Today, it is hard to imagine a comic-book superhero movie without an exorbitant budget, flippant tone and CGI and VFX-driven action sequences in the third act in which most of the film’s budget is used. M Night Shyamalan Unbreakable came out in 2000, way before the modern era of cinematic universes. The last film in what is being called the Eastrail 177 trilogy, Glass, hits Indian theaters this Friday. Let’s revisit the original film before that.
Unbreakable released even before the Christopher Nolan era of Batman movies that forced movie critics to take superheroes seriously. Unbreakable, criminally overlooked, was a serious and dark superhero movie years before The Dark Knight trilogy was even conceived.
Unbreakable was not based on specific characters from Marvel or DC Comics, though it did have references and a few Easter eggs (for instance, the logo of ‘Active Comics’ was written in the style of DC’s ‘Action Comics’ series).
We are introduced to Samuel L Jackson’s Elijah Price, who has a condition known as Type I osteogenesis imperfecta, due to which his bones are extremely fragile and fracture easily. He has been a comic-book reader his whole life and wonders if there is a person, at the other end of spectrum, who is polar opposite to him, whose bones are unbreakable. A superhero to his supervillain.
There indeed is. Bruce Willis’ character David Dunn is an everyman, except he isn’t. Just as Elijah thought, he is all but invincible. He is troubled by his dissolving marriage. He is involved in a train accident in which he is the only survivor. In fact, he is completely unhurt in a disaster that took the life of every other passenger.
Elijah, who was the secret orchestrator of the ‘accident’, informs him about his superpowers. Dunn does not believe him and recounts a childhood incident in which he almost drowned. Elijah puts forward water as his only weakness, his kryptonite, so to speak.
Later, towards the end, Elijah reveals to Dunn that he was responsible for the train accident, apart from other apparent ‘accidents’, since (being a maniac) he wanted to find his antithesis and waited for that one survivor — until Dunn.
The experience of watching Unbreakable is not surprisingly far removed from the feel of modern comic-book movies. The budget is shoestring and it honestly shows. There are no mind-bending special effects, but Shyamalan’s distinctive visual imprint is there.
Unbreakable is still entertaining, though it is much more than that — like a typical Shyamalan film. It has twists and the story, while sluggish at times, is pretty interesting. It is a quiet meditation on the concept of being a superhero and a supervillain. You can almost feel the pressure of being the Unbreakable on Bruce Willis’ shoulders. Samuel L Jackson is reliably great, a criminal mastermind, Joker-like character who makes up for his physical limitations by his devilish intelligence.