An uncommon superhero origin story that achieves far more on its own than Shyamalan’s trilogy does as a whole.
As much a tense family drama as it is a superhero origin story, M. Night Shyamalan’s slow-burning Unbreakable couldn’t escape comparisons to his breakthrough debut, The Sixth Sense. Arriving just one year after Haley Joel Osment famously saw dead people, Shyamalan’s turn-of-the-millennium sophomore effort never became the cultural touchstone that its predecessor did. Until the director’s 2017 psychological thriller, Split, unexpectedly revealed that it occupied the same universe as the rain slicker-clad, superhuman security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis), Unbreakable was easy to overlook in Shyamalan’s oeuvre. Often, it was defined simply as representative of his sturdy early work and provided a contrast to the nadir of his career in the late 2000s and early 2010s. But Unbreakable’s recent return to relevance has coincided with Shyamalan’s return to form, with 2015’s The Visit and Split reviving his career. But with the disappointing Glass failing to provide satisfying resolution to Shyamalan’s Eastrail 177 Trilogy, Unbreakable remains most effective in a standalone context.
David, the unharmed lone survivor of a horrific train derailment, struggles with the realization of his own virtual indestructability and psychic prowess while navigating the turbulent family dynamic of a marriage on the rocks. Robin Wright’s absence in Glass is keenly felt, as her turn as David’s weary wife, Audrey, in Unbreakable grounds a story about burgeoning superhuman ability in poignant human conflict and emotion, imbuing the film with a pathos that Glass wholly lacks. The fraught family dynamic is compounded by the estranged couple’s young son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), enthralled by his father’s newly discovered super-strength and tormented by David’s reluctance to acknowledge and embrace his extraordinary abilities.
But David’s wrestling with and eventual acceptance of his true self only occupies half of Unbreakable’s story. In fact, the film’s most compelling figure is the brittle-boned, comic book-obsessed Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who wedges himself into David’s life because he defines his own congenital fragility as existing on one end of a spectrum that sways all the way over to David’s indestructability on the other. Enigmatic though seemingly benevolent through much of the film, Elijah’s heel turn in the film’s coda serves as the Shyamalanian twist. The big reveal that Elijah sabotaged equipment to cause the train derailment and multiple other catastrophes in a desperate search for a superhero to complement his supervillainy didn’t shock audiences as starkly as the Bruce-Willis-was-dead-the-whole-time ending of The Sixth Sense, but it added compelling complexity to a garishly-dressed character who seems strangely out of place within the dark, earth-tone world he occupies. Titled after the nickname given to Elijah by childhood bullies, Glass offers little insight into his character. In many ways, Unbreakable feels more like Elijah’s story than David’s, with flashback sequences more often focusing on the former, and the film even opening with Elijah’s bone-shattering birth.
Unbreakable possesses a time-capsule quality in that, in the year 2000, comic book characters were still somewhat of pop cultural novelties. In today’s world, the glut of superhero movies has prompted an exasperated Jackson (who has played Nick Fury in multiple Marvel Cinematic Universe films) to remind fans that cinema has much more to offer than only “this Avengers and Marvel shit.” Elijah’s reverence for comics, which he treats as sacred texts that exude ancient truths about long-forgotten superhuman abilities, was a lot easier to swallow in 2000 than it is nearly two decades later. As he’s willing to kill hundreds of people in search of a foil he can’t be certain even exists, Elijah presents as a tragic figure, one so twisted by a human longing for identity that he is willing to do the most monstrously inhumane acts to achieve it. Add in David’s internal struggle with is own identity and the familial conflict that would lead his own young son to point a loaded gun at him in a desperate attempt to prove David’s indestructability, and you’ve got an uncommon superhero origin story that achieves far more on its own than Shyamalan’s trilogy does as a whole.