The Revisit – Unbreakable

The Revisit is a place for me to rewatch films I love but haven’t seen in years or films that didn’t click with me the first time. Through The Revisit, I reevaluate these movies and compare my original thoughts on them to how they feel in this more recent viewing.

 

Unbreakable (2000, dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

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I can remember exactly when I decided I needed to see Unbreakable. I was in my sophomore year of college, and my friend Sam had seen the film over Thanksgiving Break. He insisted that I needed to see it because of my love of comic books. That struck me as odd because nothing I had seen in the promotion materials had made me think of comic books and superheroes. I had really loved Shyamalan’s previous film, The Sixth Sense, so I was totally up for it. We went to the theater a couple days later.

Rewatching Unbreakable, I was astonished at how many images from that film are burnt into my psyche. I loved the picture after that first viewing, purchased it as soon as it was DVD and watched it dozens of times for the next couple years. I was very likely over-hyped when Signs came out and found myself underwhelmed. Like many filmgoers, the following decade will cause the director to lose most of his cachet with the audience. But Unbreakable serves as a reminder of how amazing a director Shyamalan was/is/could be again.

What struck me the most on this viewing was how measured and quiet the film was. This was a couple years before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man would shift the movie superhero paradigm and the late 1990s were very unkind to the genre. There is a deliberate sense of grounding the fantastic, but not in a way that disparages their roots. Comic books are lauded through the picture, but the conceit of the film is these four-color tales are exaggerations of a more sedate reality. Yes, David Dunn is incredibly strong but that means he can lift around 400 lbs not and entire jet airliner. The super heroics of Unbreakable are not global or against alien hordes. The evil that is being pointed out is racism, rape culture, sociopathic violence.

I also found myself reconnecting with every character in the film. The aforementioned quiet moments are always character-centered and are intended to build on what we know, either adding to our knowledge or subverting it. We deeply understand the strained relationship between David and Audrey, the admiration of Joseph for David, the tug of curiosity Elijah elicits from David. No character ever makes a move that feels contradictory to what is previously established and so you find yourself floating effortlessly through this organic story. There is the now cliche Shyamalan twist, but it doesn’t play as contrived. It fits with the groundwork lain through the entirety of the film. It also does something I find myself to drawn to more these days: forgoing having a purely black and white conflict.

The villain of Unbreakable isn’t even really the bad guy. He does evil things, but we spend a lot of time getting to know him, not as much as David, but the moments in his life we’re shown establish humanity and a particular, though skewed, perspective. It’s a perfect example of empathy, which is not agreement but understanding a perspective different than your own. You feel sorry for this person despite the horrible things they have done. I cherish that sort of internal conflict as a viewer, not being able to come down hard one way or another on the character.

I find this period of Shyamalan to be comparable to Nolan in the first part of his career. Both directors have an unyielding sense of aesthetics and the sort of stories they want to tell. They both enjoy building up expectations and then subverting them to varying degrees of success. Where they differ is in Shyamalan’s ability to connect the audience with the characters on an emotional level. He is much less interested in the gritty details and technicalities of the world and more in how these fantastic elements emotionally affect our characters. Nolan is very talented with building intelligent plot machines that unfold in exciting and interesting ways, but ultimately fail to make me feel anything about the characters. The closest I could say Nolan ever got to that was with The Prestige. I don’t think there is any argument that Shyamalan has not ended up with the level of critical acclaim Nolan has garnered, but these early films feel emotionally stronger than Nolan’s work.

If you haven’t watched Unbreakable recently, I highly recommend it. It has definitely held up, better than a lot of films from the early 2000s. It still has relevant things to say about the superhero genre and stands an example that the Marvel formula, as fun as it is, is not the sole method to tell these stories. With the buzz that Shyamalan is working on a direct follow up to Unbreakable, I really hope he understands that the tone and focus on characters is what made us fall in love with the picture in the first place. It would be an incredible shame if he ignores those facts and tries to deliver a more action-oriented film.

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