In the fifteen years since Unbreakable, director M Night Shyamalan has gone from the next big thing to a filmic punchline. His blindsiding twists became his undoing with sub-par, and un-intentionally hilarious, efforts like The Village, Lady in the Water and The Happening disappointing crowds, before completely losing all creditability with The Last Airbender and After Earth. All those missteps have somehow eclipsed in the public consciousness his two effortlessly impressive solid-classic films: The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. The former's ending soon became a late 90s meme, I was personally aware of the film's twist well before having the pleasure of viewing it thanks to its saturation in pop culture at the time, while the latter treated super-hero themes with a grown-up eye. Both signalled the end of Bruce Willis as a serious actor, everything since has either been of poor quality or is riffing on his 80s/90s persona. (Bruce Willis' 90s has so much quality films in it, everything since was always going to seem like a disappointment: The Last Boy Scout, Pulp Fiction, Die Hard: With a Vengeance, Twelve Monkeys, The Fifth Element, The Sixth Sense... wow.) Shyamalan with these two films proved himself to be an entertainer in the Hitchcock or Spielberg mould. It just a shame he never bettered his two classics.
Unbreakable is interesting in the face of hindsight. In 2000 superhero films had not quite taken off; Bryan Singer (another auteur with an infamous 90s twist-ending to his name) had released X-Men, but Spider-Man's mega-triumph was still two years away. After that films about masked and caped vigilantes got bigger, showier and broke umpteen box office records. But also present in the year zero of modern superhero movies is this understated, real-life consumed origin story of a broken man in search of a place to belong. Unbreakable created a believable super-hero film half a decade before Christopher Nolan was lauded for apparently inventing the idea with Batman Begins (Nolan, another director who found fame with twist-endings.) Shyamalan's film while not only an entirely original property, is shot in a visually striking manner and is thematic rewarding, and therefore completely at odds with the Marvel Cinematic Universe endeavours of today.
Throughout the film there are motifs that recall the conventions of comic books. Firstly, the two main characters, Willis' David Dunn and Samuel L. Jackson's Elijah Price, are colour-coded like a superhero would be; whereas Spider-Man is linked with red and blue, Dunn prefers green (his poncho, the shirt he is wearing on the train) while Price is all about purple (his suit, his bench gift's wrapping). This idea goes beyond solely the mains; those that Dunn suspects of wrong-doing are sporting brightly hued apparel (the blue windbreaker of Shyamalan's supposed stadium drug-dealer, the green-shirted rapist, the orange-boiler-suited home-invader). To make this more obvious, scenes are desaturated in an attempt to make the suspects' colours really pop. Another technique Shyamalan utilises is the extended long take, which is particularly apparent in the title sequence with the shifting side-by-side two-shot and the static post-train-wreck discussion. This is done to mimic the storyboard flow of a comic book. As comic books are a solely visual medium great effort is taken to push the story forward without dialogue, for example when Dunn's son finds out that his dad was in a train-crash or Dunn finding the “when were you last sick?” card on his car. Even his name, David Dunn, is alliterative to evoke the naming patterns of Stan Lee's creations (Peter Parker, Bruce Banner etc.). While it is a departure from the comic book adaptations that had been made before, Shyamalan's work on Unbreakable shows that he respects the genre, and is able to tell his story without CGI pyrotechnics.
See Also: The Sixth Sense (1999), Chronicle (2012)
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