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Unbreakable

Unbreakable 2000

I’ve been a fan of M. Night Shyamalan a lot longer than most. He snuck onto the scene in the nineties with a pair of low budget independent movies (Praying with Anger and Wide Awake). But in 1999 he made The Sixth Sense and was instantly hailed as the next Hitchcock. Instead of another psychological thriller, as everyone anticipated, Shyamalan followed with Unbreakable, an understated, ultra-realistic, and altogether atypical take on the superhero origin movie. Although it went on to earn more than $100 million at the box office, many still considered it failure since it didn’t live up to the $300 million take of The Sixth Sense. Unbreakable shatters the mold created by previous comic book adaptations: there are no big budget effects or action sequences, no costumes or masks, and no secret identities. Nevertheless, it is every ounce a superhero movie, and easily claims a spot in my personal top ten.

I generally don’t talk too much about filmmaking terms on this site because they don’t present themselves too much in superhero movies. Or at least I’m sure they’re there, but they are all so similar that there’s nothing worth mentioning. But this movie has some really amazing cinematography. There are so many scenes that are framed like a real life comic book, especially ones that use unconventionally shaped paneling such as one of my favorite comic books, the Maxx. From the very beginning with the train scene, the distant camera creates a long narrow panel between the two chairs where you can see the face of David Dunn played by Bruce Willis, and instead of using a cut, there’s a slow pan to the other side of the chair which creates another long narrow panel where you see a young woman entering the frame stretching up to reveal a tattoo on her midriff. Similar scenes like this happen throughout the movie, another one of my favorites is towards the end where there is a curtain blowing in the wind which creates gaps that reveal different panels without ever moving the camera. There’s also a great use of color which is something that also mimics the look of a comic book. In the scenes where David is training his instincts, each character that he gets flashes from is wearing a bright color to make them visually stand out in a sea of bland colors which is a viable solution to use in a crowd scene in a comic book to draw the reader’s eye to the main focus of the panel.

I gotta give him one thing, he knows how to make a striking visual.

Aside from the comic book look of the film, there’s also an extreme amount of realism that never comes into play in a superhero movie. Even though in previous years, some of the best superhero movies have greatly increased the amount of realism in their fictional worlds, there is always some element of fantasy that makes the heroes and/or the villains “super”. In this movie, every single thing could be considered realistically plausible. The only thing that stretches the imagination is David’s “instincts” which is presented as essentially some form of psychic ability. But there’s many people in this world right now that believe in some form of psychic abilities. Everything else is absolutely grounded in reality. There very well could be a rare genetic condition that creates harder than normal bones that are very resistant to breakage, and it makes sense that it’s something that wouldn’t be discovered because people generally don’t get examined when they’re healthy, they only get examined when they’re sick. The same goes for someone with a much stronger than normal resistance to disease. I suppose there’s also an unbelievability factor for his untrained extreme strength, which is even more unbelievable if you watch the deleted scenes, but at least in the movie he never lifts an inhuman amount of weight, he merely lifts an incredible amount of weight.

Aside from the whole superhero plotline, there’s also the part of this movie that’s a straight up family drama. Right at the very beginning, there’s signs that David’s marriage is on shaky ground when he so readily removes his wedding ring to flirt with a young woman. I also enjoyed the interaction between him and his kid, especially all the little touches about how he sleeps in bed with his father instead of his wife. It’s something I can especially relate to a lot more now that I have a five year old daughter. The last time I watched this movie I don’t think she was even born yet. She actually did watch most of it with us, but she generally just thought it was a “sad movie”. I also liked the subtle touches of the rekindling of the relationship, like their “first date” where she asks when he first knew their relationship was in trouble and he answers that it was when he woke up from a bad dream and didn’t wake her up to ask if everything was ok. And then later in the movie after he does his first heroic deed, he carries her upstairs to their bed which she hasn’t been sleeping in for a long while, he tells her he had a bad dream, and she tells him that everything will be ok.

While Jena has never done this exact same thing, she’s came pretty close.

Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah was a great part of this movie, from one of the first scenes where he tells off a clueless customer trying to buy a piece of superhero artwork for his four year old son Jeb to the very end where he says the great line “They called me Mr. Glass.” he just owns the screen every time he comes on camera. He spends most of his time on screen delivering insane theories, but he tells them so well that it’s hard to not treat them as complete and absolute fact. There’s also the trademark twist at the end, and while it doesn’t completely change the way you look at the entire movie the way that the Sixth Sense does, it’s still a well done and well foreshadowed twist.

I mentioned before that this movie is like the first act of a superhero movie. In a typical superhero movie, what happens in the first act is that the hero gains their powers (or in this case, discovers his powers), explores/develops/trains those powers, has their first heroic encounter, and introduces the villain of the movie. The second act is where they develop their hero persona, create their costume, spend some time fighting crime, while the villain sets their ultimate plot into motion. And the third act is the climax where the villain and the hero face off against each other. This movie tosses out what many people consider the best parts of an origin movie, but manages to create something unique in the process. There’s only a single action scene in this movie, and yet it is very downplayed and understated. The most tense moments in this movie are instead moments with David and his son. Some people think that this movie was already the beginning of the end for M. Night Shyamalan’s career, but I think it’s a fantastic movie that was actually a bit ahead of its time. I think the reaction to the movie would be much different if it was released today. It’s well worth a watch, especially if you’re a fan of superheroes, even more so if you think the superhero genre is getting over done. Next up I’ll be watching Scott Pilgrim vs. the World for the first time, and if you haven’t yet check out this site’s Facebook page and vote for what I should watch next, help me fill out my movies before getting to Batman. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.

*poster by Edgar Ascensao.

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About Bubbawheat

I'm a comic book movie enthusiast who has watched and reviewed over 300 superhero and comic book movies in the past four years, my goal is to continue to find and watch and review every superhero movie ever made.

Posted on July 10, 2012, in 00's movies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. Unbreakable is my hands down favourite M.Night film. Like you said, it’s beautifully shot. There’s an elegance and real effort in every single frame.

    All the players are top notch. One of my favourite roles from Samuel L. Jackson too.

    The trademark twist was a genuinely surprising one for me. It came out of nowhere and enjoyed that little twist. I think, in subsequent films, people just expected there to be a twist and they were never as good as one had hoped.

    Looking forward to reading what you make of Scott Pilgrim!

    • It’s funny, I remember having Sixth Sense spoiled to me when it came out in theaters, but I don’t remember my reaction to this movie’s twist. I think I went into this one fresh and got to the end without figuring it out. And that’s about it. Honestly makes me think about being more pro-spoilers. Looking forward to watching Scott Pilgrim, seems like another unique take that few people took a chance on.

  2. sanclementejedi

    A highly underated super hero film. Now I want to dig this out and pop it in the DVD player. Nice performances by both Willis and Jackson certainly help this film along. Makes me long fro the days before M. Night jumped the shark.

    I just watched Scott Pilgrim, looking forward to reading your take on it. Hooray streaming 🙂

    • It really is a great movie that deserves to be rediscovered.

      • sanclementejedi

        Where Did M. Night lose the magic? I would even defend the Village but after that meh meh yuck

    • I agree with that theory. Lady in the Water was too self-serving for its own good, and I haven’t heard anything about the Happening that’s made me want to watch it. Other than the “What? no!” line by Mark Wahlberg. Look it up, it’s priceless.

  3. I remember seeing this movie in the theater with my cousin who hated it while I loved it. I think you are right on the money; it so encompassed all the great things of a superhero movie while still being a great family drama which is a very hard things to do.

    I do really enjoy M. Night’s films (Sixth Sense being my favorite and Unbreakable, The Village, and Signs my other faves). I think the problem came that now everyone is expecting that trademark twist ending everytime they watch one of his movies. That’s hurts him in a couple of ways. One, now that you know to expect something, it doesn’t hit you as hard and give that same impact. Two, while you’re searching and trying to figure out how it will end, you miss all of his great little moments that he creates with his actors (he uses some great ones) and with the story. I wish he would have had alittle more variety with his films; I think that would have helped him IMHO.

