Retro Review: Unbreakable

The text below the break is part of a theatrical review originally published on November 22nd, 2000.

Here are some updated thoughts:  Wow, where to begin with this one.  First, the writing of the review is not prime time material.  I must have been in a hurry.  I cleaned it up a bit, but have no intention of re-writing all these retro reviews . . . they are what they are, a snapshot in time.  Second, at the time of this review M. Night Shyamalan was the new golden child of Hollywood.  The Sixth Sense blew away critics and fans with its revelatory and surprising ending.  Oh how times have changed.  Shyamalan’s career began to spiral out of control after Unbreakable.  Critics and fans became more and more judgmental of his storytelling and signature twist endings.  Myself, I became a bit tired of seeing his cameos.  He developed a narcissistic need to be seen in his own movies, and whenever he showed his face it completely threw me out of the story.  Shyamalan’s last critical and box office hit was 2002’s Signs.  And even then the critics were lukewarm on his alien invasion versus faith allegory.

I’ve liked all of his movies (to some degree or another) all the way through The Village.  His career really started coming off the rails with Lady in the Water, and was on life support by The Happening.  His golden child image is now tarnished to the point where critics and fans automatically label anything he does as inferior.  And apparently back in 2000 his name was associated with a new Indiana Jones script.  That would have been interesting to see . . . [divider style=”dashed” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

After last year’s success of The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan could have done any movie he wanted.  When a director creates a film that becomes that popular, they get a Hollywood wild card which permits them to more or less choose a project of their own.  I’m sure that Shyamalan could have had any kind of budget he wanted to make a huge blockbuster that was the total opposite of his smash hit.  Instead, he opted to create another small film that is more focused on mood and story than actual visuals.  And once again, the final product is a great mix of suspense and tone with a twist ending.

Unbreakable‘s beginning is concerned with two parallel story lines.  The first is about Elijah (a great performance by Samuel L. Jackson), a man who has a very rare disease.  Brittle bone disease.  His whole childhood was spent in and out of hospitals for broken bones or strange sicknesses.  His condition is so extreme that the neighborhood kids call him the “Glass Man.”  Instead of going out to play with other kids, Elijah found comfort in comic books.  And now, as an adult, Elijah spends his time collecting and selling classic comic books.

The second story line is about David Dunne (Bruce Willis in a performance that reminded me too much of the one he gave in The Sixth Sense), a man whose marriage is in limbo.  He is looking for new employment in New York.  Coming back from a job interview, he embarks a train.  His train derails and he’s the only survivor of the tragedy.  The amazing thing?  He doesn’t have a scratch on him.  This will have a huge impact on his life.  His wife (Robin Wright-Penn) will use this as an excuse to reconcile their marriage, but David has more complicated thoughts going through his head.

During the funeral service for everyone who died in the crash, David finds a note tucked under his car’s windshield wiper.  The note reads “How many days of your life have you been sick.”  The message comes from Elijah and it’s this very little note that will change David’s life forever.  This will make him think about his present life as well as his past.  Elijah wants to befriend David.  He thinks that they have a special connection.  He thinks that two men that could be at the far-ends of the life spectrum (one man being breakable, the other being unbreakable) makes them connected in some strange way.  What David doesn’t realize is that it is this very thing that connects them in more ways than one.

Giving away more of the plot would be spoiling a well written and a highly entertaining film.  Unbreakable is a lot like The Sixth Sense in that if you tell too much of the plot, you give the ending away.  What I can say is that the entire film revolves around the world of comic books.  In fact, the actual film itself looks a lot like a comic book.  That was deliberate.

[box type=”error” align=”” class=”” width=””]Unbreakable PosterDavid Dunn (Bruce Willis) is an ordinary man who is soon confronted with an extraordinary concept when a train accident leaves 131 of his fellow passengers dead — and him unscathed.  Is he unbreakable?  The answer may lie with the mysterious Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who suffers from a disease that renders his bones as fragile as glass.  Unbreakable and breakable, two opposite sides of the spectrum.  Elijah approaches Dunn with a seemingly far fetched theory behind it all . . .

Director:  M. Night Shyamalan
Starring:  Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright
Genre:  Science Fiction / Superhero
Media:  Film, 106 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Year: November 22, 2000
4 out of 5 stars

With this film, Shyamalan proves that he isn’t a mere one hit wonder.  I love the way he paces his films . . . he’s not afraid of giving great, long dialogue sequences.  He knows how to create compelling characters that feel real, and he knows how to shoot a movie.  Some of the scenes in this movie are just amazingly beautiful.  There’s one scene in particular, where Elijah has to walk down a long flight of stairs, that is so well shot and so suspenseful you find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat.  Shyamalan’s work reminds me a lot of the work of Alfred Hitchcock.  Like Hitchcock, Shyamalan’s films are story-driven and character driven.  They are greatly suspenseful and always enjoyable to watch.

In more ways then one, this film delivers. I loved Robin Wright-Penn’s character.  She was so well written that you found yourself caring for her immediately.  She is not the typical Hollywood wife.  Shyamalan knows how to create characters that look real and not like Hollywood creations.

But unlike is previous film, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable doesn’t rely on horror, but more on suspense.  This film was made to make you think.  It dwells with the age-old question about a humanity’s place on Earth.  It deals with the questions “Why were we put on this earth?  For what reason?  Do we have a purpose in life?” and so on.  This film has many different layered levels, and that’s what I found so wonderful about it.  The script is so precise that you never lose interest even if the film deals with very important questions.

The only problem with this film is its ending.  Like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable has a twist ending . . . a Shyamalan trademark.  And that twist in itself is great.  What throws some of the film’s credibility away is what comes right at the end of the film.  It’s as if Shyamalan didn’t know how to end it all.  Instead of giving us a satisfying finale, he displays a few lines on the screen to tell us what happened to the characters once the story is over.  This is not only cheesy, it goes against everything the film had fought to create.  But still, this little detail aside, Unbreakable is a very original work of suspense.  It is a well crafted and well layered story that will have an impact on its viewers. And that’s more than most Hollywood films are able to achieve.

A few things bothered me while watching Unbreakable.  First of all, the kid that plays Willis’s son looked too much like Haley Joel Osment for my taste.  And Willis’ performance is too similar to the one he gave in The Sixth Sense.  Besides its betraying ending, Unbreakable is an interesting look at human nature . . . and whether there are superheroes among us.  I highly recommended seeing this film.  It not only makes you think, it entertains and rarely disappoints.  Shyamalan is a very gifted filmmaker.  And I do hope that his new Indiana Jones script will revive the dead series.

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Note:   I’m revisiting and re-posting many older articles (almost 200) I’ve written (or contributed to) over the years, either for my own purposes or as contributions to other sites now long digitally decayed and dormant.  These reviews/articles will appear in their nearly raw, unaltered form, with a few updated thoughts at the beginning of each.

Words © 2015-2021, Neal Ulen. All rights reserved.
Images/videos cited © to their respective owner(s).

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