May 1, 2020
Franchise Evolution: The Unbreakable Trilogy, part 1: Unbreakable (2000)
Lately, a lot of film critics and film fans have been revisiting Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan’s deconstructionist take on superhero mythology, mostly thanks to a mid-credits scene in Shyamalan’s 2016 thriller Split that revealed it was secretly a backdoor sequel to Unbreakable, which was immediately followed by the announcement of Glass, a sequel to Split that’s coming out this Friday. So to mark the occasion, I’ll be taking a look back at both films in what’s been retroactively dubbed the Unbreakable Trilogy.
And at the moment, there are so many blogs and social media posts heaping praise upon Unbreakable that it’s easy to forget the movie earned decidedly mixed reviews when it was released 18 years ago. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 54% among top critics, with most taking issue with the movie’s languid pace, its humorless atmosphere, and what many felt was an absurd twist ending. I recall specifically avoiding this film in its initial release thanks to those mediocre reviews, so I didn’t get around to this one until recently. But having finally seen it, my assessment of this film lies somewhere between the muted reactions of the year 2000 and the current claims of Unbreakable being an unsung masterpiece. But before I get to that assessment, here’s the plot.
Bruce Willis is David Dunn, who we meet on a train as he’s heading back to Philadelphia from New York. The train he’s on derails, killing everyone on board except for him. To the amazement of his wife and son, David has not only survived the devastating accident, but has come out of it without a scratch on him.
After attending the memorial service for the other victims of the wreck, David finds a note on his windshield asking a simple question: “How many days of your life have you been sick?” The wheels begin to turn in David’s head, and he verifies with his boss that he’s never taken a sick day. He then goes home and discusses the matter with his wife Audrey (Robin Wright), and neither one of them can remember a time when he came down with a cold, the flu, or anything else.
A business name on the windshield note leads David to a gallery exhibiting comic book art, and its proprietor Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson). In flashbacks, we learn Elijah was born with a disease called osteogenesis imperfecta (a real condition) that causes his bones to easily break, and as a boy he was mercilessly teased by the other children, who called him “Mr. Glass”. Elijah explains to David that if someone as breakable as himself can exist, then surely there must be someone on the opposite end who’s completely impervious to being hurt. And with a mind steeped in comic book lore, Elijah believes that if such a man exists, he must be here to protect us all.
David shoots down this theory, describing how he was hurt in a car accident when he was in high school, and it was an injury so severe that he had to give up on a promising football career. David warns Elijah to stay away from him, believing the guy to be either a nutcase or just some kind of scammer. But if that’s the case, why does David bring his young son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) along with him when he confronts Elijah? Obviously, it’s so an idea can be planted in the kid’s head and he can spend the rest of the movie trying to convince his father that he is, in fact, a superhero.
Also unwisely, David tells Elijah exactly what his job is and where he works: he’s a security guard at a college football stadium. Elijah pays a visit to the stadium, where he watches David get an uncanny feeling that one of the attendees is secretly carrying a gun. The man runs away and Elijah follows him to the subway, where in a tense scene he has to precariously navigate a flight of stairs. Elijah ends up tumbling down the stairs and shattering his bones, but he learns that David was right, and the would-be hooligan really was carrying a gun.
Elijah is told by doctors he’ll have to be in a wheelchair for months, and also see a physical therapist who (by sheer coincidence… I think) turns out to be David’s wife Audrey. Elijah asks her personal questions, probing her for information about her husband’s car crash, and eventually gets her to admit that she really didn’t approve of David playing football.
Meanwhile, Joseph is helping his father lift weights, and without his knowledge decides to throw extra plates on the barbell. David is stunned to learn how much he can lift, and asks his son to add more weight. Eventually, they run out of weights and have to add on cans of paint, and David discovers he can bench press 350 pounds.
At the stadium, he decides to put his intuition to the test: He lets his hands brush against the people who walk past him, and now he’s getting Spider-Sense like visions of the things they just did, including one guy (played by Shyamalan himself in his obligatory director’s cameo) trying to sneak a stash of drugs into the stadium.
Later that night, there’s another tense scene where Joseph pulls a gun on his father, because he’s sure that the bullets will just bounce off him, which is likely inspired by an urban legend involving Superman actor George Reeves (later dramatized in Hollywoodland). Luckily, David and Audrey convince their son to put the gun down before he can test that theory.
On another occasion, David is called to school when his son gets into a fight, thinking he might have powers just like his dad. And while at the school, one of the faculty members recalls when David was a student there, and he nearly drowned in the pool.
Elijah figures out David unconsciously faked his injury in the car accident so he’d have an excuse to quit football and thus keep Audrey from leaving him. Elijah is now convinced that David can’t be hurt, but David tells him about the time he nearly drowned. Elijah quickly formulates an explanation for this as well: every superhero has a single weakness, and water might be David’s weakness. And in case the implication isn’t clear enough, Elijah actually says, “It’s like your Kryptonite.”
