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Is M. Night Shyamalan Really “Back” and What Does That Mean for His Future?

By  · Published on January 23rd, 2017

This time the “twist” might be more powerful than ever.

This weekend’s opening of Split brought M. Night Shyamalan his biggest debut since… The Last Airbender. Yes, that’s right, even before an adjustment for inflation, one of his most hated movies still opened with a little bit more than Split’s $40m take. When all are adjusted for inflation, Shyamalan’s latest is only his sixth biggest debut of his 10 wide releases (that excludes his first two movies, Praying with Anger and Wide Awake).

So why is everyone acting like this is a big “impressive” hit for the filmmaker, and that he’s “back”? Business Insider calls it an actual comeback, despite the fact that his last movie, The Visit, was a huge success given its budget. Well, Split did overshoot expectations, which projected the opening to be more like $20–25m (similar to The Visit). It’s also Shyamalan’s first opening at #1 since 2004’s The Village. Only his third ever.

It’s anything but a comeback financially – Lady in the Water is really Shyamalan’s only certain flop – but it can be considered a return of sorts. Split is a relative hit with critics, its 76% on Rotten Tomatoes being Shyamalan’s best score after The Sixth Sense. And it’s not just the pros. With the fans, RT shows an 83% approval, again the second best after the filmmaker’s 1999 breakout. The same goes for its CinemaScore grade of B+.

Of course, things can change later on, especially for audience user ratings – Split is also currently Shyamalan’s second best movie by IMDb rating, at 7.6. The only thing that is locked in is the CinemaScore. As more people see it, the majority may not be as into it as those who initially caught it opening weekend. Given the hype and immediate success, there’s sure to be backlash from viewers who find it disappointing as a result. He does have many haters, and Split isn’t going to win all of them over. It’s not good enough.

Also, as movies like Shyamalan’s tend to, Split is being oversold on its ending. Between the buzz from moviegoers and the many articles online now promising to explain the shocking final scene, there’s a big incentive for people who hadn’t planned on seeing the movie to do so, in order to be in the know before being spoiled or instead of just seeking out the spoilers on Wikipedia. By the time I saw the movie on Monday, it was clear some in the theater didn’t even get the surprise at the end. And otherwise there’s no plot twist, the climax of the movie’s story actually being rather underwhelming.

Split Review: James McAvoy Shines While the Ladies Whine

For now, though, the movie is a big deal, and Shyamalan is very hot. And that means maybe Hollywood will give him another shot at something bigger. That would probably be a bad idea, given he’s had less success with fans the more he spends. However, there is one particular movie he’s been wanting to do for a long time that could finally happen thanks to Split being a box office hit – exaggerated spin or not.

To continue discussing what that movie is, we have to put up a spoiler warning for anyone who hasn’t seen Split.

At the very end of Split, following the title but before the rest of the credits begin, there’s a coda that connects it to another movie. At no other point in the story is there a hint of this link or the idea that Split takes place in the same universe as the other. It almost seems tacked on, like a post-credits stinger in a superhero movie. And maybe that’s intentional and appropriate, but the truth is, Shyamalan claims he had the surprise planned all along.

It’s a scene in a diner with people watching TV as the news reports on the deaths of Split characters Claire, Marcia, and Dr. Fletcher, and how their killer, who has dissociative identity disorder, is on the loose and rumored to be able to take the personality of a composite of zoo animals calling himself “The Horde.” Someone compares this “villain” to another from 15 years earlier, and Bruce Willis shows up to acknowledge that evildoer’s name: Mr. Glass. That’s right, Willis is back as his character from Unbreakable.

Some are even calling Split an Unbreakable sequel, which is a stretch, though the classification doesn’t matter. It’s a tie-in for sure, but we’ll have to see how much more Shyamalan would connect the two movies in an actual Unbreakable 2. Would James McAvoy’s character, aka The Horde, be in that sequel? Would he be the main villain or could he just be someone Dunn defeats early on before Willis’s hero moves forward with some new storyline? We’ve already seen so much of The Horde in Split that it would be a bore to have him as the single or primary villain of another movie.

Another idea is that Dunn vs. The Horde would be balanced with the return of Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson). However, the latter would be some fan service requirement that really doesn’t sound that exciting. Let’s not forget that Glass is a literally fragile person in a wheelchair. Put him in a robotic suit and he’d be fine, maybe, but then we’re getting too far away from the simplicity and realistic quality of what makes Unbreakable so great.

As it is, Split is a sneaky way of having a hit movie surprisingly turn out to be a tease of a true Unbreakable follow-up and creating more demand (and reminding people of Unbreakable or making them see it if they haven’t – the people sitting behind me definitely had no idea what the Mr. Glass bit was in reference to). It’s quite amusing to consider how it plays, as word of this surprise has become a buzz marketing benefit that’s causing Split to succeed, and then that in turn will allow for that surprise to mean something.

The Science of Spoilers and the Truths About Twists

Here’s what’s also odd about the whole thing: Split is a Universal release, while Unbreakable was Disney. So, now Disney needs to look at the talk and take of Split and decide if it will finally greenlight Unbreakable 2. How that will work and how it will influence how McAvoy’s character can be looped in as more than a cameo is not clear. And how could this “trilogy” would wind up with a box set one day? Shyamalan is telling people he hopes to do the sequel next, so we’ll hopefully see how it all works out soon enough.

And if Unbreakable 2 happens, we’ll see if it manages a better CinemaScore than the first one’s unfortunate C grade.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.