how to take your breath away with a simple camera move. But he also insists on stuffing earnest pronouncements into his character's mouths, dishing out explanatory flashbacks like candy and giving himself another painfully pointless directorial cameo. Whether you see this "Glass" as half-full or half-empty is entirely up to you. But there's no mistaking it for the work of anyone else.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic at the LA Times. On the Martin Luther King Day edition of FRESH AIR Monday, Terry talks with Henry Louis Gates. The fifth season of his TV series "Finding Your Roots" is now showing on PBS. And we'll hear what he's learned about his own ancestry. Also, journalist Brian Palmer talks about some troubling views of the Civil War and slavery propagated at publicly funded Confederate historic sites in the South. Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS' "BONGO'S WALTZ")
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Charlie Kaier engineered today's show. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS' "BONGO'S WALTZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.