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.
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.
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.