    • I think you covered all of his good ones. I was with him longer than most, all the way until Lady in the Water. After that one I stopped caring and haven’t seen any of his other movies since. I do think being know for the “what a tweest” guy hurt him, but then I think something else happened, though I’m not sure what. I’d be glad if I heard about another good movie from him.

  4. Great Article, I agree with your praise about this movie. Unlike The 6th Sense. I can watch this multiple times and not get bored even if I know the ending

    • It’s been a while since I’ve seen the Sixth Sense too, though I don’t think I would be bored by it even though I know the ending. It’s just the “I see dead people” that now gets an unintentional laugh.

  5. In my opinion, this is Shyamalan’s last good film. I didn’t like Signs very well, and wasn’t enthused enough about the later films to check them out. But Unbreakable is very well done.

    You’re right that it’s greatly helped by how plausible it is. What really helped sell it to me, personally, is a scene that showed that Shyamalan was actually thinking about the ramifications of some of it, when he showed that David can’t swim. See, I have higher density bones than most people. I don’t have the superhuman invulnerability that the movie shows — I can and have been cut, pierced, burned, and occasionally bruised, and I do occasionally get sick — but I’ve never broken a bone. But though Shyamalan throws in some junk about swallowing too fast, the basic principle about drowning seems true from my own experience. Because unlike people with normal bone densities, I don’t float. Even with a generous layer of fat (fat is buoyant) and multiple floatation devices, I still sink in a pool; I have since I was about ten. I’m just too heavy, for my size, to float in water. That Shyamalan realized that somebody with the necessary bone density to be “unbreakable” would be unable to swim shows a degree of thought that has generally been ignored in most films of the genre, even with all the mumbo jumbo that Shyamalan throws in.

    It’s that attention to detail and logic (or at least internal consistency) that makes Unbreakable a good film. And I suspect, given Signs, that it’s what his later films have been missing.

    • I thought Signs was a good movie with a forced twist of an ending, same with the Villiage. They’re both good movies overall, but the lack of a solid ending really hurts both of them. I think somewhere along the line he just got swallowed by his own sense of self worth, or something like that. I think the potential is still there for him to make another great movie, he’s just yet to find the right passion for another project.

  6. Not my favorite M. Night movie, but a very well-done one where it shows that he can do a story with enough mystery and suspense, without just relying on a final twist at the end. Good performances from Willis and Jackson. Nice review Bubba.

    • I’d have to watch the Sixth Sense again, but I think does come quite close to being my favorite of the two. I also did enjoy his next two, but this and Sixth Sense are really his high points.

  7. Man, I’m late to the comment party. I saw this so long ago that I don’t remember anything about the fancy camera work, but I do remember being very impressed with the movie. It has a really unique feel and I never had any clue where it was going. But as soon as it got there I said, “Oh, of course! That’s perfect!” Definitely in the top tier of superhero movies.

  8. Something else just occurred to me… this is a bit of a detraction on the movie, something that keeps it from being perfect for me. It’s still good, but this is just something that bugs me. Does David somehow have amnesia, or what? How does a man not know if he’s ever been sick? It’s the sort of thing that, if it happens to you, you remember it unless it’s so common the incidents all blur together. If it’s a rare thing, as it must be for David, that would stand out, as long as you know you’re sick — and you can’t not know, since the defining trait of being sick is how it makes you feel. And so if he would certainly know if he’d ever been sick, he must just as certainly know if he hadn’t. But David has to ask his boss and his wife if he’s ever been sick, even in the past few years. And he also has to be reminded by his former teacher that he almost drowned. That’s the sort of memory that normally sticks with a person.

    It’s not a huge problem with the plot, but it is kind of strange that some of the revelations in the film are built upon being surprises to the one character who shouldn’t be surprised by them.

  9. You know – I just watched this for a post on my site after the film festival. I regarded this as one of my favorite movies for a very long time and certain things occurred to me during this rewatch that actually kind of bugged me. I still think it’s a very, very good movie but I have a problem with a couple of things that I’ll post in a couple of weeks.

    Nice work here!!

    • Nice, good choice to “cleanse the palate” so to speak after all those awful movies. Am curious to see what you have to say about it. Thanks for looking this one up!

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