Unbreakable is an eerie, thoroughly thought-provoking comic book suspense thriller capable of leaving an audience completely stunned. The film comes from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan; a director brought into the spotlight after delivering the critically acclaimed 1999 thriller The Sixth Sense. The young filmmaker scored a surprise masterpiece with The Sixth Sense. The critics adored it, audiences loved it, the Oscar committee recognised the film with several nominations, and (as of late 2008) it convincingly ranks at #32 on the all-time worldwide box office. Subsequent to Shyamalan's success, it's probably safe to assume that he was a tad nervous about making another film. Expectations were probably unfairly high when Unbreakable rolled into cinemas. Although a decent movie, by no means does it threaten The Sixth Sense in terms of quality or box office earnings.
Shyamalan's Unbreakable could most likely be referred to as a contemporary interpretation of the classic comic book superhero formula. To an extent the film is a modern-day Superman story transplanted into a plausible world with realistic characters. Although the film may seem insipid on the surface, Shyamalan's script creates a fascinating character study that very much derives from the Superman good vs. evil mentality.
Unbreakable is a film of self-discovery and origins. Where typical superhero films spend barely half their duration developing the heroes and villains, Shyamalan decided it'd be more interesting to create an entire film covering the origins of his protagonist and antagonist. Originally the film was to be the initiation of a superhero trilogy, but a poor box office reception left the idea dead in the water. The concept of a trilogy still languishes with both Shyamalan and Samuel L. Jackson; however the outlook isn't flattering. As a standalone movie, Unbreakable is decent but ultimately a tad unsatisfactory due to the abrupt conclusion. As the first instalment in a trilogy, the film would have been an absolutely excellent origins tale that cleverly addresses the fragility and delicateness of mind under duress.
The "superhero" (so to speak) of the picture is an Average Joe named David Dunn (Willis). He's an aging man suffering a mid-life crisis: his marriage is ending, he's at a dead-end job, and he never achieved his dream of playing professional football. David's life is given new meaning when he's involved in a train derailment outside Philadelphia. Over a hundred passengers are killed in the burning wreckage...but David emerges as the sole survivor of the disaster without a single scratch on his body, nor a broken bone. Unnerved, confused and disorientated about his miraculous survival, David is soon approached by the enigmatic Elijah Price (Jackson). Elijah is a man suffering from a rare genetic disorder: his bones break extremely easily. Elijah, who runs a gallery specifically devoted to comic book art, theorises that comic books are an ancient method of passing down history. He believes comic book heroes are in fact real-life people who have been made more exaggerated and fascinating for the target audience. Elijah additionally developed a theory that, with his severe bone fragility, there is a man completely the opposite of him on the other end of the spectrum who's completely invulnerable to injury...and that David Dunn is this "indestructible" man.
Told with admirable precision and imaginative camera shots revealing intricate details frequently overlooked by mainstream Hollywood films, Unbreakable bears a remarkable resemblance to a comic book. Shyamalan's unusual angles are framed to give the impression that the film is a motion comic book strip. He even employs ponderously lengthy shots that track characters for a few minutes at a time. For instance, near the beginning when David converses with a woman on the train: the multiple-minute shot looks between the seats like a voyeuristic child peering behind themselves to see what people are doing.
There are also clever metaphors, allusions and allegories; particularly in relation the nickname given to Elijah Price - Mr. Glass. In fact, glass is frequently used as a metaphor for Elijah's disastrous life. We see reflections of the character on TV screens, framed artworks, etc. Elijah even carries around a glass cane to help him walk, marking a brilliant allusion to the frailty of bones. This is especially noticeable in a scene that depicts Elijah tumbling down a set of stairs. His glass cane shatters as his interior bones suffer similarly.
Shyamalan is skilled at setting a masterful atmosphere. His action is well-choreographed while his lens perfectly captures it. The film is ponderously paced and some may find it boring. Shyamalan is a director who never likes to rush the proceedings. His actors usually appear zoned-out and with not much emotion to display. Also, by the end of the film you'll realise that it didn't have much to say. Be that as it may, I like the way he says it. The film's conclusion can be classified as a twist ending, but it's nothing as mind-blowing as The Sixth Sense. Nevertheless, it's a pretty shocking and unexpected revelation.
Shyamalan competently and appropriately blends his formulaic superhero origins tale into the real world. It's easy to believe that David Dunn is just an ordinary guy before his genetic abilities are uncovered. Unbreakable is about deep characterisation as opposed to unbelievable action and CGI effects. Absurd plots and cardboard characters are the opposite of a Shyamalan flick...the director takes good, thoughtful time to ensnare audiences in his dark web.
James Newton Howard's gorgeous music highlights the frequently changing atmosphere to great effect.
Bruce Willis presents a grim, emotionless performance as David Dunn. The veteran actor has a distinct look about him that makes him absolutely ideal for the role. Willis also previously starred in Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense. The last time Samuel L. Jackson shared the frame with Bruce Willis was in 1995's Die Hard - With a Vengeance. If fans of said Die Hard entry are expecting similarly outstanding results, they'll be disappointed. The two are ideal for their respective roles, although the script isn't as witty as that of the Die Hard film. Fans should instead expect something with a slower pace that asks more questions than it answers. In fact it was pleasant to witness these two actors expanding their acting faculties by tackling such roles.
Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan ascended to stardom with the surprise hit The Sixth Sense. Since then his output has progressively decreased. The Village, for example, contained a promising premise but quickly disintegrated into silliness. Lady in the Water was next in the canon. Instead of creating an atmospheric horror tale, he attempted to create a vanity project for his children...and failed at just about every level. 2008's The Happening was a slight disappointment but an improvement over his last two films. Other than that, I found Signs to be a terrific alien flick that unfortunately became somewhat inadequate towards its conclusion. And I found the film in question - Unbreakable - to be an interesting depiction of a pragmatic superhero universe. It won't appeal to everybody, but I personally found the film quite rewarding. Perhaps it took too long to say so little for a straightforward origins tale; nevertheless I admire the creative touches added by the talented writer/director. Haunting yet droll and provocative without being pretentious, this is an involving expedition into the human psyche and the enormous price of being different. However the ending is quite abrupt and, frustratingly, the ending also seems as if it should have been the beginning. If only Unbreakable did mark the commencement of a superhero trilogy, because if it did the film's shortcomings could be further overlooked.
"It's alright to be afraid, David, because this part won't be like a comic book. Real life doesn't fit into little boxes that were drawn for it."