At long last, David finally accepts the truth, which is that he does have superhuman powers. Elijah tells him to go where people are, so David dons his green security guard poncho and heads to a train station and does his Spidey-Sense trick again. He touches a janitor and gets a vision of the guy breaking into someone’s house and killing the owner.
David follows the janitor back to the house, where he discovers the murder victim’s family all tied up. While he’s busy freeing them, the kidnapper ambushes David and knocks him into the backyard swimming pool, where he encounters his weakness and nearly dies until the kids fish him out. (Interestingly, this means David has the exact same fatal weakness as the aliens in Signs.)
David then goes after the kidnapper, and uses his super-strength to choke him out. The next morning, newspapers run a story about a mysterious guy in a poncho saving a family, and David quietly and proudly shows the headline to his son at the breakfast table.
And to wrap things up, David pays a visit to Elijah’s gallery. They shake hands for the first time, and David gets visions showing that Elijah was involved in several horrible accidents: a plane crash, a skyscraper fire, and the derailment of David’s train. It seems Elijah engineered several disasters, and killed hundreds of people, hoping to find the one person who couldn’t be injured. And now for the first time in his life, Elijah says he knows exactly who he is: the “arch-villain” who’s friends with the hero and also his “exact opposite”. He laughs that those kids had it right all along when they called him “Mr. Glass”.
And then the movie bizarrely ends with a text crawl explaining that David led the authorities to Elijah’s gallery, and Elijah is “now in an institution for the criminally insane,” as if this movie is based on a true story or something.
The initial reviews were correct to an extent: the film is rather self-serious, and does move at a leisurely pace, and the performances are understated to the point where it’s not unreasonable to think everyone’s phoning it in. But the film still holds your interest, thanks mostly to Shyamalan’s eye for composition and his unique choices: he’s not afraid of holding shots for long periods of time, sometimes keeping the camera static, and sometimes moving it around to focus on different elements of the scene in lieu of inserting close-ups. One memorably ghoulish shot comes early on after the accident, when David is being examined by a doctor in the background, while the only other “survivor” of the wreck slowly bleeds to death in the foreground.
But these choices also work against the film, particularly in its climax. When David finally accepts his place in the world and becomes a superhero, it should have been a cathartic action sequence where he lets loose and fearlessly shows what he can do. Instead, we watch David put somebody in a chokehold and stumble around one room for about thirty seconds until the guy passes out. Why couldn’t we have seen David do things that were truly superhuman, like maybe taking on multiple assailants at once?
Even better, we could have seen David get shot and find out bullets can’t penetrate his skin, which would have at least provided some justification for the part where Joseph almost shoots him. As it stands, the scene with the gun is suspenseful, but it’s forgotten as soon as it’s over. Minutes later, David and Audrey are heading out for a date night and leaving the boy with a babysitter, who I sure hope is wearing Kevlar under her pullover.
And the basic premise itself has its share of flaws; It’s a bit hard to believe that someone could reach middle age without realizing they’ve never been sick. At some point in his life, wouldn’t David have heard someone describing the symptoms of the flu, or the common cold, or even a headache and realized he had no similar firsthand experiences?
But every superhero movie asks us to buy some outlandish premises, and this one is easy enough to get past. Less easy to buy is David’s sudden Spider Sense. How does he go from simply having hunches and brief flashes in his mind to fully formed psychic visions playing out in his head for several minutes at a time, without ever realizing before that he had this ability? And if just touching other people is enough to trigger this power, wouldn’t he at some point have had similar visions about his wife, or his son?
And then there’s that ending, which probably contributed in no small part to the mixed reviews and the “C” CinemaScore rating the movie received at the time. Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense was a huge hit due to its shocking twist ending, and while the twist ending of Unbreakable works just as well and holds up to repeat viewings, at the time it was mostly seen as a blatant attempt by the director to emulate his earlier success. And surely, the reaction to the ending couldn’t have been helped by the idiotic text crawl that accompanies it, which seems like something tacked on at the last minute after test audiences complained that the villain gets away with murder or something.
Overall, the movie earns a solid “B” grade. It’s flawed, but certainly more entertaining than the initial reviews would lead one to believe.
And of course, there’s another big reason why the film is now experiencing a resurgance. At the time of its release, there had only been a handful of superhero movies that truly entered the public consciousness. X-Men had just been released a few months prior. The Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy was still years away. But now, after more than a decade of superheroes dominating the box office, the film resonates a lot more than it did in 2000. While it was clearly aimed at comic books themselves, Unbreakable ended up becoming the first instance of a deconstructionist film coming out years before most of the genre it’s deconstructing.
Coming up in part 2: 16 years later, Unbreakable also becomes the first instance of a film getting a surprise sequel, when I take a deeper look at Split.