I’m not M. Night Shyamalan’s biggest fan. For all the praise heaped on The Sixth Sense, everything that has followed in his career has been more or less one huge let-down, so much so that complaining about Shyamalan’s output as a writer-director has become almost as cliché as the very films that spawned the complaining. But, under current auspices, I would venture the superhero seriousness of Unbreakable as one gem worth fishing out and giving another look.
For those who haven’t seen the film but are familiar with the superhero genre, the plot’s as simple as they come: ordinary man David Dunn (Bruce Willis) finds out, through a series of strange occurrences, that he is extraordinary (in this case, more or less physiologically impervious to the type of blunt force trauma or illness that sends ordinary folks straight to St. Peter) and must come to terms with his gift/curse. Unlike other entries of its type, though, almost equal time is given also to filling in the details of the life of Elijah Prince, alias Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic art gallery owner with a mysterious interest in Dunn, a genetic condition making him susceptible to serious injury and disease and (surprise!) a closetful of dark secrets. And it’s him I would say Unbreakable is mostly about.
The film has its flaws, no doubt. Paced sometimes slug-slow but shot beautifully throughout, it’s often an exercise in patience. And it hasn’t completely aged well: bits with special effects are clumsy and obvious; composer James Howard’s score sounds outdated, descending at times into TV forensic cop-drama territory. As was said at the time of its release, its characters aren’t the most fully fleshed out (except for Dunn’s wife, played by Robin Wright in an excellent turn), and when they aren’t simply pushing the story forward they fall into caricature. But they don’t lack the characterization of, say, Thor, and I would also argue for Shyamalan having intending it; it’s “an exaggeration of truth,” a “jazzed-up” account of “the kind of person these stories are about,” as it’s put knowingly by Mr. Glass. And although the dialogue can verge on laughably leaden at times, there is some pathos hidden beneath it, and the choice of simple language by the director mirrors the plainspoken exposition and heavy melodrama ubiquitous in print comics.
It is here, in the parallels between the comic book world and that of the cinema, that Unbreakable shines. Sequence by sequence it’s a working guide to good cinematography: the pool cover sinking beneath Dunn’s weight; his shadow growing larger up the staircase; the indolent stare of Mr. Glass between aisles of comics; Dunn tracking his past silently through the warehouse where the mangled train cars he barely escaped are stored; someone’s childhood reflected in a TV set; the opening shots in the hospital, in the ER with the doctor. Like its print comic kin, Unbreakable forms a pictorial, historical lineage in simple silhouettes and frames, but at the same time notes how “real life doesn’t fit into little boxes that were drawn for it.” In a salute to comic book cheekiness, Shyamalan even reaches for self-parody in speaking through Mr. Glass, who remarks at one point of a comic, “They say this one has a surprise ending.” Campy, but no worse than Sam Raimi. And as for the expected Shyamalan twist at the end, much has been made of its weakness. But, by my estimation, it’s no more disappointing than finding out the “resolution” of the superhero flick you just finished watching was, in fact, merely set-up for the requisite sequel.
And in part there lies Unbreakable’s most peculiar strength: like Dunn, it’s not so much about his own power as it is about the weakness of his foes. For all the financial successes of adaptations, given the overarching quality of superhero/comic book films (uneven, to be polite) it’s little surprise a writer like Alan Moore has chosen to dissociate himself from any such attempts made to bring his work to the screen. The constant reboots and “origins” stories, director shuffling and bad casting choices pay witness to this. Like Mr. Glass, the day will likely come when the cottage industry’s obsession with all things comics leads to its own demise. Given the breakneck pace of production, that day may be soon.
Most especially, Shyamalan’s Unbreakable is fundamentally underrated in the sense that it and The Sixth Sense constituted his peak – and we can return to admitting that everything after, The Last Airbender, The Happening, Lady in the Water and, to a lesser extent, Signs and The Village, were utter crap.
by Joe Clinkenbeard