M. Night’s Unbreakable is a disaster. It is not an unmitigated disaster in the vein of, say, Kevin Costner’s The Postman. Rather, the movie is a disaster in the sense that it could have been something great, something extraordinary, but instead it’s only…okay. That is, if you got past the first 60 minutes in order to give the movie the “okay” rating. Bruce Willis is David Dunne, the lone survivor of a terrible Amtrak train derailment while coming home from a job interview out of state. David, as written by Night and played by Willis, is a down-on-his-luck everyday man, the kind of man that could live next to you with a wife and kid that goes about his work every day and comes home every night right on schedule. A former football star whose life was altered drastically when a car accident nearly killed him.
Night writes David as a soulful, thoughtful man at the crossroads of his life. He’s in his ’40s and he’s a security guard at a football stadium. Ironic, since he was a football star before the accident. Through David, we get a view into the grit and torture and joy of reality. He’s in a dead-in job that he doesn’t particularly care; his life is going nowhere and he has little prospects of a bright future; and worst, his relationship with his wife is going downhill, and the two doesn’t even sleep in the same room anymore. David’s life is in shambles.
Then things start to get strange after David’s miraculous survival in the aftermath of the train derailment. A handicapped man named Elijah Prince, played eeriely and mysteriously by Samuel L. Jackson, starts to approach David, asking him very strange questions. It seems Prince knows things about David, about his past, and the more David begins to question his own past, he realizes that he was never a normal “everyman.” In fact, he’s never been sick in his life, and besides the car accident that supposedly ended his career, he’s never been injured. And the supposed injury that he sustained from the car accident, David now comes to realize, was all in his mind. He never had any physical injuries.
In fact, David is…unbreakable. The only thing, in fact, that could harm David is water. He has an intense fear of water. Whenever he goes near water, he becomes weak. Water is David’s kryptonite. With Prince’s guidance, David comes to realize who he is, and begins to clean up his life and start all over. He has been given a second chance at life with this newfound awareness of himself.
Why, then, was Unbreakable so unbearable to sit through? For one, there is almost no action. The movie is about a series of discoveries and endless conversations. Oh, don’t get me wrong, this is a superhero movie, and there is action. But they are so few and far in-between that they become insignificant when compared to the languid everyday life that populates the movie. And that, I believe, is one of M. Night’s biggest mistakes (Lord knows there are plenty of others). Night attempted to fashion a superhero movie without any super heroics. It is ironic, since the movie takes great pains to point out the value of comic book in modern society, going even as far as to equate the pages of a comic book to the cave drawings and hieroglyphics of Egyptian lore.
Why didn’t the movie succeed? I believe it is M. Night’s insistence on making the movie as grounded in reality as possible, as shown by David’s laborious processions of “daily events,” all of which shot by Night in a slow, unmoving, static eye. By attempting to merge reality with super heroics, Night fashioned a slow-moving movie that, by the end of its 2-hours plus time, felt like 4 hours of nothing.
Even the ending, which had David putting on a costume of shorts (actually, a raincoat) and stopping a crime, is anti-climactic and, well, dull. The whole movie, in fact, is pretty dull. Besides the lack of super heroics, M. Night spent more than 1/3rds of the film’s running time concentrating on David’s relationship with his wife, played by Robin Wright, as the two attempt to mend a crumbling marriage. All fine and well, but people do not go to superhero movies to see two 40-somethings talk about their marriage and their attempts at a “second first date.”
And that brings me to the movie’s second major failing. M. Night sought to make a superhero movie, but did the unimaginable and didn’t give the superhero crowd any superhero moments. What, then, is the point? Who did he believe would go to see superhero movies, 40-something couples? Thirty-something couples? Or maybe teenagers on a first date? All wrong. Young men in their teens and ’20-somethings go to see superhero movies. Young men in their teens and ’20-somethings made X-Men and Blade and Batman a hit.
Bryan Singer, the director of X-Men, knew what he was doing, who he was targeting, and understood perfectly what he had in his hands and how to show them. Was X-Men an in-depth character study? Hell no, and no one expected it to be. Instead, X-Men seamlessly blended action with characters. In failing to accept this fact, Night doomed his movie to failure.
Does all this mean Unbreakable is a terrible movie and deserving of its box office failure? No, not in the least. The movie is very good, very emotional, and gets to the heart of humanity. It grounds superheroes and makes them human. There are no spandex-wearing men or women, and no one flies or shoots lasers out of their eyes. The fact that David’s only power is his natural ability to be stronger and more durable than any other human being isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility. Look at our athletes of today. The track star Michael Johnson is faster than anyone in the world. Michael Jordan can almost fly on the basketball court. And Muhammad Ali was a terror in the rings. Whose to say these men couldn’t become actual superheroes in real life? Like David’s powers, their powers aren’t called “powers,” but “natural ability.” David’s own “natural ability” is that he’s just a little big stronger and tougher than the everyday man.
Which then brings me to the movie’s third failure. M. Night gave David physic powers. This, in a nutshell, destroyed everything Night had attempted to achieve up to this point. If Night had stayed with David’s toughness and strength, the movie would have worked as a “real-life superhero tale.” But instead, M. Night gave David the ability to mentally “see” evil things people have done by touching them. It is a stupid power, a stupid decision by Night, and it gave the movie an “unreal” power that completely cut off the legs of a movie that was supposed to be based on reality. And by giving David this psychic power, and failing to give the audience super heroic moments, M. Night sent the movie crashing into oblivion.
The movie has to be about something, not everything. Is it a straight-up superhero movie or isn’t it? Make up your mind.
M. Night Shyamalan (director) / M. Night Shyamalan (screenplay)
CAST: Bruce Willis …. David Dunn
Samuel L. Jackson …. Elijah Price
Robin Wright …. Audrey Dunn
Spencer Treat Clark …. Joseph Dunn