“It’s hard for many people to believe that there are extraordinary things inside themselves, as well as others. I hope you can keep an open mind.”
What is M Night Shyamalan’s most important film? Is it The Sixth Sense: his breakthrough horror film? Is it Split: his most recent film that has confirmed his return to form? It’s neither, his most important film is his own brand of superhero origin story Unbreakable. All of these films share a variety of connections: Split and Unbreakable are part of the same universe, confirmed by David Dunn’s (Bruce Willis) cameo at the end of Split, and 17 years after Unbreakable. All of these films feature Bruce Willis, and tell relatively intimate stories about big ideas. The extraordinary is very much bogged down by the ordinary in these films: Shyamalan’s tales of the paranormal don’t the requisite high stakes of a typical Hollywood blockbuster, instead each film is about coming to terms with why you’re different and finding a path back to the people you love and away from the things that hurt you.
The Sixth Sense is a perfect representation of this: Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) is helped by Dr Malcolm Crowe to accept his ability to communicate with the dead by helping them, and in doing so repairs his relationship with his mother by being honest with her. The irony is that Crowe himself is a ghost who himself needs to help Cole in order to fulfil his desire right a past mistake by helping Cole, accept he doesn’t know that he’s dead until the task is done. For a chilling film it has a tremendously uplifting message.
Now there is absolutely no evidence that The Sixth Sense is part of the Unbreakable universe, but Cole wouldn’t be out of place in it. Which brings us to Unbreakable and its relationship to Split. There is the obvious connections of Dunn’s appearance, the mention of Mr Glass who is still incarcerated, and the suggestion that Kevin (James McAvoy) began to display symptoms of DID after his father died in a train crash, possibly the train crash caused by Mr Glass in Unbreakable in which Dunn was the only survivor.
The more tangible connection is how each film is made. Unbreakable is a superhero origin story, Split is a supervillain origin story as Kevin’s personalities become The Horde. It’s the knowledge of the Horde that brings Dunn out of retirement, if what the director has said about the Unbreakable sequel is true. It’s the opposition of each character that is the key. David Dunn becomes a hero with the help of Elijah Price aka Mr Glass, at the end of the film, once the truth about Price’s murderous actions becomes clear Dunn makes sure he’s locked up, however this cannot break the bond that they have with each other, like the best heroes and villains: they complete each other.
In Split we have the reverse of this: Casey escapes the fate of her friends and survives Kevin’s transformation into the Beast. She does this not because she is a hero necessarily but because the personalities inside Kevin can empathise with her trauma. Through Casey Kevin shows restraint and mercy letting her live while he escapes.
At the end of it all it always comes down to the Shyamalan twist: Crowe being a ghost, Price being committing mass murder in order to find someone like David, and Casey’s hidden trauma. The thing that all of these twists have in common is not just that they provide a surprise for the audience, they also are the pivotal points in which the main characters of these films accept exactly who they are.
M Night Shyamalan has, through these films, created a mundane world in which extraordinary things can still be a surprise. After all when you first watched Unbreakable and Split did you think that you were watching a superhero/villain story?