By Ron Wells | November 19, 2000

If you’re like me, you may have only had an idea going into this movie about what happens in the first ten minutes. If you’re already planning to see this film and want to preserve the element of surprise about the story, stop reading now and come back after you’re done. On the other hand, if you’re on the fence and want to know a little more about where exactly writer/director M. Night Shyamalan is going with this premise, I’ll try not to go too crazy.
The first thing you see is a black screening listing some very odd statistics. After that, we arrive upon the scene of the birth of one of our major characters, Elijah Price (as adult, Samuel L. Jackson). Elijah is born with a rare disease that causes his bones to be brittle. Just the act of birth fractured all of his arms and legs. The shortest fall can shatter his bones.
The one place in which the young Elijah could took solace was comic books. By the present, he owns a large collection and runs his own gallery of original art. That’s right, Jackson isn’t playing Shaft, he’s playing the kind of guy who would own the Shaft action figure. This life and its influences lead the man to wonder if there is another individual out there somewhere that is his equal but opposite number; one who is as UNBREAKABLE as he is fragile.
Enter David Dunne (Bruce Willis). The one-time college football star is now just a security guard at the stadium where he probably used to play. He’s barely holding his relationships together with his wife Megan (Robin Wright Penn) and son Jeremy (Spencer Treat Clark, the kid from “Gladiator” and “Anna and the King” that looks and sounds like Pip from “South Park”). Everything changes when the train he’s taking from New York home to Philadelphia suffers a horrible crash. David is not just the only survivor. He doesn’t have a scratch on him. As a matter of fact, he can’t remember the last time he was either sick or injured. Enter Elijah, who spouts what would appear to be crazy talk about David being some sort of special super-being. David and his family can write it off until Elijah’s prodding causes our hero notices that he may be much more than unbreakable.
I was not a fan of Shyamalan’s last film, “The Sixth Sense”. I saw the big surprise ending coming a mile away, and I detest this soft-headed new age approach to ghosts. They’re just misunderstood and only need resolution to move on with their afterlives? What is this, the Lifetime Network? Let me tell you, if I were stuck in some dark and dank room for decades constantly reliving the moment of my violent death, I sure wouldn’t be looking for closure, I’d be looking to share the damn pain.
“The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” share several elements: the slow, deliberate tone, the twist ending that recontextualizes the rest of the movie, the director’s hometown of Philadelphia, and Bruce Willis. The heroes of each film must learn to cope with genetic powers that they didn’t ask for and initially don’t know how to use them.
Still, these are two very different films, and I enjoyed the newer edition much more than last year’s model. One of the big themes here is how trauma can define a man’s character. It’s difficult to know what a person is really like until you’ve seen them tested under fire. Tragedy can transform people into heroes, monsters or anything in between. Every day is a struggle for Elijah. David can’t seem to move forward until he becomes a little more pro-active toward the exploration of the unique abilities he has.
I’m not so sure how “Unbreakable” will play to a mass audience, as its real goal is to take many of the paradigms of super-hero comics and see how they might play out in a very naturalistic setting. It should play well to the fanboys, but it’s obviously meant for everyone else. How you react to this material will probably determine your response to the big shocker at the end. Half the audience seemed to find it ridiculous; many others thought it was great. The producers should be concerned that viewers don’t simply hear some of the comic buzzwords and immediately tune out the world the film is trying to create.
So what is Shyamalan trying to create? How many more films does he have on his development deal? I wonder if we can expect a couple more movies about lower-class characters suddenly “blessed” with still different strange and magical powers. Maybe after four of these movies, he can produce a team flick; it could be “Justice League Philadephia”. It makes you wonder what the director might try if he’s given an existing super-hero project to do.

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