Eastrail 177 Trilogy
by Dennis Campbell
As James McAvoy delivers the opening narration as Patricia, woven underneath the chilling performance is seemingly a message from Director M. Night Shyamalan, ‘trust me, as you always have.’
As I watched the credits roll on what had been a trilogy nearly two decades in the making. I realized that to simply talk about what I had seen tonight would not do this film series justice. Rather, if you will indulge me, I would like to look back on the Eastrail 177 Trilogy as a whole. To try and better understand why it took so long for this franchise to wrap up, and why it is so unique compared to other movies today. First, before we do a deep rewind of events. I feel it is necessary to just go over the story as we know it to this point in time. We were first introduced to Shyamalan’s superhero universe with the 2000 hit, Unbreakable. In that film it is discovered that David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is the sole survivor of a deadly train accident (Eastrail 177) that took the lives of 133 people. Not only does he survive, but Dunn walks away from the carnage unscathed. Obviously, this raises some questions on his part, and it isn’t until he meets Elijah ‘Mr. Glass’ Price (Samuel L. Jackson), that David begins to understand his true role in this world. Much like David, Elijah is unique, or as he would say ‘extraordinary.’ Similar to how David has superhuman strength, Elijah is the opposite of the equation, he has extremely brittle bones that break with just the slightest touch. This is the product of Stage One Osteogenesis Imperfecta. Yet, he has the cognitive abilities to over come this, and is one of the smartest men alive. By the end of the movie, it is revealed that Elijah had been orchestrating disasters, such as the train accident David was in, in the hopes he could find someone else like him. Elijah believes that comic books are a record of ancient humans that have been exaggerated over time. He cites David’s ability to touch someone and know their true intentions as an example of this, Elijah compares it to x-ray vision. The movie ends with Elijah being taken into custody, with a few lines of text explaining that he is now in a Psychiatric Hospital. Sixteen years later, the world was given a very solid Thriller by the name of Split, which for all but the closing moments seemed to be a stand-alone film. In the movie, James McAvoy plays Kevin Wendel Crumb, a man who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). For Kevin, this means he has a total of twenty-three different personalities, or alters, that are all working towards revealing a hidden personality known only as ‘the Beast.’ This twenty-fourth alter is someone who has super strength, can climb walls and has accelerated speed. The alters plan on sacrificing three girls who were kidnapped to the Beast as way to purge the world of people who have not suffered. The plan does not go entirely according to plan as there is one survivor, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is let go once it is revealed she was abused as a child. In the closing moments of the movie, we see a diner with David Dunn talking about Mr. Glass, linking the two films together. Now it is three years later and the conclusion to this long-delayed franchise is finally here.
With so many superhero movies coming out month after month, with storylines spanning multiple franchises and characters being rebooted every ten years, it is worth understanding why The Eastrail 177 Trilogy stands out. First and foremost, Unbreakable came out during a time when comic book movies were unique and not often done. Rather, the year 2000 was dominated by Comedies, with award winning films such as Almost Famous and Meet the Parents taking up most of the limelight. Although we would get the first film in the live action X-Men series just a few months later, Unbreakable still predates the Marvel Cinematic Universe by eight years, and the Christopher Nolan Batman movies by five years. Even the original Spiderman Trilogy came out after Unbreakable, so it truly was ahead of its time. Prior to its release there was a clear distinction between superheroes and regular people. It was established that a regular person could not be a superhero, they had to either be born with powers or have substantial wealth to fund their cause. In the case of Unbreakable, we have ordinary people who have extraordinary abilities while still fulfilling the classic superhero tropes. There is Elijah who plays the role of the mastermind but is not physically gifted, much like Lex Luthor whereas David has super strength and near invulnerability, in line with Superman. Moreover, both characters have one fatal weakness. This trend continues in Split where Kevin is an average person but through his DID becomes something more. Another trend that Unbreakable predates is the grounding of superhero movies in reality. While Nolan’s trilogy is the best example of this, Unbreakable takes place in Philadelphia and everything obeys the laws of physics, something that prior superhero movies did not care to do. There is a scene where David is testing his powers by lifting weights and he struggles to lift the several hundreds of pounds, this human reaction to the weight is something that shows us he is in fact human. By comparison, the most recent installment to the Batman franchise, Batman and Robin, included a scene where Batman and Robin wind surf from the clouds on metal doors. Another reason as to why Unbreakable was ahead of its time is simply the tone of the film. It is a dark and edgy film that comes on the heels of the 90s, a decade filled with family friendly movies and an effort to move away from controversial images on screen. Now, the darker tone is embraced in Hollywood and has seeped into the superhero genre as well. With this being the first movie to truly embrace both of those qualities, it shines through.
