What would happen if Superman was real, but didn’t know he was Superman?
That’s the basic premise of this week’s entry, possibly the most underrated ‘superhero’ movie of all time.
A movie that not only analysed the mythos associated with comic book heroes, but deconstructed them years before The Dark Knight Trilogy or the Marvel Cinematic Universe even existed.
What a twist!
#37. Unbreakable (2000) Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Most people agree that The Sixth Sense is M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie.
Not me. I like Unbreakable.
I also like comic books. Mostly because of superheroes. Sure, there are non-superhero comics out there. The Walking Dead and Sin City immediately come to mind, but let’s face it; the medium was catapulted into the mainstream thanks to the appearance of those spandex-wearing, secret-identity-having, super-powered beings we all love.
Over the years, there have been many attempts to examine the nature of these characters on a more ‘realistic’ level; narratives that look closer at the superhero subconscious, the more psychological aspects of who these ‘people’ are.
The two most famous examples of this are Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Both stories tore down and replaced everything we thought we knew about what it meant to be a superhero and changed the landscape of comics forever.
But while comics went down some dark roads, the movies mostly remained safe spaces for our caped crusaders. Good guys were good. Bad guys were bad. Evil was punished and our heroes usually flew off into the sunset to let us know all was right in their world once again.
Unbreakable isn’t one of those stories.
In 2005, Christopher Nolan approached Batman with the idea that his Bruce Wayne lives in a world of ‘heightened’ reality. Superhuman abilities are not real. The Joker wears makeup. The Batmobile is an all-terrain military vehicle and Gotham City is closer to an actual Metropolis (no pun intended) like New York or Chicago than its comic book counterpart, where fantastical beings like Clayface co-exist with mortal men like The Riddler.
But before Nolan’s Batman films, there was Unbreakable. A movie released five years earlier than Batman Begins, with a tone and style that dwarfs anything Nolan did in terms of ‘realism’.
The main surprise with this movie was that Shyamalan dropped a twist on us before we’d even seen one second of it. When this movie was released, nobody knew what it was really about. Sure, we all thought we did. The lone survivor of a horrible train wreck has not only lived, but he is miraculously unharmed. After seeing The Sixth Sense, people were salivating for the next thing by Shyamalan, and this premise was enough to hook us.
However, what we got was not what we anticipated. It was better.
I’ll never forget sitting down to see Unbreakable at the movies, because two minutes in, I seriously began to wonder if the projectionist had started the wrong film. The text that appears onscreen to enlighten viewers with some comic book sales-statistics was not something anyone was expecting. I was fooled like everyone else, yet the longer the film went, the happier I became. Just like most superheroes, Unbreakable had its own secret identity. A superhero origin story disguised as a bleak, character-driven drama.
Bruce Willis gives one of the better performances of his career as David Dunn, a man whose alliterative name sits up there with the greats like Clark Kent, Peter Parker and Bruce Banner. A quiet, seemingly-ordinary security guard, whose tragic train trip kicks off the story. Willis plays David with a sense of despair, a man estranged from his family. When we meet him, he is returning home after failing to attain a new job in a new city. He has given up on fixing his family, resigned to the fact that once he does get a new job, he’s gone. He will move away, his marriage will be over and more than likely, his already-tenuous relationship with his son will disintegrate even further.
Oddly enough, it’s the train crash that kills one-hundred-and-thirty-one others that revitalises David. Only after the disaster does David begin to question his reality, investigate his own past and begin to piece together the facts. His survivor’s guilt gives way to a new appreciation of his own life and he begins to re-evaluate his situation. His rocky relationship with his wife and child also improves after the accident, especially the bond that quickly forms with his son, Joseph.
When Joseph accompanies David to the first meeting with Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) a comic book art dealer who seems convinced that David is the real life equivalent of a superhuman, Joseph is quick to accept Elijah’s premise. At Joseph’s insistence, David begins to learn of his unusual attributes, including the wonderful scene in which he tests his own strength.
David’s relationship with his son is probably the best of the underlying subplots in this movie. While Elijah is trying to prove to David that he can be a hero for the world, Joseph is trying to prove to his father that he is already a hero in his eyes. This devotion from Joseph also manifests in the film’s most intense moment; when Joseph attempts to shoot his father to prove that he truly is ‘unbreakable’.
As a writer, M. Night Shyamalan keeps the movie from falling into the standard superhero clichés. While conceiving the film, he originally designed it as a standard, three-act hero story:
- The hero discovers his powers.
- The hero fights evil.
- The hero fights ultimate evil.
However, as he began to write the script, Shyamalan says he became more and more interested in the dynamics of the first act, and wanted to explore the (at the time) seldom-seen inner workings of a gifted man learning who he is, and what that means. Thank God he did, because by doing so, he managed to create a terrific film, instead of just another run-of-the-mill popcorn movie.
