The Unexpected Legacy of Shyamalan’s Unbreakable

Just how ahead of its time was Unbreakable?

Unbreakable

Unbreakable is a fascinating film. It’s a “grounded in reality” tale about two extraordinary characters searching for their purpose in the world. Simultaneously, it deconstructs comic book mythology in a rather subtle fashion. Many believe it to be M. Night Shyamalan’s best work to date. In addition to its cult following, the film has also spawned two sequels: the hugely successful Split and the hotly anticipated Glass. Nineteen years after its release, Unbreakable has undoubtedly left an impression on filmgoers.

Given today’s cinema landscape, Unbreakable would have probably been an easy sell. After all, who wouldn’t love an origin story set in a gritty, realistic world where a middle-aged man on the brink of losing his family realizes he possesses superhuman abilities? This man is David Dunn (Bruce Willis) who one day wakes up from a disastrous train wreck. He learns that he is not only the sole survivor but that he has emerged completely unharmed. While trying to move on from the tragedy, David meets Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a wealthy entrepreneur with an obsession for comic books. Elijah believes David is his exact polar opposite. Where Elijah suffers from a disorder that makes him brittle, sickly, and prone to injury, David possesses uncanny strength and perfect health. Elijah uses his comic book knowledge to convince David that he was given these abilities for a reason: to protect the world from evil. It’s easy to see how successful this premise would have been in the comic book superhero craze currently dominating the box office.

However, Unbreakable made its theatrical debut at a time when the genre did not have the credibility it enjoys today. Hollywood’s production of superhero films up to that point either tried to cash in on the film noir look of Tim Burton’s Batman (The Shadow, Barb Wire, Steel) or struggled with translating the source material into anything that resembled a believable world (Judge Dredd, Tank Girl, Spawn). Successful comic book adaptations like Blade, The Crow, The Mask, and X-Men were either tailored to fit their stars or distanced entirely from their origins. To have a film that not only embraced its comic book roots but told its story with complete and utter sincerity was unheard of at that time.

Could it be that Unbreakable was only greenlit because of the talent behind the camera? Just 15 months prior to its November 2000 release, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan won over the hearts of critics, audiences, and Disney executives with his little horror drama The Sixth Sense. That film became the most successful non-Star Wars movie of 1999, earning 6 Oscar nominations on top of a $294 million domestic gross. Expectations ran high for Shyamalan’s follow up. Suffice to say, critics were underwhelmed with Unbreakable. Word of mouth reflected that audiences didn’t know what to make of the film. Sadly, it grossed less than a third of what The Sixth Sense achieved despite costing almost twice as much to produce.

Bad timing may have certainly played a factor. Mainstream audiences weren’t yet familiar with comic book tropes to see how Shyamalan’s long takes and colour scheme choices paid tribute to them. They also weren’t familiar with superhero origin stories to connect the deliberate similarities to David’s journey. All they saw was a film about material they didn’t understand and a twist ending that wasn’t as mindblowing as the director’s previous effort. Critics weren’t ready to embrace the idea of superheroes existing in a real world scenario where their actions have serious consequences, at least not the way they did four and eight years later with The Incredibles and The Dark Knight respectively.

It also didn’t help that Touchstone Pictures suppressed all references to comics and superheroes from their marketing campaign for Unbreakable. The posters for the film copied the minimalist designs of the The Sixth Sense ads, juxtaposing Bruce Willis’ face against glass fragments and a mostly black canvas. The two minute trailer suggested a supernatural thriller sharing the same tone as Shyamalan’s previous film. As such, the film was set up to deliver on a completely unrelated set of expectations than was intended.

This type of misleading marketing is rather common among production studios faced with the dilemma of selling the truth to audiences and trying to get as many butts in theatre seats as possible. Some examples include Drive, a moody character piece marketed as a Fast & Furious knock off; Crimson Peak, a gothic romance advertised as a haunted house horror movie; and most recently Widows, a socio-political drama sold as a female heist movie. Rarely does this strategy do the film or the filmgoers any favours since it tends to break audience trust and generate poor word of mouth. Unbreakable fell into this trap.

Nevertheless, there is much to admire about Unbreakable. Most prominent is the human scale that the film explores. The drama is character-driven, where David Dunn’s biggest threats are reconnecting with his wife, spending time with his son, and looking for opportunities to advance his career. Shyamalan keeps the conflicts limited to a small scale. A scene that explores David’s strength, for example, has him working out in his basement with his son, who adds more and more household items to the bar in an attempt to find his father’s limit.

Another scene in a restaurant has David speaking to his wife, Audrey (Robin Wright), about his unhappiness. The backdrop is of a forest, mimicking the place where Audrey and David were in a car crash years earlier. As David’s conversation becomes more intimate, the camera pushes in until only he and Audrey are in the frame. Through this single shot, Shyamalan creates a visual connection between the couple trying to analyze how their relationship fell apart and the moment where David chose to suppress his abilities to be with Audrey, a choice that gradually made him more disconnected from his life. As Elijah would put it, David was no longer “doing what he’s supposed to be doing.”

It’s this “real life” approach to exploring superheroes that audiences later embraced with Brad Bird’s The Incredibles and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Other movies like Defendor, Kick-Ass, and Super took the idea even further by building “what if” fantasies of ordinary people trying to act like superheroes. The preference for character development over spectacle helped Marvel lay the foundation for their Cinematic Universe before they launched The Avengers. Of course it would be naive to think that Unbreakable was responsible for paving the way for these films, but for quite a while, there was nothing out there like it.

First and foremost, Unbreakable is the work of a great filmmaker at the top of his game. It’s an elegant piece of storytelling that is equal parts ingenious, ambitious, and controlled. Shyamalan knew exactly the kind of movie he wanted to make and he succeeded in every way. Unbreakable may have been ahead of its time, but the subsequent years have proven that it is one of the greatest superhero films ever made. It proves that comic book based movies can work on a small scale with a good script, great acting, and confident direction. The hidden world building twist in Split may have helped garner new interest in its predecessor, and Glass may reinvent the game for these characters, but Unbreakable works perfect as a stand alone movie. It is a heartfelt tribute to comic books and superheroes, but most of all, it is a profoundly humanist tale about striving to be the best versions of ourselves. For that reason alone, Unbreakable is an essential addition to your film log.

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