Despite how groundbreaking it is, I find it surprising that The Eastrail 177 Trilogy reached its conclusion. Considering the considerable lack of studio support and time spent between movies. Although the first movie grossed a total of $248.1 million off a $75 million budget, there was very little talk from Disney of putting out a sequel. This comes despite the interest from Shyamalan who has consistently over the years talked about how the story was not complete, and he wanted to film new entries. There are a few reasons why this might be the case. The first is one of the reasons the series is held in such high regard. As I said earlier, Unbreakable came out in a time that was family friendly and stood out due to its dark tone. Considering it would be several years before the somber tone would be embraced, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Disney had reservations. Unbreakable was released under their Touchstone Pictures label, and in the nineties, Touchstone released 111 films, with only eleven of those being Thrillers. It very well may be that Disney did not want to produce a sequel because it didn’t fit their tone at the time. Then again, considering how many flops Shyamalan provided between Unbreakable and Split, it is understandable that a studio might hesitate to fund him. From 2006 to 2013 the films, Lady in the Water, The Happening, Avatar: The Last Airbender and After Earth were directed by Shyamalan and were released all in a row. When averaged out, those films have a score of 14.75% on Rotten Tomatoes, after striking gold with the Sixth Sense as his debut film, his career looked to be dead in the water. It was not just the critics that held these movies in low regard, Samuel L. Jackson made this comment to Rotten Tomatoes in during the buildup for Glass:
He [Shyamalan] got banged around between those movies and Split, and it’s one of those things that you either learn from, or you keep trying to impose your will on something that’s just not gonna bend to you.
Aside from his reputation being tarnished, there were legal reasons preventing Glass from being made. The rights to the David Dunn and Elijah Price characters are currently held by Disney, whereas the rights to Kevin and his alters are owned by Universal Pictures. The idea of the two studios coming together to allow a film to be made was highly unlikely, with Shyamalan calling it ‘a once-in-a-lifetime event.’ He would go onto say:
I don’t think this will ever happen again, where two studios had two IPs they completely owned, and I said ‘can we make a sequel to both, and you guys share it?’ and they said ‘Yes.’
Glass is the first film to ever be co-produced by Universal and Disney, two studios that have been at war with each other for half a century in both film and theme parks. Prior to Glass, the two studios had only worked on television shows together, the most notable one being Monk. Once After Earth bombed at the box office, Shyamalan took a two-year break and began focusing more on writing his next movie. In 2015 he finally returned to form with the Found Footage Horror film, the Visit, a film about two children who go to visit their grandparents only to find that they are acting very odd. The movie received mixed reviews from critics and fans alike, but this was still a massive improvement from his most recent works. He rode this momentum into Split, and three years later, here we are.
Much to the film’s credit, Glass does not hesitate with the action. Right away we see another group of girls who are being held captive by Kevin. Although we will be given a heavy amount of exposition later, this quick entry into the film leads with the assumption that we have seen the previous two movies. By now, the media has taken hold of the events from Split and when the news of five more girls have gone missing the city of Philadelphia is put on notice. Shortly after the girls are shown, David is revealed to still be fighting crime, now under the moniker ‘the Overseer.’ In what is a beautifully shot sequence, David takes down two people who assaulted a random bystander. The scene starts in a house that is well-lit. As David walks through the house he turns off the lights in each room, using the shadows to his advantage. The first glimpse we see of him is of a towering cloaked figure obscured by darkness. Struck by fear, all the remaining threat can muster is ‘it’s you’ before he is silenced.
