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.
John Woo is partial to slow-motion and doves, while Tim Burton tends not to shout “action” without off-kilter gothic visuals and Johnny Depp present and accounted for.
In the case of M. Night Shyamalan, the filmmaking tic that tends to crop up most in his movies is the plot twist, or more specifically, twist endings.
Unfortunately, consistently coming up with ways to pull the rug out from under the audience has proven a difficult act for Shyamalan to maintain, and his unsustainable game plan has thus far yielded only two great films.
The first is pop culture touchstone The Sixth Sense. The other is Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s less well-remembered foray into the world of comic book mythology, which turns 15 this month.
When Unbreakable was first released in 2000, it turned a solid profit and achieved mostly favourable reviews.
Even so, looking back from an era when superhero films dominate the market, it feels like the film would have been received with much greater fanfare had it arrived in cinemas a decade later.
Thinking about it, I’m reminded of Marty McFly in Back to the Future:
“I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it!”
Anyway, I’m rambling.
Unbreakable tells the story of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), an average Joe security guard who finds himself completely unharmed after being involved in a train crash which killed everyone else onboard.
David is soon approached by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic book historian who suffers from a rare disease that makes his bones brittle.
According to outlandish theory put forward by Price, both he and David exist at the opposite ends of the physical spectrum: Price typifiesabsolute frailty and weakness, whereas David embodies the zenith of invulnerability and strength.
In essence, Price argues, David is a real-life superhero.
Despite some initial doubts, David soon begins to suspect that there may be something to Price’s crazy idea, and his wife (Robin Wright) and son (Spencer Treat Clark) can’t help noticing that a change is coming over him…
By the standards of modern comic book movies, Unbreakable is a pretty modest bit of business. It’s set on a small scale, has no major visual effects shots and doesn’t really have any proper action sequences to speak of.
What it does have is a fantastic script, strong direction, fine performances, lush visuals and emotive scoring. In short, pretty much all the key ingredients for a great film.
Shymalan’s screenplay takes an absurd premise – what if comic book heroes really existed in our world – and plays it totally straight, and it’s to his credit that the whole thingnever comes across as unintentionally goofy.
Key to this is the WAY this premise is executed. Suggesting early in the piece that flesh and blood comic book heroes are, in reality, extremely rare individuals born beyond the accepted peak of human potential is a plausible enough explanation, and allows audiences to swallow any of the more far-fetched elements that surface later on.
At its heart though, what really makes the script 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 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.
Of course, a decent script is nothing without an in-form director and cast to bring it to life, and Unbreakable can definitely be said to have both of these in spades. Directing from his own script, Shyamalan teases out brilliant turns from all of his cast, and in particular, his two leads.
Willis continues to work the minimalism schtick that served him well in The Sixth Sense, and it’s an approach that transfers perfectly to the physically and often emotionally impenetrable David Dunn character.
Jackson also dials things way back, which for one of cinema’s great shouters is saying something! He sketches out a brooding, broken figure that we’re never entirely sure we can trust, which is exactly what is needed for the role of Elijah Price.
Over on the more technical side of things, it’s impossible not to give props for the great cinematography and costume design by Eduardo Serra and Joanna Johnston, respectively (note the way that vibrant colours are used to identify key characters, and the way shots are framed like comic panels), and to James Newton Howard’s score, which is simple yet versatile.
All these elements weave together rather seamlessly, allowing Unbreakable to relate a tale that is ultimately about heroism and personal fulfilment.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
When the movie kicks off, David is at a loss. He’s utterly rudderless, and this lack of purpose is making him a neglectful father and husband.
It’s a relatable situation; I’d hazard a guess that all of us at some point in our lives have questioned just what the hell it is we’re doing with our lives.
For David, his true calling is to be a hero. It’s why he became a security guard in the first place – consciously or not, he wants and needs to protect people.
Turning away from that vocation is slowly destroying any chance of him leading a fulfilling life individually or as part of a family.
It’s not until David fully accepts his true self – expressed here in the form of a superhero – and starts using his superhuman powers to help those in need that he is able to restore meaning to his life, reconnecting with his wife and son in the process.
Of course every superhero needs a villain, which leads us to the big twist at the end.
Unlike Shymalan’s later efforts, the twist here works across all levels (plot, character and thematic), and whilst it’s not quite as brilliant as the shocker at the end of The Sixth Sense, it still makes for a powerful finale.
See, David isn’t the only character in Unbreakable asking “Why am I here?” – Price is too.
All his life, Price has been searching for someone like David, whose unbreakable body would make sense of his own all-too-breakable one.
To this end – and as David learns via a magical handshake (yes, I just wrote that) – Price has spent a lifetime engineering countless tragedies like the train wreck that David survived, all to find his raison d’être.
And find it he does when he discovers David. Now, not only can he reject the notion that his condition brands him a biological mistake, but he can also re-define his whole identity by interpreting his actions through the lens of comics.
Following Price’s insane logic, his actions are the result of him behaving like the evildoer he was always destined to be, the wicked end of yet another spectrum on which he is diametrically opposed to David.
In the last line of dialogue in the film, when Price refers to his childhood nickname “Mr. Glass,” he’s announcing and taking ownership of his new supervillain identity, in the same way Harvey Dent adopted the alias Two-Face or Norman Osborne declared himself the Green Goblin.
He might have winded up admitted to an insane asylum, but in the end, Price gets just as much inner peace as David does (maybe more), which is quite a haunting note to finish on.
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
15 years on, and time has only been kind to Unbreakable.
With cinemas these days saturated with increasingly indistinguishable superhero fare, M. Night Shyamalan’s unique and intimate take on the genre make this a movie well worth re-visiting.
(Oh, and one last thing? I’d totally be down with seeing Patton Oswalt’s proposed sequels…)
Now it’s your turn! Is Unbreakable a worthy follow-up to The Sixth Sense? Are there any other M. Night Shyamalan films you think deserve another look? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook!