Review: Ahead of its time, Unbreakable is a gripping deconstruction of the superhero genre

All directors have their trademarks – little “calling cards” that crop up frequently in their films and immediately remind you that you’re watching one of their films. For Alfred Hitchcock, it was blondes and self-cameos. For Quentin Tarantino, it’s obscure film references and… feet. And for M. Night Shyamalan, the filmmaking tic that defines his filmography is the monumental plot twist.

Unfortunately, Shyamalan’s fixation with plot twists has to date yielded only two great films. The first is pop culture touchstone The Sixth Sense, while the other is Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s less fondly remembered foray into the world of superhero mythology. Ahead of its time, Unbreakable left audiences not yet fully immersed in the world of comic book adaptations baffled when it hit cinemas 15 years ago.

That’s a real shame, as this gripping neo-noir thriller delivers the deconstruction of the superhero genre ever to grace the big screen.

Unbreakable tells the story of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a security guard who emerges unscathed from a train crash that killed everyone else on board. Struggling to make sense of his impossible good fortune, David is approached by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), an eccentric comic book historian who suffers from a rare disease that makes his bones brittle.

According to Price, both he and David exist at the opposite ends of the physical spectrum: Price typifies absolute frailty and weakness, whereas David embodies invulnerability and strength. In essence, Price argues, David is a real-life superhero.

Understandably, David dismisses Price’s crazy theory, until a series of strange events begin to change his mind. All the while, David’s wife Audrey (Robin Wright) and son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) can’t help noticing that a change is coming over him.

By the bombastic standards of modern comic book movies, Unbreakable is a decidedly modest affair. It’s set on a small scale, has no major visual effects shots, and has no real action set pieces to speak of. What it does have is a fantastic script, strong direction, fine performances, lush visuals and an emotive score. In short, Unbreakable has pretty much all the key ingredients for a great film.

Shyamalan’s screenplay takes a bonkers premise – what if comic book heroes really existed in our world – and plays it totally straight, and thanks to his bravura filmmaking skills, the movie never comes across as unintentionally goofy. The key to this is the way Shyamalan executes said premise. By presenting the idea that what we think of as superheroes are, in reality, extremely rare individuals born beyond the accepted peak of human potential is a plausible (and clever) explanation. What’s more, it’s credible enough that it allows viewers to swallow the more far-fetched elements (including the effective, if somewhat rushed, final twist) that Shyamalan introduces later on.

At its heart though, what really makes Unbreakable work is that it functions equally well as a compelling drama as it does a supernatural thriller. Like all the best stories (superhero-related or otherwise), what really sucks you in here is this emotional aspect, and Unbreakable pulls off a solid balance of heart-warming and bleak moments over the course of its 106-minute runtime. Unlike other superhero efforts, this isn’t a film about adolescent power fantasies; it’s about what it’s like to have potential so great it scares you, and about what happens when you find are you really are destined for more.

It helps that Shyamalan teases brilliant turns from the entire Unbreakable cast, and in particular, his two leads.

Willis continues to mine the minimalism schtick that served him well in The Sixth Sense, and it’s an approach that maps perfectly to the physically and often emotionally impenetrable David Dunn character. Jackson likewise dials things way back – which for one of cinema’s great shouters is saying something! As Price, he effectively sketches out a brooding, broken figure that we’re never entirely sure we can trust, balancing soulfulness with a sinister edge.

This subtlety extends to the great cinematography and costume design by Eduardo Serra and Joanna Johnston, respectively. Together, the pair uses vibrant colours to identify key characters, and Serra deserves particular kudos for framing certain shots to subliminally evoke the way comic book panels are laid out on a page.

Then there’s James Newton Howard’s score, which is simple yet versatile, and a perfect fit for Shyamalan’s grounded take on the genre.

All these elements – the script, direction, performances, cinematography, and score – combine to that tell a refreshingly personal superhero tale about heroism and personal fulfilment. Indeed, 15 years on, time has only been kind to Unbreakable. With increasingly indistinguishable comic book fare currently saturating the market, Shyamalan’s unique, intimate take on the genre has arguably never been more vital.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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