Aiding David in his quest to end crime is his son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), who reprises his role from Unbreakable. Joseph acts as the Oracle of the movie by researching and communicating with David. While on patrol David comes across one of Kevin’s alters, Hedwig, a nine-year-old boy, and after bumping into him David sees where the girls are being held and rescues them. While David brawls with the Beast, there is an armed cavalry that arrives to subdue both David and the Beast. Heading the charge is a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who wants to convince the men that they suffer from a mental disorder that has led them to believe they are superheroes. Something this movie does is that it mirrors other superhero movies from recent years. This scene is reminiscent to one in Man of Steel, where Superman surrenders himself to police rather than hurting them and escaping. In this instance, David could easily dismantle the armed men, but surrenders to keep them safe. Dr. Staple takes them to the same facility that Elijah is and through multiple therapy sessions, Kevin and David begin to question whether they have powers. Elijah however is not convinced and concocts a plan to have David and Kevin fight each other in front of millions of viewers. The rest of the movie is a Chess match as Dr. Staple tries to cure them, and Elijah attempts to make the world see how special they truly are.
From the beginning of the film, Shyamalan’s skill as a director is on full display. Despite all his missteps, it cannot be said he does not know how to shoot a scene. The cinematography is stunning, using unique angles and effective lighting to add another layer of suspense to what is already a nail bitter of a film. While Patricia is giving the opening dialogue, the camera is pointed upwards from the girl’s perspective, it is as if we are the ones being held captive. All throughout the film there are shots where the camera remains still and the character speaking looks directly into it while the rest of the shot slowly fades out of focus (a staple of Shyamalan films), although the subject matter is terrifying the film itself looks beautiful.
In terms of acting, there is not a single performance that is underwhelming. Starting with the stars, Bruce Willis portrays David Dunn brilliantly, the way he makes the character relate-able to ‘the everyman’ is special. We see him go to work each day and all throughout there is the feeling that this is a real person. Perhaps most crucial of all, Willis does such a good job as David that the idea that this is the same character is very believable. More than anything, David is supposed to be a protector, and the best acting we see from Willis comes from when he goes out of his way to protect the innocent people involved. During the climatic conclusion, there are two civilians that are trapped in a truck. Although it results in him taking more damage, David shows genuine concern for them and works for them to escape. His counterparts are just as phenomenal, if James McAvoy does not win an Academy Award for his performance it will be a crime. There are several scenes where McAvoy shifts between as many as nine alters, each of them has their own facial expressions, speech patterns and mannerisms, and McAvoy masters all of them. While he was great in Split, we only saw nine alters. In Glass he is credited with twenty alters. According to Shyamalan, there is footage of McAvoy preforming all twenty-three alters, but they were unable to fit them into the movie. What makes his performance even more impressive is that there are times where some of the alters pretend to be another alter. This happens a few times, the first being when one of the more dominant alters, Dennis, pretends to be Jade, an alter who has diabetes. Dennis does this to try and trick one of the orderlies into giving him a needle. Pulling the strings between Willis and McAvoy is Samuel L. Jackson, who gives one of his best performances in years. Much like Willis, you believe that this is the same character from Unbreakable. Several characters laud his intellect and we even see Elijah outsmart the same doctors that are keeping him there. In the first meeting between Elijah and Patricia, Elijah explains in great detail the routine of the orderlies and even knows that a car backfires at a certain time, creating enough noise for him to escape.
