Unbreakable is probably the least talked about movie of M. Night Shyamalan’s career. I never had a chance to watch it before, but on paper it sounded great. I mean you really can’t go wrong when you have Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson and Robyn Wright on the cast. The movie has everything going for it: a star studded cast, an interesting premise, and a director who just made one of the most memorable movies of the decade. You would think it would be a mind blowing piece of cinematography. But it is not. It lacks something.
Bruce Willis plays David Dunn, a middle aged security guard – an ordinary boring guy who finds out he is virtually invulnerable. He was never sick, he has never broken a bone or have been injured. When he walks away from a horrific train accident which killed all the other passengers, he is contacted by Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), an avid comic book fan who sees Dunn as a real life superhero. He tries to convince the skeptical, humble and quiet security guard to try to develop his powers and use them help other people.
Sounds good right? Willis becomes unlikely and unwilling hero coached by Jackson from the side lines. There is a promise of thrilling action scenes, and suspense but… Well, nothing exciting really happens. Dunn spends the whole movie brooding, trying to patch up his failing marriage, and reconnecting with his son. In most cases I would tell you that focus on character development is a good thing, but you can overdo it. Shyamalan starts off pretty good, and then plunges his picture into melodrama and melancholy. He builds things up slowly, and at the end seems to run out of time and ideas how to wrap things up. The signature Shyamalan twist is predictable and kinda silly.
This is not the fault of the actors though. The acting is really top notch, and the technical side of the picture is flawless. Shyamalan is great at setting up interesting shots, from unusual perspectives and uses them as storytelling device. But the story itself… It falls flat. The movie is just very slow, very quiet, very unexciting and in places a tad boring.
Worst of all though, Shyamalan failed to do his research. His Elijah is supposedly an avid reader of comics, and a self proclaimed expert on the subject. He is given a long monologue in which he explains to Dunn his theory about comic books. He claims they are modern form of pictorial art, much like Egyptian hieroglyphs which were used to re-tell ancient truths. Based on this assumption he believes that superhero mythos is rooted in reality – that every once in a while people with exceptional powers are born to this world. This made me cringe.
I mean, if you are going to make a crackpot theory do your fucking research. Most people who study comics academically link the superhero mythos (which by the way is unique to North America) with antiquity but never with Egypt. It is most commonly linked with Greek, Roman and Norse mythologies which often feature larger than life heroes with superhuman abilities. Of course Greeks and Romans never really cared that much about the comic book style struggle between good and evil. This particular concept is a rather modern Judeo-Christian mindset. The ancients were obsessed with destiny. But you could still work around that by saying each generation re-tells the heroic stories in their own way including values important to them: fate for the Greeks, Christian black + white morality for American comic book writers.
Seriously, this is a fascinating subject and a lot of people out there study it quite seriously. There are papers out there that claim that modern heroes in tights were strongly influenced by works of Nietzsche, Poe, H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle and others. You can really trace these influences throughout the ages, back to antiquity, and perhaps even further. But you really need to do better than “Egyptians had picture driven art too – hurr durr!”.
Not to mention that Elijah owns an art gallery. Not a comic book store but a gallery. Why? I don’t know. Probably to make him seem more cultured and educated as opposed to the blue collar Dunn. But when I think about a comic book expert, I usually imagine one of two things: an owner of a hobby store or a humanities college professor who got his PHD by analyzing modern comics and their influences. A cooky and spooky art connoisseur does not really fit here.