After M. Night Shyamalan dazzled filmgoers with his surprise suspense thriller The Sixth Sense, it would seem hard for him to outdo himself with his next film—and he doesn’t. In fact, his latest film, Unbreakable, tries desperately to duplicate the muted tone and surprising twists of The Sixth Sense, but doesn’t come close.
Shyamalan tries so hard for another success that Unbreakable is overly self-conscious and self-important. But worse, his attempt to pull off another shocking ending digresses into a ridiculous comic book plot that is like a parody of itself. He’s locking himself into a very limited niche inspired by the supernatural, but judging from box office numbers, that must be what a viewing audience eager for answers and meaning wants.
Shyamalan’s film takes its inspiration from the world of comic books, as the opening camera graphics foretell. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that Bruce Willis plays Philadelphia security guard David Dunn, who is the only survivor of a devastating train crash, miraculously escaping without so much as a scratch. Physically, he’s unbreakable. Emotionally, he’s plenty fractured. He walks in a daze (much like his character in The Sixth Sense), obsessed with his freakish survival. He quizzes co-workers and family about his health record. Perhaps he is invincible. The train wreck, by the way, is handled very tastefully, without relying on a single special effect. We see the train vibrate and David hold on tightly to his arm rest as the scene dissolves to a close-up of his face. Then Shyamalan cuts to the TV coverage of the aftermath.
When David finds a note card under his windshield asking, “How many days in your life have you been sick?” he tracks down the art gallery whose name is inscribed on the stationery. At the Limited Edition, he finds Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson in a long black trench coat), the fragile art dealer specializing in comic book drawings and sketches. The two men are on opposite ends of the fallibility spectrum. David is unbreakable, while Elijah is known as “Mr. Glass,” because his rare form of osteoporosis renders him a bundle of broken and shattered bones.
Elijah is an odd character, introduced in the opening scene as a freshly delivered baby who enters the world with broken arms and legs. We know right away he’ll grow up to be something special. Elijah waits all his life, following every catastrophic accident, looking for two words: “sole survivor.” He’s sure he must have an opposite in the world who will help him figure out his own purpose in life.
Elijah is a bit creepy, as David’s estranged wife (Robin Wright Penn) determines immediately. But Elijah works his way into their lives, convincing the morose security guard of his own psychic powers and even more importantly, convincing David that he was put on earth to protect people. “Why else would you have chosen to be a security guard?” he asks David, whom he insists is a hero like those in his comic books.
Elijah explains the overpowering sadness David wakes up with every day as no more than his unwillingness to face his own heroic destiny. And Elijah, like prophets before him, will help this mere mortal accept his destiny. Predictably, Elijah also will help David save his crumbling marriage and rebuild his fractured family. Interestingly, this is the third film in just a few weeks in which a mysterious supernatural black man becomes a troubled white man’s savior (The Legend of Bagger Vance and Family Man).
Elijah helps David get in touch with his inner sixth sense so he can stand in crowds with his palms open to life’s forces, and channel brief glimpses of the evil his fellow man will perpetrate. This enables him to follow those evil ones and spring into action. The scene in which he discovers his latent powers unfolds so deliberately and at such a leisurely pace, however, that it’s little more than innovative camera angles.
Picture Bruce Willis cloaked in a hooded plastic cape, walking in slow motion up the stairs of a house to rescue its helpless occupants from a raging psycho. A hulking assailant flings him around, smashing man-size dents into the walls, but leaving Willis’ character unscathed. Ordinary Security Man has emerged as—tah-dah!—super hero! (albeit a morose, sensitive superhero).
Jackson’s character waxes eloquent on comic books as a form of history and a way people through the ages have communicated, implying that life’s answers may be found in the exaggerated characters of cartoons. This brief exposition is meant to pass for depth, and the film is hardly as provocative as Shyamalan thinks.
Apart from his fetish for comic books and their exaggerated depictions of good and evil, Shyamalan wants Unbreakable to be about the nature of good and evil and the absence of heroes in modern culture. “These are mediocre times,” Elijah opines. “People have lost hope. It’s hard for them to believe there are extraordinary things in themselves or in others.” This statement is the crux of Shyamalan’s film. But even he doesn’t believe in the extraordinary powers of common human beings. In reality, those powers have nothing to do with extraordinary strength or rock-hard bones. True heroes work in quiet ways fueled largely by passion and conviction to achieve a more just society. They don’t need superhuman strength, only an extraordinary will. It’s too bad Shyamalan doesn’t portray that truth, but looks instead toward the mythic superman as hero, perpetuating the fantasy that real heroes don’t exist anymore.
Unbreakable (PG-13) HH Directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson and Robin Wright Penn.