The following contains spoilers for “Unbreakable.”
The year 2000 was a simpler time. Nobody knew or cared about Iron Man, the DC Extended Universe had yet to curse us all with its dour mediocrity and a smaller, more understated superhero film was released to a disappointing lack of critical acclaim.
That film was “Unbreakable,” the follow-up to writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout hit “The Sixth Sense.” What we didn’t know at the time, and what we all found out in 2016 when we saw Bruce Willis lurking in that diner at the end of “Split,” was that the film was the beginning to the “Eastrail 177 Trilogy.”
With the final entry of that trilogy “Glass” releasing this Friday, it’s only appropriate that we look back at where it all started and chronicle just a few of the reasons why “Unbreakable” remains Shyamalan’s very best film. I mean, who cares about Haley Joel Osment seeing dead people when you can watch Bruce Willis deadlift 350 pounds?
1. The opening sequence
“Unbreakable” opens with little fanfare: Statistics about comic books appear on a silent, black screen before Shyamalan shows us two tragedies, one right after the other. Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) is born and his mother learns that his arms and legs were broken in the process and David Dunn (Bruce Willis) becomes the sole survivor of a train crash. We never see the crash happen, but the aftermath is more sobering than watching the actual impact — the post-crash shot of David, bathed in blue, sitting up and talking in the hospital while the camera focuses on the red blood staining the white cast of an unluckier passenger is a true gut-punch. These first ten minutes are masterfully choreographed, perfectly setting up the journeys of both of the main characters.
2. Elijah Price’s character
Elijah Price embodies a historic and sacred comic book tradition: Villains that are more interesting than their heroic counterparts. The intermittent flashbacks to his sheltered childhood establish Elijah’s desire for belonging, an arc that’s as human as it gets. Plus, only Jackson could make diatribes about how comic books aren’t for kids seem cool — his performance establishes all of Elijah’s scenes as standouts. It’s also worth mentioning that in our current cinematic era of painfully forced introductions of supervillain names — think “Call me… Ocean Master” — Price’s final announcement of himself as Mr. Glass is one of the select few that manages to be truly epic.
3. It’s the most grounded comic book film out there
“Unbreakable” actively avoids the grandeur of modern-day superhero films, opting instead for an understated aesthetic. The climactic action scene of the movie isn’t a cataclysmic alien invasion, it’s a run-of-the-mill home invasion. David Dunn’s weakness — water — means that everyday fixtures like rainy weather and swimming pools are the chief threats to David’s safety. These choices are deliberate. As Quentin Tarantino once put it, Shyamalan’s film revolves around the question, “What if Superman was here on earth and didn’t know he was Superman?” Other films — cough, cough, “Man of Steel” — have abysmally failed to explore this question in a thematically coherent way. But by keeping the action scenes rooted in reality, the color palette dim, the script streamlined and the characters well-rounded, Shyamalan does a bang-up job.
4. James Newton Howard’s score
So maybe I was the only one in my movie theater who outwardly gasped when the “Unbreakable” theme started playing at the end of “Split.” Whatever. Howard’s score for this film is timeless, filled with pulsing drum beats to underline scenes involving David’s visions, beautiful orchestral swells during heroic moments and a superb title theme to boot.
5. Bruce Willis serving looks in a green poncho
Not all heroes wear capes.
6. It’s meta without being too on the nose
Turns out there’s a way to comment on comic book tropes in a film without it being obnoxious! David learning about the rules of being a superhero — you have to have a mortal weakness and your archenemy is usually your friend — is fun metafiction that actually serves the plot and makes sense for the characters. It’s also never played for laughs; the film treats comics as seriously as its characters do. And, of course, the best reference is never even commented on by the characters: “David Dunn” is an alliterative name just like Peter Parker, or Bruce Banner or Wade Wilson. Shyamalan made that homage over ten years before “Ready Player One” did, but received no credit for it. Justice is dead, people!
7. The ending
Ah, the fabled Shyama-twist. Before the crazy endings to his films were viewed as punchlines, Shyamalan pulled off a clever, poignant ending to “Unbreakable,” complete with deft foreshadowing and carefully curated character beats. It’s an ending that many comics fans can see coming — seriously, the guy whose powers are your polar opposite is obviously going to be your archenemy. But, that doesn’t make it any less rewarding to see play out. Elijah’s final monologue is the film’s best moment, and after 18 years the ending still never fails to elicit an emotional reaction.
With such a high standard in place, all we can do is hope that David and Elijah’s return in “Glass” lives up to their first appearance. If it doesn’t, catch me crying into my green poncho for the foreseeable future.
Contact Grace Orriss at [email protected].