Cinema is ruled by the cape. Rewind to 2000, when M. Night Shyamalan unknowingly showed how Unbreakable superheroes would become.
January 20, 2017. I’m sitting in a release-day screening of Split, James McAvoy’s creepy, multi-faceted horror. Quibbles with ‘The Beast’ aside, I believe it to be a great movie.
‘We are what we believe we are,’ he says towards the end, cuing a soft, familiar musical motif. Cut to a diner, with a news report recounting the film’s events. ‘This is like that crazy guy in the wheelchair that they put away 15 years ago,’ one woman says. ‘They gave him a funny name too, what was it?’
Bruce Willis emerges. ‘Mr. Glass,’ he says, with a husky chill. James Newton Howard’s score becomes clearer, louder. The euphoria rose. I wanted to scream. It was a clandestine sequel to Unbreakable, an all-time great superhero story on the precipice of an eruption.
Twenty years ago today, Shyamalan kicked off his Eastrail 177 trilogy, eventually closing out with Glass in 2019 (the less said about it, the better).
Coming just after X-Men, but before Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man, Unbreakable slots into a turning point in modern movie history; the rise of the superhero, going on to swarm multiplexes year after year, from Nolan’s Batman trilogy to the titanic Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Nowadays, upending the sub-genre is trendy. Chronicle utilised found-footage to then-devastatingly cool effect, Logan brought sought-after guts and maturity to Wolverine’s frenzy, Joker is the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time. But this isn’t necessarily gritty film, nor is it violent – it’s simply, honestly and magically real.
There are two sides of the spectrum: on one you have Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), like the prophet. From birth, he’s struggled with osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare condition which makes his bones exceedingly brittle.
Out of the womb, in a harrowingly understated opening, he has broken arms and legs. Growing up, he feared the outdoors and its unpredictability… until his mother started placing comic books on a bench near the park.
From then, he found his devotion to medium, later demonstrating his lyrical knowledge in everyday conversation, opening an art gallery for serious collectors – in retrospect, it’s almost a nod to how precious some can be about superheroes – and believing them to be the ‘last link to an ancient way of passing on history’. In other words, while superpowers may not be real, some form could exist – even as simple as an ‘instinct’.
Then, there’s security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis). Notice the slightly ethereal lighting in his intro, a soft glow around him. Despite his shambling confidence talking to a woman, even when he’s married, this world is protecting him from something.
Sure enough, his train – the Eastrail 177 – derails. Everyone dies apart from him; not one broken bone, not one scratch. Some may see this as a triumph, but it’s treated coldly, curiously, with pangs of survivor’s guilt rather than ascension to something more. To many, this was sorrowful luck.
Soon, the pair meet. Elijah is convinced David is incredibly, superhumanly strong – not even just physical strength, but in illness, having never been sick (albeit, cripplingly afraid of water). As the title goes, he might be Unbreakable. That first encounter sends him on a path of contemplation, tracking all the moments in his life, his choice of protection as a profession.
To say more would be at risk of spoiling it. Yes, it’s 20 years old, but the basis here is that a surprising number of people haven’t experienced its awe. Don’t ruin it for those lucky jaws waiting to be dropped.
There’s no sound barrier-busting take-offs, no rooftop-leaping glee, no armguard-glowing blowback. Unbreakable’s discovery is brilliantly, breathtakingly minimal, reduced to something as menial as a bench press. The wonder in a son’s eyes does more than bountiful VFX ever could.
Shyamalan still relishes the joys of the sub-genre. But, almost eerily, it’s a deconstruction of tropes that hadn’t truly fortified yet. Emotional drama is fully-formed, treated with sincerity and pacing, such as one gorgeous conversation in a restaurant to an anxiety-ridden scene with a gun. It’s some of the best performances Willis and Jackson have ever turned in; both compelling, both believable.
That grounded essence may not be to everyone’s tastes. While reappraised, critics weren’t exactly hailing it upon release. This a film more concerned with the loneliness of power, what it actually means to hold such abilities. ‘With great power, comes great responsibility’ is very apt.
Eduardo Serra’s cinematography serves this beautifully, continually utilising comic book-esque framing under its own inverted style, with a Deakinsian love for outcast silhouettes. As Bryn once said, ‘Every shot is like a photograph.’
Then, there’s Newton Howard’s score; arguably his best-ever work. Visions is a particularly epic suite, presenting its own mysterious superhero theme that blusters and tingles enough to hum in your memory.
A quiet, no-less breathtaking twist on the superhero mythos that’s only got better with age. Unbreakable’s legacy is in the title.
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