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SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains absolutely massive spoilers for the end of M. Night Shyamalan's Split. If you have not yet seen the film, and don't wish to know any details about the movie, please bookmark this link and return to this feature after your screening!
Seventeen years ago, M. Night Shyamalan shocked the world when he revealed that Bruce Willis had been dead the whole time, and now he's delivered yet another fantastic cinematic twist in collaboration with the Die Hard star. While Split arrived in theaters appearing to be an original thriller, the final scene of the complete -- complete with Willis cameo -- reveals that it is actually a backdoor sequel to Shyamalan's 2000 hit Unbreakable. It's a great reveal that nobody saw coming, but it may surprise you to learn that the writer/director was actually very back and forth on the idea.
When I spoke with M. Night Shyamalan following Split's Los Angeles premiere at AFI Fest late last year, the Unbreakable connection was a major topic of conversation. I asked the filmmaker if it was always his intention to go that route, and he noted that there were times in the screenwriting process when he nixed the final scene. However, at the end of the day the idea of making a sequel that nobody knew was a sequel was just too enticing too ignore. Said Shyamalan,
I did toy with making it a totally unrelated thing. I pulled it, and then I was like, 'I want them connected.' And then I was like, 'Maybe I should just make it unrelated.' And then I was like, 'You know what? Let's connect it.' And I guess the premise, and this is for your spoiler section, I remember pitching it in my office, like, 'What if we made a movie, but you didn't realize that what you were watching until the end, that you were watching the sequel, but you didn't know.'
Of course, M. Night Shyamalan wasn't totally ignorant about why this approach wouldn't be super attractive from a studio perspective -- but he knew how to sell them on the idea:
And then the first question was, 'Why would any studio want to make a sequel and not promote it?' It's the one reason you make a sequel. And I said, 'We'll let word of mouth do that.' I said, 'When the movie opens, let word of mouth do that. So maybe it will be an unusual second weekend.'
Given that Split wound up blowing expectations out of the water and made $40 million in its first three days, it's most certainly not outside the realm of possibility that the film gets an "unusual second weekend" -- driven by those who know about the twist and just want to see Unbreakable 2. Naturally, we'll be keeping a close eye on its performance.
Further discussing the nature of the twist, M. Night Shyamalan also noted that the diner scene featuring Bruce Willis does something extra for Split on beyond connecting it to Unbreakable. In a weird way, it also has a sudden effect on the genre of everything that came before it. Rather than just watching a thriller about a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder, what you're really watching is the birth of a comic book-esque supervillain. Said the writer/director,
But then also, the fun thing is that you didn't realize you were watching an origin story, until the end. Put aside Unbreakable. That moment, the whole thing, you thought you were watching a thriller, a normal thriller, but this was all one big origin story.
Shyamalan makes an excellent point on this front, and it's something I've thought about a lot since seeing Split for the first time. When the new film and Unbreakable are put side by side, the former makes for a fascinating mirror, in that most of the latter is a superhero origin story that doesn't include a supervillain (up until the final scene, that is). Constructed to be the opposite, Split is a supervillain origin story that doesn't include a superhero... until the final scene. Of course, the ultimate payoff will be seeing Bruce Willis' David Dunn and James McAvoy's Kevin Wendell Crumb square-off in a third blockbuster, but as M. Night Shyamalan isn't 100% sure how that will work just yet, we may have to wait a while to see it.
Split is in theaters now, and be sure to stay tuned here on CinemaBlend for both more analysis, and more from my interview with M. Night Shyamalan!