The supporting characters are brilliant as well. The two standouts are Sarah Paulson and Anya Taylor-Joy. Paulson, who previously starred as Marcia Clark on American Crime Story: The People vs O.J. Simpson, for which she won a Golden Globe for, along with the current Netflix sensation, Birdbox as Jessica, portrays Dr. Staple as a strong and determined character. She is the only one who matches Elijah in his intelligence, and when she needs to emote no one on screen is better. Her performance is so convincing that even I began to wonder if the series would simply end with the three of them being discharged and cured of their disorder. Helping Paulson in the therapy is Taylor-Joy who reprises her role as Casey, the lone survivor from Kevin’s kidnapping in Split. She attempts to level with Kevin by showing that they are not very different, having both gone through abuse in their life. There is a moment when her compassion breaks through all the alters and Kevin and Casey speak to each other as friends. I would say the most satisfying thing about this movie is that Casey’s uncle is revealed to be in prison. Given how much time we have spent with her over the course of the past two movies, to know her abuser is behind bars brought some relief.
I do appreciate that all the characters that appear in the previous films, are reprised by their respective actors or actresses. Other examples of this are the very talented Charlayne Woodard as Elijah’s mother, Mrs. Price, Bostin Christopher as the comic book shop owner and even Shyamalan reprises his role as Jai from the previous two movies. This adds familiarity and makes it easier to believe that these characters are real.
One of the more important aspects to a movie to me is the lighting used. If you utilize lighting well, then the tension in a scene is amplified. Or, you could add a layer of mystique to a character, think of Don Corleone at the beginning of the Godfather. He is wearing a dark suit and is sitting in a dimly lit room. That type of effect is used in Glass, and the movie excels because of it.
An interesting inclusion to the film is the deleted scenes from Unbreakable. Used as flashbacks, we see the outcomes of several pivotal scenes from the first film. If nothing else, Glass is worth watching for these glimpses of never seen footage.
There are very few negatives that stuck out with the film. The most glaring however is that despite the initial few scenes where we are thrown into the story, Glass spends much of the first two acts setting up the characters involved in the story. I understand that Shyamalan was in a tough situation here. This is a trilogy that had a sixteen and then a three-year break in between movies, and the only thing connecting the first two is a quick diner scene at the end of Split. True, both movies take place in Philadelphia and it takes place in modern day, so in terms of continuity the movies mesh. However, I feel all the setting up should have been finished in Split. Instead, Glass struggles to conclude the trilogy while setting it up as well. A good example of this comes from one of the therapy sessions. We are given a full breakdown of all the characters abilities and who they are. I do feel bad for giving this criticism. Part of me believes that it is not Shyamalan’s fault. If Disney had supported a sequel all those years ago, then maybe we would have been given a more complete story. Instead, these three films feel as if they are their own stand-alone movies. The other drawback is the music in the film. Music, much like lighting, can have a major impact on a scene. However, while it is important to have atmospheric sounds when necessary, it is just as crucial to know when for there not to be music. As much as I love this movie, the music in it is distracting. It seemed like there was a song playing in every scene. While each character had their own identifiable song, I found it hard to focus on the screen at times.
The one question I wanted answered going into this movie was ‘is this a satisfying conclusion?’ To me, the answer is ‘yes, yes, it is.’ While there is certainly more that could have been done to make it a more complete story, I left happy that I had seen the picture. I do believe it was worth the nineteen years to get to this point. Critically, Glass is receiving negative reviews. As of right now, Glass sits at 35% as compared to Unbreakable which is at 69% and Split which rests at 76%. Personally, I feel that rating is misleading. At its best, Glass is a deconstruction of the superhero genre, the types of movies that swamp theaters all throughout the year. The breaking down of each character’s psyche and motivations does more character building in even the best Marvel or DC films. I hesitate to simply call this movie a character study, but I feel it at least has the outline of one. Outside of that the acting is brilliant and the direction is spot on. The movie keeps you guessing, which is something you might expect in a Shyamalan film, but considering how notorious he is for adding a twist the fact he is still able to surprise the audience speaks to his writing ability. I highly suggest you watch the first two movies in the trilogy before seeing Glass. While it is possible to understand the story without the knowledge you gain from them, I feel the journey you share with the characters makes the task worth it. Overall, Glass is an effective Thriller that you cannot afford to miss and concludes one of the best trilogies of the twenty-first century.
Until next time.