Everything in this movie is restrained. By focusing on David as a real person, one without clever quips or catchphrases, a man who lacks confidence and is without a sense of splendour, Shyamalan allows us to appreciate the character and his motivations. Even the presentation of David’s superpowers are subtle and underplayed, exposed with a hint of ambiguity, depending on your disposition. While David originally sees nothing out of the ordinary (for example, dismissing his power of insight as simply ‘a feeling’), Elijah is less sceptical and eventually helps David reveal the truth.
As the film continues, David’s past is slowly exposed one piece at a time. His lack of sick days, the childhood drowning accident that reveals water to be his only weakness and his (possibly suppressed) memory of faking an injury to give up football for Audrey, fill in the blanks to polish David into a well-rounded, interesting and conflicted lead character.
When you watch a film like Batman Begins or Iron Man, there’s a reason why those movies spend the first act getting to know Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark before they become their respective superhero personas. It’s so you relate with them as people, not just as the costumes they wear. Well, in Unbreakable, the focus is entirely on character development, so-much-so we don’t even get to the lavish costume stage.
Because we don’t need it.
Unbreakable is so well written, that by the time David accepts his destiny and goes to the train station to begin his heroic journey, we celebrate his decision and cheer him on.
As a director, Shyamalan keeps Unbreakable grounded. There are no elaborate action scenes or CGI explosions every ten minutes like most Hollywood producers insist. Unbreakable remains a character study, shot with wide angles and soft lighting, in quiet scenes with almost-whispered dialogue that forces you to listen to what the characters are saying, and in the process, understand them better as people.
The use of colour in this movie is also outstanding. Majority of the film is drab and washed out. But when a bright colour does present itself, you know it means something.
David, for instance, is shrouded in green. The shirt he wears on the train (and later as he leaves the hospital), the lockers of his workplace, the interior of his home, and obviously, his security poncho which ultimately becomes his hero uniform or ‘cape’.
Purple is Elijah’s colour. His clothes, the paper wrapped around the comic his young self receives, even the subtle floor designs of his rehabilitation centre, surround him in purple at all times.
Likewise, many other would-be innocuous details of the film are highlighted with splashes of colour to draw your eye. The girl on the doomed train is dressed in yellow. The note detailing David’s trip is orange. Various evil-doers that David comes across in the train station scene are all wearing bright colours (red, green, yellow, orange) to bring attention to them, just as David is drawn to them with his power of insight.
Shyamalan used a similar technique in The Sixth Sense with red, using that colour to showcase danger or the supernatural. But in Unbreakable, its effectiveness is tenfold.
Samuel L. Jackson also delivers one of his best performances ever captured on camera. His Elijah Price is a tragic figure. Driven, ambitious and unyielding in his beliefs, yet also solemn and understated. It’s rare to find a movie where Jackson doesn’t shout fifty percent of his dialogue, but once again, like Willis, he’s given a chance to act in this one.
Elijah is set up to be David’s muse. His mentor. His greatest ally. We feel for Elijah and his tragic medical situation. We wince every time he leans on that cane. We shift uncomfortably in our seats whenever he moves or shuffles to walk. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give the scene where he falls down the subway steps is that the moment is built up so incredibly well, no many how many times I see it, I still watch with a sense of dread, knowing what’s coming but powerless to stop it.
Elijah is obviously the key to the entire story. The twist, or in this case, more of a revelation, that Elijah was the one behind everything, rocks the story to its core. Yet, we almost understand his reasoning. It’s twisted and awful, hatched from a mind of questionable sanity, but the one thing that separates Elijah from the comic book villains he eventually sees himself as, is that unlike most, he knows he’s wrong. He doesn’t think he’s doing the right thing. His plan is not some misunderstood plot to better the world or gain riches. He simply wants to find his place in the universe, to make sense of the tragic hand dealt to him by life. When he utters the now iconic line, “They called me Mr. Glass…” Elijah becomes more broken as a person than he ever was physically.
Elijah’s quest also adds to the movie’s overarching theme of fate being some kind of controlling entity in this universe. The idea of balance and the spectrum of humanity run parallel between David and Elijah, not just physically, but morally as well.
Shyamalan certainly lost his way soon after this movie. I like Signs, but understand many don’t, and the slow decline with subsequent films like The Village, Lady in the Water, and the God-awful The Happening, sadly all-but ruined M. Night’s reputation and turned him into a punchline.
But then, along came Split. I won’t spoil that movie, but needless to say, those in the know were shocked not only by that film’s final reveal, but also at what is still to come in the way of the next movie. Personally, I applauded seeing Shyamalan return to form, and pray that he can give us another film to sit up there with this one, in my opinion, his very best.
Rating: 5 out of 5 comic books.
Favourite Moment: David soaks in the ‘sins’ of those around him to begin his heroic journey.
Honourable Mention: Elijah’s tragic idenity crisis.
Next week: #35 – “First, you gotta do the Truffle Shuffle…”