Friday, May 15, 2015


M. Night Shyamalan is pretty much a joke now, after the colossal failures of his last few movies, but there was a time when he was thought of as a Spielberg/Hitchcock hybrid for a new generation, mainly due to the unthinkable success of 1999's The Sixth Sense, which got him Oscar nominations for Screenplay and Director. His career has been seen by most as a steady decline since then, with many pointing to 2002's Signs as his last good movie (though that movie has plenty of detractors, myself not among them). But with superhero movies the genre of choice at the box office over the last 10 or so years, I'd been wanting to revisit his 2000 movie Unbreakable, which I finally did last night.

Unbreakable concerns David Dunn (Bruce Willis) being the only survivor of a train derailment (eerie timing to watch, considering the tragic Amtrak derailment that took place this week), and the attention that brings from Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who tries to convince David that comic books are just exaggerated stories taken from real life, as ancient myths often were, and that David is the equivalent of a comic book superhero. We follow as David's marriage to his wife Audrey (Robin Wright) has frozen and they try to figure out whether to start over together, or to separate. Also, as David's son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) is the only one who believes Elijah's seemingly ridiculous claims.

Elijah has a (real life) disorder that causes his bones to be weak and easily broken, and he assumes that if there's someone like him, there must be his opposite, who is unbreakable. Many feel like the ending, revealing that Elijah is the one who set up the train derailment in his search for an Unbreakable, was another Shyamalan twist, just like The Sixth Sense had famously had (and his later The Village would ridiculously have), but it really isn't, even if Shyamalan foreshadows it with Elijah's mother buying him a comic book as a boy and excitedly saying "they say this one has a twist at the end". Elijah being revealed as a villain has been obvious the entire time. We are just conditioned by others movies to have seen the type of relationship between Elijah and David as mentor/student, with Elijah helping David realize his potential as a hero. But Shyamalan sets up every step of the way that Elijah is the villain, we just weren't paying attention. We never wonder "what are Elijah's motives?" because other movies spoon feed us everything, but Unbreakable doesn't spell out with big letters that Elijah is the villain until the final scene, but it's not really a twist because the movie hadn't been hiding anything the way other twist movies do. It's all out there and it's not cheated or hidden, we simply assume one thing when another is the truth.

Still, the way the movie is laid out is just classic superhero stuff. There's even a scene where David and Audrey are out on a date trying to rekindle their romance and she asks him if he knowingly keeps she and their son at a distance. He says yes, but he doesn't know why. You almost sit there now and shout "to keep you safe! If the villains can't get to the hero they go after the hero's loved ones!" But superhero lore wasn't as common on the big screen in 2000 as it is 15 years later, when many of the tropes are obvious at a distance. There's the "discovering his powers", "first foray into actually acting the hero", and "confrontation with the villain" sequences just like in every other superhero movie. But Shyamalan took the same deliberate pacing he'd had success with and applied it to this burgeoning genre. People didn't take to it so much.

Although it was technically a box office success, it was less so than The Sixth Sense, much less well reviewed (mixed, but still positive), and ultimately forgotten in the huge success of Signs two years later, and Shyamalan's ultimate downfall afterwards. Also, the movie was marketed like a psychological thriller, instead of the serious comic book movie Shyamalan made and wanted it to be marketed as. So many left the theater a little puzzled as what we'd expected wasn't what was delivered. I have always loved comics, but even I was a bit let down when leaving the theater, though that could've been because my 17 year old self hadn't developed as a movie goer like I have since. But still, the marketing didn't help the word of mouth of this movie, which has thankfully developed a passionate cult following since its release.

Watching this movie it was obvious that Shyamalan had genius within him. This is the best superhero movie ever (only The Incredibles can challenge it in my mind), and it's because it has not only the serious dramatic weight that Christopher Nolan would get credit for introducing to the genre 5 years later with Batman Begins, but also the visual audacity not seen in any other entry to superhero movies. There are deliberate multi-minute shots, definitely not seen in the hyperkinetic work of the genre today. For instance, it's just over 9 minutes into the movie when we get to shot #3. Then there are the motifs like Elijah and glass ("the kids called me Mr. Glass"), where we see him often reflected in mirrors, glass panels, TV screens, etc. The color motifs of purple for Elijah, green for David, and pops of color (red, orange, blue, whatever) from the normally dreary palette for when David senses someone bad. There's that simple attention to visual detail and depth that no other superhero movie has. This is really masterful filmmaking, no matter what happened to Shyamalan afterwards.

And then there's the acting. This is not the typical wise ass, John McClane style Bruce Willis. He's quiet, insular, but with a strength that we can easily believe in him as the square jawed hero Elijah believes him to be. Sam Jackson does some of his best work in the movie, especially in the final scene where he sees David's good deed in the newspaper and says "It has begun" and we see him slowly show that maniacal gleam in his eye as he talks to David about it being scary to not know your place in this world. "Now that we know who you are, I know who I am." It's really terrific work from both actors, and probably the best work of Willis' career. Robin Wright has a great scene where she confronts David about wanting to restart their marriage, really showing a lot of uncertainty, pain, vulnerability and how hard it is to put yourself out there after you've been hurt. It's the kind of scene a woman doesn't normally get in a superhero movie, and not just because something as real as confronting marital troubles isn't normally really dealt with in a movie like this. Even so, like every superhero movie this comes down to the hero and the villain and they're absolutely perfect here.

I believe Unbreakable should stand atop the mountain of superhero movies, despite being an original creation and not a Batman, Superman, or Spiderman adaptation. It's steeped more in comic lore than any other, and it is steeped in greatness more than any other comic book movie.

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