Not All Heroes Wear Capes
Unbreakable is directed, written, and produced by M. Night Shyamalan and stars Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright (Robin Wright Penn at the time of the film's original release), Spencer Treat Clark, and Charlayne Woodard.
I consider the year 2000 to be one of the most important years in the history of the superhero genre. It was the year that The Superhero Renaissance - if you want to call it that- took off and made it known to the world that, now with all these technological advancements in the film and television industries, superhero movies were capable of being gargantuan money-making machines. While 2000's X-Men gets the most attention in regards to which superhero film was responsible for kicking off the Renaissance, M. Night Shyamalan's superhero thriller Unbreakable sneaked its way into theaters in late November of 2000, making a healthy profit of nearly $250 million worldwide, although not receiving the almost overwhelming praise that Shyamalan earned with The Sixth Sense. Nonetheless, Unbreakable would go on to develop a cult following, and now with Shyamalan's new movie Glass hitting theaters soon, it's as good of a time as ever to jump back in the time machine and look back on the movie that has secretly been one of the most meditative superhero films released so far this century.
Shyamalan doesn't care one iota for eye-popping visual effects nor end-of-the-world stakes that the hero must foil. The rough draft of Unbreakable was meant to be like the three key pieces of a comic book: the birth of the hero, the struggle against evil, and the final showdown against the hero's archenemy. Shyamalan goes all in for the first piece with Unbreakable, and we can argue that he has now completed the other two pieces with Split and Glass. As for Unbreakable, its ambition is to explore what motivates its hero, what his powers and weaknesses are, and what he's like in normal, everyday life when he's not finding and stopping bad guys.
That hero being David Dunn (Willis), a security guard who gave up a potential football career in college and is looking for a true purpose in life. On his way home from a job interview in New York City, David's train, the Eastrail 177, crashes, killing all the passengers except for David. Not only does David survive the crash, he walks away with no injuries. After the crash victim's memorial service, David finds a card on his car's windshield, containing a message asking if he has ever taken ill. David finds out the card was sent by Elijah Price (Jackson), a man with a rare disease that causes his bones to break easily and who runs a comic book art gallery. Elijah suspects that David is representative of a comic book superhero and begins to obsessively try to learn if David has ever been injured or gotten sick. David, insistent he is no superhero, tries to keep Elijah out of his life. At the same time, David struggles to save his fragile marriage to his wife Audrey (Wright), which is causing distress for their son Joseph (Treat Clark).
Seeing the abundance of superhero films that have come out since the year 2000, I can't help but wonder how differently Unbreakable would have been received had Shyamalan decided to release it in the year, oh, let's say 2010 or 2011, and not 2000, when no one could have imagined how superhero movies would go on to dominate the box office year in and year out. I'm inclined to believe that the film would have achieved universal acclaim, given that Unbreakable has achieved cult status and has been re-evaluated by some as a superhero masterpiece. The focus on a superhero's identity and what it is that makes them a superhero would have not only been a refreshing site among all the other, special effects-driven superhero movies, it would have given people the opportunity to step back and further evaluate exactly what was it that kept drawing them back to theaters to see the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, Batman, Superman, etc. time and time again. Was it simply because all those superheroes were able to deliver a fun time at the theater and provide simple escapism from the busy mundanes of life? Or perhaps was it that something else about these superheroes, originating from comic books, struck a cord in people such that they could come back repeatedly without suffering any form of fatigue? I know this is all speculation, but seeing what has come about in movies since the turn of the century, Unbreakable now has this fascinating mystery behind it, albeit one we will never be able to solve.
- M. Night Shyamalan had Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson in mind when he first wrote the David Dunn and Elijah Price characters. Both Willis and Jackson are phenomenal in their respective roles. Willis carries a lot of his experience from The Sixth Sense over into this film, displaying a quiet demeanor in nearly every scene that he's in, yet never coming off as mopey nor apathetic.. Samuel L. Jackson is similar in his demeanor as Elijah Price, knowing how to portray Elijah's obsession with calm, calculating precision. Actually, now that I think about it, it's not exactly correct to say Elijah has an obsession with David. Because of the more meditative attitude of the film, Elijah's interest in David is more of a curiosity and not like the behavior of a stalker. Not once does Elijah ever imply that he wants to kill David or even hurt him; he wants to fully realize a theory he's had ever since his childhood: that there is someone in the world who is the exact opposite of himself. No motivational speeches or bloody fist fights. Elijah tries to play mind games with David, and the exchanges between Willis and Jackson are nothing short of extraordinary. The two are fully invested in their roles and make every moment count.
- Unbreakable shows a lot of neat comic book references, particularly in the visuals, character aliases, and the way Shyamalan goes about some of the camera work. David and Elijah have their respective colors, which are seen on their clothes, personal items, and even on the wallpaper in their respective homes. David wears green and identifies with "Security", while Elijah wears purple and identifies himself as, "Mr. Glass". The movie as a whole utilizes a cool, murky color scheme in order to match the solemn, reflective mood of the film, which is part of why the "bad guys" in the film have brighter colors like red and orange associated with them: those brighter colors are a violation of what is considered good in the film. Several scenes are shot to look as if it was jumping from picture to picture in a comic book, particularly in the opening scene on the train and the scene where Joseph almost shoots David to prove he can't be hurt. The camera moves likes a person moving their head back and forth, and Shyamalan expertly blocks the scenes to ensure that this camera effect works. In short, the colors and various techniques used to make Unbreakable be more closely associated with the aesthetics of a comic book are wonderfully executed, something I wish other superheroes would attempt to do more often.
- I wasn't bothered by the lack of blood/violence in Unbreakable. Heck, I think Shyamalan made the right decision minimizing the amount of superhero "fighting" in the film, as it wouldn't completely match up with the film's tone. What I will say bothered me a little in Unbreakable is the film's third act structure, where David goes to confront a deranged man who invades a family home. Of all the kinds of criminals that David could go up against in the third act, why pit him against a random stranger whom we don't see or hear of at any point in the movie, up until David discovers what this man has done? I'm glad the movie didn't lead to some final showdown with Elijah, but I think the third act could have been better handled had it been David facing off against some other shady character that the movie would allude to several times throughout. Maybe it could have been some famous criminal that David hears about on a news broadcast? If something like that had been the case, I think we could have had a more satisfying conclusion to David embracing his powers and using them to fight crime.
As for the film's twist ending, it's nowhere near as shocking as the ending to The Sixth Sense, but it makes sense in the grand scheme of things. Putting it all together, Unbreakable is one of the few superhero movies to be released during The Superhero Renaissance to cut down on the action and special effects and fully explore the origins of a superhero and how they'd react, knowing that they have a special power inside of them. On top of the film's meditative tone, Shyamalan relies on several different visual techniques like camera movement and color motifs to keep his film faithful to comic books and how they're presented. Maybe Unbreakable was a film that came out too early; it enjoys a cult following as opposed to universal acclaim, because superheroes weren't the bee's knees in movies and television in the year 2000. But now that superheroes are box office giants and get social media buzz better than any other movie genre nowadays, it's necessary to look at a film like Unbreakable, because it gives us the chance to not just further appreciate how much we love superheroes, but better understand how we're inspired by them and why we keep coming back to them, time and time again.
Recommend? Yes. I'd say this movie is almost a necessity for superhero movie lovers.
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