1999 was a year of originality and refreshing ideas in the world of cinema. You had David Fincher and his testosterone-driven Fight Club, The Matrix by the Wachowski brothers and Spike Jonze showing us how to be John Malkovich. Then there’s The Sixth Sense. Many forget that this feature was M. Night Shyamalan’s third directorial effort, following the little seen Praying with Anger and Wide Awake. But as box office receipts continued to rise, it was obvious that this would be the film that would define the then 29-year-old filmmaker. What a difference a year makes.
The following year Shyamalan was the toast of Hollywood. Sense was a word of mouth sensation, with an ending that few saw coming. Some were calling him the next Hitchcock. So what does he do for an encore? Why another pairing with Bruce Willis entitled Unbreakable.
With an impressive marketing campaign – though the theatrical trailer does not do the final product justice – it was unable to live up they hype, ultimately dividing audiences and critics. After Unbreakable, it seemed that the writer/producer/director forgot about the magic of storytelling; each new feature seemed to depend upon a twist ending. Such a device only serves to belittle the viewer. Nevertheless, this remains my favorite Shyamalan film.
Bruce Willis stars as David Dunn, a security guard at a nearby college, and in a marriage that is falling apart. Though estranged, he and his wife, Audrey (Robin Wright Penn), still live together – in separate bedrooms – for the sake of their son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark). Dunn is aloof, speaking few words. The happiness he and Audrey shared has long been extinguished. And any chance of leaving the past behind and starting over seems unlikely when his train derails on its way back to Philadelphia. Everyone dies, except for David, who somehow escapes the fiery wreckage unharmed.
Because of David’s standoffish behavior his emotions are mixed. His face doesn’t radiate with an “Oh, Thank you, God” expression, but he accepts his son’s embrace as he makes his way out of the ER. There are no changes in his daily routine. Then one day he finds a note on his car, from an Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a man who claims to have some answers about his condition. Dunn and his son meet Price at Limited Edition, an art gallery devoted to classic comic art and books. It is there that Price gives Dunn a preposterous theory. He believes that Dunn is a superhero. Dunn scoffs at that notion, while Joseph agrees with the mysterious Price. Over time, the theory becomes relative as Dunn discovers that he has some amazing abilities and is able to do some super ordinary things.
It’s easy to see why Unbreakable had a mixed reaction when it was released in November 2000. Movies based on or inspired by comic books weren’t the norm at the time. Yes, X-Men was released that summer, but it wouldn’t be until the release of Spider-Man two years later that Hollywood would look at comic books like some sort of cash cow. This notion, combined with the fact that this is an original story and not based on a well-known character, spelled doom for Shyamalan’s genre-defined feature.
That’s too bad. Looking at this as from an origin story perspective, it has one of the best foundations for a character, comic book or otherwise. Bruce Willis, who will always be looked at as John McClane no matter what he’s in, does some great, if understated, work as David Dunn. The way he carries himself, with a chip. And as the story reveals itself we can understand why. His supporting family, Penn and Clark, do some great work themselves. Penn as the tired-eyed wife, who is sensitive but is hesitant to give the relationship another try. Spencer Trent Clark is an undersized kid, but for one tension-filled scene involving a handgun he’s quite effective.
The cast member that steals the show, though, is Samuel L. Jackson. Many envision Jackson as someone who’s strong and rowdy, flapping his gums at a high octave. From Pulp Fiction to Snakes on a Plane, one can pick any number of examples. But here, Elijah Price is manipulative, able to get his point across with the least amount of words. He is the instigator to the film’s surprise ending; yet it does not seem like the twists we’ve come to expect from Shyamalan. Since the theme of the story is in the form of a comic book, the ending is the end of Elijah’s story arc. David’s journey must continue. With his newfound abilities we are left to guess what will happen next.
Having seen Unbreakable four or five times now, I’m always struck by Shyamalan’s direction. He uses some arresting visuals to get his point across. Sometimes he will incorporate a singular take for one scene. On the train, as David Dunn chats up the passenger seated next to him, prior to its derailment, we see them from the perspective of a child peering through the seat in front; one continuous shot, back and forth between the two passengers. And there’s Elijah. Growing up the neighborhood kids called him Mr. Glass because of a genetic disorder that makes his bones low in density. For two flashback sequences – Elijah’s birth and as a young child – Shymalan again shoots in a singular take but the image is reflected. Newly born, Elijah is reflected in mirrors of a department store. And as a child he’s seen reflected in a blank TV screen.
In the seven-plus years that have followed Unbreakable‘s release, it still holds up. The story is solid, if not all the way finished. I’m convinced that had this film had greater success box office-wise, Shyamalan would have been able to get his two rumored sequels off the ground: Breakable and Broken. Still, this remains a genuine artistic interpretation of the comic movie genre, years before that genre would be mega successful.
Touchstone Pictures presents Unbreakable in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 in an AVC-encoded 1080p transfer. Unfortunately, the picture quality isn’t the standard I’ve associated with Disney in the past. It’s weak, pure and simple. There is no edge enhancement, but dirt and scratches are apparent on the print used for this Blue-ray disc. It could have used a remastering job before mass-producing the disc.
Our audio options are several. First is an uncompressed PCM 5.1 track (48 kHz/24-bit). We also get a selectable Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a French Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. PCM is the ears delight. Rears are often used. Things that were unheard – the PA system at the stadium where David works – can now be. James Newton Howard’s score is rousing and the dialogue is clear and free of any problems.
When Unbreakable was released on DVD it was as a part of Disney’s short-lived Vista Series line, which spotlighted certain Touchstone Pictures titles. All the extras from that two-disc DVD have been ported over to this release.
Up first is a simple, fifteen-minute behind the scenes feature. The culled material is strictly EPK-type stuff. There are a few interesting facts about the themes depicted, but most of what is said is hand-on-the-back congratulations for working on such a project.
Comic Books and Superheroes is nice, twenty-minute summary of how the comic book, its themes and characters, have progressed. We get comments from the likes of Dave Gibbons and Frank Miller as they discuss the evolution of the superhero genre.
M. Night Shyamalan introduces a half an hour’s worth of deleted scenes. Many are brief, and wouldn’t have added much to the final cut. But they are interesting to see and hear a director’s motivation for leaving them on the cutting room floor.
What was probably revolutionary back in 2001, a Multi-Angle Train Station Sequence DVD extra, looks pretty ordinary on Blu-ray – considering the technological capabilities. Here we can cut back and forth between the original storyboards and the final sequence.
Night’s First Fight. Ah, to see the young filmmaker in action. Shyamalan introduces a scene from one of his first movies, shot when he was a kid. When the director tells you how awful it is, you know you are in for laugh.
For those who gave up on M. Night Shyamalan long ago, I insist on revisiting Unbreakable again. As a superhero origin story, it’s up there with Batman Begins. It may lack the action of the caped crusader, but the story is solid. I can’t say the same about this Blu-ray disc. Usually, Disney’s quality control has been impeccable when it comes to ushering its catalog titles on Blu-ray. But the image is soft with imperfections. And the extras, which seemed like plenty on DVD, now don’t look nearly as substantial. It’s definitely worth watching on Blu-ray, but its not substantial enough to ditch that DVD of yours.
Touchstone Pictures presents Unbreakable. Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright Penn and Spencer Treat Clark. Running time: 106 minutes. Rated PG-13. Released on Blu-ray Disc April 1, 2008. Available at Amazon.com.