I can remember when this film first came out there was a lot of hype and expectation behind it. Writer / Director M. Night Shyamalan was coming off the unexpected mega success of The Sixth Sense and had already been hailed as a visionary. The reception Unbreakable ultimately received was lukewarm however, both critically and commercially. Reaction to it seems to be extreme either way - this seems to be one of those 'love it' / 'hate it' films where few people take the middle ground. Shyamalan the man is in many ways like this film - ambitious, distinctive, arrogant, and a tad pretentious. And just like this film, the man is loved and hated in equal measure. I can understand the dislike for his personality, but I have to say that as a fan of his filmmaking style I can't understand why some consider him to be a talentless hack. I love both Sixth Sense and this, and though I'm not such a big fan of Signs or The Village, I still enjoyed them and think that, at least on most technical merits, they're very well made. I'll take distinctive non-mainstream stuff over the derivative garbage that's churned out so routinely any day of the week.
But back to Unbreakable. The film is essentially a superhero origin story with a difference. That difference is that it's mostly a drama, an unconventional take on a genre that is almost exclusively action oriented. Unbreakable is a realistic and thoughtful interpretation of the superhero myth, a film that imagines what a real world superhero might be like. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is a security guard who works at a university football stadium. He's having trouble with his marriage and is on his way back from a job interview in another city when tragedy befalls the train he's on. It derails, and David ends up being the only survivor; miraculously, he walks out of the hospital completely unscathed, accompanied by his wife Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) and son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark). Shortly thereafter, he receives a note from a man named Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) that makes him start to wonder about why he survived. He seeks out Elijah, who turns out to be the owner of an arty comic book store. Elijah suffers from a rare disorder that leaves his bones extremely brittle; he postulates that perhaps David is the opposite of himself - a person that is stronger than normal human beings, whose purpose is to protect the weak and helpless. Although David is naturally skeptical, his desire to make sense of his miraculous survival leads him to re-examine his life and see signs that suggest Elijah's theory might be correct. In closely related subplots, Joseph begins to look up to him as some kind of superhero, and his wife attempts to reconnect with him and save their marriage.
I find the realistic drama take on the superhero origin story to be an interesting premise, and in Unbreakable it's well executed. It plays to many superhero / comic book conventions - the costume, double life, Achilles' Heal, villain, etc - while still being grounded in a realistic world. The thing that irks a lot of people (besides hating the premise itself) is the lugubrious tone of the film. It's dour to the point of distraction, and I have to say it's a legitimate complaint. In shying away from the colourful antics of normal comic book movies, Shyamalan has gone to the opposite extreme. Still, the approach clearly works for the fans of the film, including me. I find that it accentuates the mundane reality of Dunn's world - he's a taciturn and humble individual who has been living an unfulfilling life and lacks purpose. The tone of the film coupled with the slow, deliberate pacing and self-important dialogue give the film an air of taking itself too seriously, which is also a legitimate complaint. But what can I say, I dig it, and I don't think it's a flaw that derails (heh heh) the film. I must confess though, there is some grating dialogue and one scene involving a kid and a gun that is just surreal and miscalculated; these elements sometimes draw you out of the film completely.
Although the script doesn't go into incredible depth, the characters are fairly well fleshed out, and the story builds up to a satisfying conclusion (including the obligatory M Night twist at the end). Dunn and Elijah Price are the chief protagonists, and their relationship, as well as David's relationships with his son and wife, are major aspects of the film. Dunn and Price are given plenty of backstory that inform their characters, with Elijah being perhaps more fleshed out and interesting than David. The performances are very good all round. I think Willis has always been a terrific in comedic and action roles, but here he does a great job playing the nondescript and bemused David Dunn. Samuel L. Jackson is excellent as the enigmatic genius Elijah Price, playing a role completely unlike the typical Sam Jackson role. Robin Wright Penn and Spencer Treat Clark are also solid in their roles, and Night once again proves that he knows how to pick good child actors.
Visually the film is very interesting and distinctive. Lots of long takes with the camera positioned almost like an invisible observer peeking in on the lives of these characters, giving it a pseudo docu-drama feel. The use of muted colours also enhances the tone of the film, while colour motifs and the occasional flash of bright colours are also employed as storytelling devices. Despite being a drama, there are loads of memorable scenes in the film that stick with me - the train station sequence, Dunn's battle with the orange jump suit man, Elijah's incident with the stairs, lifting weights, carrying Audrey - to me these moments are just a perfect combination of the various elements of the film that just click. The thing that really seals the deal is the fantastic soundtrack by James Newton Howard, which complements the film perfectly and also lends a real thumping 'superheroic' feel to it.
Alright, I love this film, it's one of my favourites. I can't really claim that it's a great film. It's definitely flawed in many ways, and I can understand that some people might dislike it as a result (though I can't understand the vitriol), but those flaws are too minor to detract from an interesting and entertaining (yes, slow paced doesn't mean boring!) cinematic experience. Shyamalan's films are always interesting, and Unbreakable is no exception. I'm certainly looking forward to whatever he comes up with, though I think it would also be nice to see him diversify a little in the future.