#13: Unbreakable (2000)
M. Night Shyamalan burst onto the scene in 1999 with The Sixth Sense. It was one of those films that had absolutely everyone talking. “I see dead people” became a fixture in the vocabulary of popular cultural, and the twist ending kept people talking for months. It was one of those films you “had to see,” no matter who you were.
Unbreakable, was actually a box office flop, though it received favorable reviews from critics and strong DVD sales. His next film, Signs, was both successful and critically praised. Unfortunately his career went into a freefall over the next decade, reaching rock bottom with the universally despised live action adaptation of The Last Airbender. I’m trying to be cautiously optimistic about his next film, After Earth, which will star Will and Jaden Smith. I really hope Shyamalan’s career can recover, because it was brilliant at first.
With Unbreakable and Signs, Shyamalan established an M.O. of taking genres and giving them his own unique “twist.” I’m not referring to the twist endings he’s sometimes cricized for over-employing, but rather how he uniquely reinterprets distinct genres. Signs reimagined an alien invasion story as a drama focusing on a tightly knit rural family, and Unbreakable reimagined a superhero story as a quiet mystery with an extremely “creepy” vibe. Prolific and decorated filmmaker Quentin Tarantino said the film should’ve been marketed as, “What if Superman was here on earth, and didn’t know he was Superman?”
If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that David Dunn (Bruce Willis) survives a train crash that kills every other passenger. He is approached by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a man who appears to be the polar opposite of him. Someone who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a disease that makes your bones break extremely easily. Elijah runs an art gallery with a unique specialty: comic book art. He deduced at an early age that if someone like him exists, perhaps the opposite also exists. He has been reading newspapers and watching the news his entire life waiting to hear one phrase: “there was a single survivor.”
For most of the film, David is dismissive of Elijah’s claims, and tries to avoid him and the implication that he has the ability to be a hero. Most of the film focuses on David’s rather quiet personal life, his job as a guard at a sports stadium, his troubled marriage, and his relationship with his son. The clues about his true nature continue to come here and there, in small moments. Elijah asks him if he can ever remember being sick. David asks his boss the last time he took a sick day, his boss “sees his point” and gives him a raise because of his perfect attendance. There is a great scene where he’s lifting weights and his son keeps putting more and more weight on the barbell, and to their astonishment there seems to be almost no limit to what he can lift.
David is gradually forced to admit that Elijah is right, and decides to use his gifts to become a hero under Elijah’s guidance. The scene of his first heroic act is very unsettling, and David almost loses his life, but in the process he discovers his true calling in life. The soundtrack by James Newton Howard, which is consistently excellent, reaches its highest of highs during this scene, and the twist ending that follows shortly after.
Oh, yeah: there is a twist ending. Like The Sixth Sense and Signs (though the latter was less of a twist), the ending serves both as an emotional climax and a moment when “everything comes together.” It completely changes the audience’s perception of the entire film.
This may have been one of the most underrated films to be released in my lifetime. Shyamalan not only wrote a brilliant screenplay with a very distinctive mood, he got fantastic performances out of Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. Like he did in The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan uses vivid color to emphasize certain characters and concepts, though in this case it’s more than one color to represent more than one thing. I really hope Shyamalan can get back to this kind of filmmaking.
The only reason this isn’t higher on this list? Well, frankly, it has an extremely serious tone and almost no “fun.” There will be other equally serious films higher on this list, but as much as I admire what Shyamalan was able to pull off in Unbreakable, those other films were of a truly transcendent quality. (And some of them bring quite a bit more fun than they’re given credit for.)