Retrospective Reviews: “Unbreakable”

UnbreakableposterwillisIn a continuation of what I have deemed “Shyamalan September,” which will inevitably bleed into October, we go from one Shyamalan’s greatest failures to one of his more underrated films: the superhero thriller Unbreakable, which gives us a different, more subdued look at the idea of super-powered beings and the consequences of a world divided into heroes and villains. Just a heads up, there may be some spoilers ahead, but if you’re anything like me, you knew the big twist of this film, just like any other Shyamalan movie. With that said, however, this is still a really enjoyable movie, and like I said before, a nice departure from the typical superhero films of today.

The film stars Bruce Willis as David Dunn, a security guard who played football in college and who is now having marital problems with his wife Audrey, played by Robin Wright. His life changes forever when he is involved in a train crash that leaves everyone onboard dead; everyone, that is, except for him. The miraculous thing is that David walks away from the crash unscathed. This attracts the attention of a man named Elijah Price, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who was born with a condition that leaves his bones incredibly brittle and prone to breaking. Elijah, having spent much of his life reading and later collecting comic books, is convinced that if a person like him, whose bones break so easily, can exist, comic book logic dictates that there must be someone on the other end of the spectrum, someone who does not get hurt, and who can walk away from accidents and tragedies without a scratch on them. Elijah gets into contact with David and tells him and his son Joseph, played by Spencer Treat Clark, about his theory. David, unsurprisingly, wants nothing to do with Elijah’s theory, but it spurs the imagination and admiration of Joseph, who tries to convince his father that he really is blessed with special powers. But it’s not just near-invulnerability that David has at his disposal: he bench presses over 350 pounds, and later discovers that he can see glimpses of the bad things people have done just by touching them. It is through this ability that David starts to see what his true calling is: to be a hero for people in a world that desperately needs heroes.

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One of the things that I like about this movie is that the superpowers that David displays are, at the same time, in the spotlight and off to the side; it’s mostly a story about an unhappy man trying to figure out his place in the world. It’s played very much like a film outside of the superhero genre, with the powers being something between an afterthought and a footnote. One could say that it’s only loosely a superhero story, as it’s very much rooted in our realistic world, as opposed to the semi-realistic world of a lot of modern superhero flicks.

The actors all do a fine job in this movie, with Willis and Jackson really shining as David and Elijah. You could really feel the back and forth going on in David’s mind; he wants to be special, but at the same time, wants to just be a normal man with a wife and son he loves and supports. Jackson’s portrayal of Elijah is interesting, unsettling, and even a little creepy at times, as he is so convinced of David’s power that he chases after a man and falls down a flight of stairs, breaking and shattering many of his bones. The one actor who I had a little bit of trouble with was Spencer Treat Clark as David’s son Joseph; he played the role well 75 percent of the time, but the other 25 percent of the time, I found him to be kind of annoying, getting dangerously close to that typical child actor annoyance level. With that said, though, I still liked all of the actors, and a few of them have some great dramatic scenes as well.

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Now, since this is a Shyamalan film, there is an inevitable twist near the end, which I will discuss here. That is a major spoiler alert for anyone who doesn’t know or who doesn’t want to know the twist. At the end of the movie, David has accepted his new life as a hero and shakes hands with Elijah; this physical contact allows David to see that Elijah was behind, not only the train crash, but also a previously mentioned plane crash and a hotel fire, from which there were no survivors. Elijah is revealed to be, for lack of a better term, David’s archenemy, the villain of his story. Because of the realistic way in which this world is crafted, this ending is very interesting: Elijah has spent his entire life engrossed in comic book lore, and he understands the nuances of superhero and supervillain behavior. He doesn’t understand why he was born the way he was, being so brittle, so he decides to find out if he is the hero or the villain. But by committing these terrible acts, he definitively makes himself the villain, forcing David to become the hero. Would David have discovered his power without Elijah’s hand guiding him? It’s hard to say; chances are good that he simply would have lived out the rest of his life as a guy who was overly strong and who never got sick or hurt. Elijah could have been a successful comic book collector, with an interesting art gallery, and he could have done very well for himself. But he was unsatisfied with not knowing why he was born the way he was, and instead of looking to his genes or looking for some way to improve his lot in life, he chose to turn his entire life into a comic book, complete with a childhood nickname that would become his villain identity: Mr. Glass. All he needed was a hero, his exact opposite, to oppose him and to complete his story; the Batman to his Joker, the Magneto to his Professor X, the yin to his yang. And in David, he found his yin; his archenemy, and they had almost become friends. Elijah turned David into a better man, but only by damning himself to judgment and imprisonment. But in his twisted mind, he doesn’t care; he knows now why he is the way he is: in a world without heroes, he was born a villain, and when the world didn’t bring the hero out into the open, he took matters into his own hands, and killed hundreds of people to change the lives of two.

Unbreakable is, thus far, the best film by M. Night Shyamalan that I’ve ever seen, and even though the only other film of his that I’ve seen is his magnum opus of suck, The Last Airbender, I really do mean to say that Unbreakable is a good movie. The two leads work well together, the atmosphere of this film is appropriately dark, and it is a welcomed breath of fresh air for the superhero genre. If films like Avengers: Age of Ultron or Man of Steel or Ant-Man are starting to bore you or are all starting to blend together, check out Unbreakable. It is much more subdued, but any fan of superheroes will find a lot of love for comic books in this movie about a world without heroes and villains, unless they make themselves that way.

Score: 7.5/10

Written by Joey Sack

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