Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright
The 90s and early 2000s were a far less forgiving time for superhero stories and geek culture in general, especially when it came to feature films, making the waters especially difficult for a comic-book-inspired film with a premise centered around subverting the conventions of the medium. These issues made for a difficult release, though the film has gained a loyal fanbase in the increasingly geek-oriented culture that has arisen since.
Violence: A boy threatens his father with a gun. There’s a sequence where the protagonist sees flashbacks of people around him committing violent assaults. A man is strangled, presumably to death. A man falls down a flight of stairs and crunching is heard as his bones break. A mother and children are seen tied up and held captive while the father is shown dead and bloodied on the stairs. A dead woman is tied to a radiator and a man spits water on her corpse.
Language: S**t, d**n, h**l, and a** are all used. “Jesus” is used as a slur on a pair of occasions.
Drug/Alcohol Content: A reference is made to drugs being sold at the stadium where the protagonist works, and a man is searched under suspicion of possessing them. A couple has drinks at a restaurant.
Sexual Content: Above mentioned sequence of flashbacks includes implied rape.
Other Negative Content: One character is revealed to have no regard for human life. Protagonist deliberately remains distant from his wife and son.
Positive Content: Theme of using one’s powers for the good of others.
Expectations were soaring for M. Night Shyamalan coming off of his 1999 hit The Sixth Sense, and his renewed partnership with actor Bruce Willis buoyed the hype into even loftier stratospheres. Yet, Shyamalan’s 2000 film Unbreakable rushed out only to meet with an underwhelming box office performance and mixed audience reactions.
Set in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Unbreakable follows David Dunn, the sole survivor of a brutal train crash, as an art connoisseur and comic book aficionado Elijah Price attempts to convince him that he’s actually a real-life superhero. While it draws heavily on comics for inspiration, the film also deliberately contrasts with their traditional flamboyance by employing a raw, understated style. This is a superhero story, without question, but not the one we’re used to being told.
In hindsight, much of the blame for the mediocre performance has been placed on the marketing. It’s a foreign idea in today’s Marvel-dominated world that something based on superheroes and comic books might be too niche and offputting for the general market. The world of the late 90s, however, still saw “geek culture” relegated to the outskirts of society. So the main premise of the movie, and the central quirk of arguably its most interesting character, were seen as liabilities and left out of the advertising altogether. As a result, people whet their appetites for a psychological thriller and instead received something that was off the wall and much tougher to digest.
This was a severe strike against the film’s popularity, as much of Unbreakable’s draw is how much it subverts the glamorized superhero template. There are no spotlights or Bat-signals here, no world-spanning crises or flashy fights. Even the music score is used sparingly to try and maintain a down-to-earth feel in every scene. The climax itself features no building crescendo. It’s nearly silent, and even victories feel more grim and tragic than heroic.
The movie also suffers, however, from sometimes straying too far away from its source material. It feels odd, for instance, that we never get to see David’s supposed physical resiliency in action, as all such moments end up being offscreen. The pacing is sporadic, flipping between intense sections that hold you deep in thought and long swaths of downtime that don’t add much other than showing the passage of time. Any tension in story tends to occasionally dissipate, as there is often little at stake, and the frequent silence makes it agonizingly obvious when nothing is happening.
Elijah Price is brilliantly played by Samuel L. Jackson, which is crucial as his character is easily the most intriguing aspect of the film. Despite the film’s pacing issues, there is never an uninteresting moment while Elijah is on screen. Everything from his wardrobe to his mannerisms to his diction draws you into everything he says, getting you to try to piece him together like a puzzle to find out whether he’s a genius, insane, or just desperate. The ultimate ending, while presented in the same low-key style as the rest of the film, is at once enticing and oddly satisfying.
Unbreakable finds itself in an odd place in the history of media, sandwiched between the glory days of comic books and today’s superhero-infested movie environment. From the lens of the future, we can view it as a useful cultural touchstone, a signifier of the sweeping shifts in taste and entertainment that have taken place through the 21st century. While the bait-and-switch marketing campaign crippled its initial release, it at least gave superhero lovers a subversive steak to chew on during the no-mans-land of the early 2000s–and with the rapid rise of geek culture into the social mainstream, it’s no wonder that Unbreakable has gained the devoted fanbase it has enjoyed since then.
+ Excellent performance from Samuel L. Jackson + Often thought-provoking and engaging
- Frequent poor pacing - Lack of story tension
The Bottom Line
Despite some plot and pacing issues, an intriguing movie that offers a raw and sometimes chilling alternate take on the traditional superhero story.