With Glass due to hit cinemas this week, we take a look back at the first film in the unexpected trilogy, Unbreakable. Released in 2000, riding on the heels of The Sixth Sense, it was marketed as a psychological thriller much to the annoyance of director M. Night Shyamalan. This is a superhero origin story, a comic book movie fixed with a different lens. As unique as the movie was then, it looks even more revolutionary viewed through the retrospective gaze of today’s superhero dominated box office.
David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is a security guard who finds himself the only survivor of a devastating train crash that kills all of the other passengers. What’s even more remarkable is that he doesn’t have any injuries. At a memorial service for the victims, he finds a note on his windshield that leads him to an art gallery owned by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson). Elijah explains how he was born with a rare disease that renders his bones fragile that easily causes them to break. He hypothesises that if he can exist on one end of the spectrum, then perhaps someone less susceptible to injury can exist on the other end. Someone that can survive a train crash without a scratch on them.
Shyamalan doesn’t hide his comic book influences, he displays them with pride making them integral to the plot. Elijah is a massive comic book fan and uses that knowledge to suggest to David that these stories are based on people like him, extraordinary individuals with gifts. This allows Shyamalan to be blunt with his parallels, appealing to a wider audience without dumbing down the themes. There is much fun to be found for comic book fans such as David Dunn’s name paying homage to the many Marvel heroes with the same letter initials. The use of colour is also very important, as the hero and villains are both associated with specific imagery, most notably the vivid rich colours of the bad guys that David sees in his visions.
What stands out in the rewatch is the director’s tendency to allow the camera to linger. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra frames several camera angles like comic book panels, the absence of fast cuts allows the story to unfold at a certain pace, never losing our attention or distracting from what’s on screen. The slow pace of the movie is rewarding due to its gripping story and payoff at the end.
Nine years after it was released, Quentin Tarantino heaped praise on Unbreakable and considered it to be Bruce Willis’ best performance. Willis portrays Dunn with an understated mental fragility that contrasts with his physical being. It’s reserved and nuanced making it easy to find sympathy with the character and his struggles. Elijah on the other hand is assertive and self-assured in spite of his debilitating condition. Jackson is great, clearly having fun as the man kids called “Mr Glass” a name that is one of many hints that foreshadows the inevitable relationship between both men. Their chemistry is fantastic and it’s exciting that they’ve reprised their roles nineteen years later.
Unbreakable is a solid film with a great cast and a twist that, although arguably predictable, is clever and isn’t as ridiculous as Shyamalan would later hit us with. A strong candidate for his best film, it’s aged wonderfully and is more necessary now as Marvel and DC churn out adaptions of their popular works. An original and thrilling movie that is a fresh entry in the genre, even more so nineteen years later.
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