[MAJOR SPOILERS for Split ahead.]
Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan has gone from being hailed as the next greater director, following his breakout hit The Sixth Sense in 1999, to being widely derided for his work on such critical and/or commercial duds as Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender and After Earth, among others. However, of late the tide has started changing direction again, with Shymalan picking up more applause than derision for his 2015 low-budget thriller, The Visit. The filmmaker is earning his strongest reviews in years now (nay, the last decade) with his latest release – another low-budget dramatic thriller collaboration with Blumhouse Productions, titled simply Split.
Split (read our review) largely unfolds as a standalone movie about a man (played by James McAvoy) with a severe case of Dissociative Identity Disorder – wherein he has no less than twenty-three different personalities – who kidnaps three young women, to participate in a ritual that will allow him to unleash his mysterious twenty-fourth personality. Our Split Ending Explained post breaks down the movie and its various plot twists in greater depth, but long story short: the big reveal is that Split is secretly an Unbreakable sequel that, when one reflects back on the film upon learning about this, serves as a supervillain origin story for McAvoy’s character – and leaves the door open for another, perhaps more traditional Unbreakable sequel down the line.
Speaking with EW, Shymalan confirmed that McAvoy’s character in Split, aka. “Kevin”, and his many personalities were once part of the script for Unbreakable. That means Split was always designed to be connected to Shyamalan’s acclaimed 2000 film – starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson as the characters David Dunn and Elijah Prince – about comic books and “real-world” superheroes. As the filmmaker put it:
[This] character, Kevin from Split, was in the original script of Unbreakable. The original draft of Unbreakable focused on David Dunn and Elijah as his mentor. Elijah tells him, “You’re a comic book character, go try it.” And instead of bumping into the Orange Suit Man, David bumps into one of Kevin’s personalities and goes to save the girls. So you’d have been watching the girls side of it the whole time. That was the outline.
The reveal of Split‘s connection with Unbreakable – which happens during an epilogue that is even accompanied by composer James Newton Howard’s theme for Unbreakable and features a cameo by Willis as David Dunn – is one that Shymalan spent a fair amount of time fine-tuning. However, as the filmmaker explained to EW, the reveal was always going to happen either at or near the very end of the film:
It was always at the end. But there was a question whether it would be one scene from the end, like within the pocket of the movie, and then have James’ scene in the mirror? Or run credits and put it at the end of the end credits? I tried all those variations but this was the best version.
Shyamalan also agreed with EW‘s statement that the Split epilogue feels like “a perfect segue into a third film” and revealed that he’s already at work on such a project:
I hope [a third ‘Unbreakable’ film happens]. The answer is yes. I’m just such a wimp sometimes. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I go off in my room, a week after this film opens, to write the script. But I’m going to start writing. [I have] a really robust outline, which is pretty intricate. But now the standards for my outlines are higher. I need to know I’ve won already. I’m almost there but I’m not quite there.
If a third film set in the Unbreakable universe comes to fruition, then the obvious direction for its story to take is to pit Willis and McAvoy’s characters against one another in some manner. Both the Kevin and David Dunn characters now have a combined two movies’ worth of development between them to draw from as the foundation for the third Unbreakable movie, so the potential for a strong narrative is certainly there. Such a movie would give Unbreakable fans the more conventional sequel that they’ve been waiting for and should have an easier time of avoiding that most common superhero movie ailment: having an under-developed or throwaway villain.
Of course, Split‘s box office returns will ultimately determine whether or not Shymalan gets to make a third Unbreakable film. That said: Shyamalan told EW that McAvoy is game to work alongside Willis (who, it seems safe to say, is also onboard for more Unbreakable), so there’s certainly fair reason to hope that an Unbreakable trilogy will become a reality yet.
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