I don’t remember following the behind the scenes of Unbreakable all that much before it was released. Only cursory glances at Coming Attractions by Corona. And I know I didn’t read any reviews. I never do before seeing a film that interests me.
So, when I sat there in the theater in November of 2000, I sat there scratching my head.
What is it with all these comic book statistics? What the hell am I about to watch?
What followed that opening text was one of the most unique movies I had ever seen. I literally almost pissed myself when I found out that Unbreakable was a superhero movie.
A word about realism: There’s no such thing as realism in comic books, much less in comic book movies. I mean, even the much cited Watchmen has Dr. Manhattan… When people discuss realism, they’re referring to psychological realism. And that’s what’s on display here. But all the Supermans and Batmans and episodes of Heroes… It’s all a crock of shit. Absolutely.
I’m immensely curious to see what Zack Snyder does to Watchmen, and how the general populace reacts to that particular comic book vision, depending on how faithful it turns out to be. But let’s remember that Shyamalan did it first.
He was taking a page from the Marvel Universe. You know the page I mean, the one that tried to ground the comic book nonesense in a kind of reality. Right. By setting it in real cities – but you still had people turning into heroes after being slammed by gamma rays or smashed in the face by radioactive isotopes.
The conceit of Unbreakable, and what makes it so brilliant, is: What if this kind of thing actually existed in real life? Bruce Willis realizes he’s a hero, and he assumes the role, complete with a costume and everything. But the feats of heroism are not depicted in any sort of splashy comic book way. It boils down to an awkward, violent fight scene in which one person chokes the life out of another. And the effect is sickening. Heroism is neither graceful nor spectacular. It requires a psychological sacrifice and is ugly and brutal. We feel no satisfaction as Bruce Willis stands over the dead body of a serial killer. Even though we know that this sick individual killed a mother and father, and then victimized their children. He most likely deserved to die. But the fact he’s dead is not a catharsis.
James Newton Howard’s music is triumphant during the scene in which hero vanquishes villain, just as the music for the movie in general has a “Hero’s Theme” quality throughout. Shyamalan stages the movie with comic book-styled framing, color coding, all that stuff…
The movie looks like a comic book. But it doesn’t feel like one. It feels like life. And the most suspenseful, dramatic moment in the movie is not the tense final confrontation with the ultimate villain – it is a deeply disturbing scene in which a young boy wants to shoot his father in the chest to see if the bullet will bounce off.
The final revelation is also one of stunning complexity. The scene in which Samuel Jackson confesses that he has found his purpose in life, and that purpose is to be a villain is a deeply eerie moment, because it comes after we have grown to sympathize with this truly broken man. And there is something to chew on also if you consider that this could be the character that is closest to Shyamalan’s heart. After all, it is Jackson who is portrayed as an introverted, creative thinker who spent his entire childhood huddled under the covers reading comic books – the flights of fancy that would ultimately inspire him to find his true calling.
Unbreakable is a comic book that keeps you riveted not with action scenes and special effects, but with realistic characters and psychological drama. It “bombed” in 2000 because people didn’t know what they were watching. If released today, it may have been more accepted. Ironically, it had to be made first to allow that to happen.
Some may argue: What’s the point of trying to make a realistic comic book? It’s supposed to be fun. But comic books are best when the artists who create them take creative risks… They survive through re-invention. And Shyamalan’s work did (in no small measure) help to re-invent the modern comic book movie.
Or maybe it wouldn’t work for audiences now either. Even Heroes, with all its attempts at reality, gets by on its mythology and action beats. And if Watchmen turns out to be a big deal, I suspect that what people will take from it are the unusual costumes, unique action beats and spectacular visuals of a naked Billy Crudup having an epiphany on Mars. The stuff between the lines might fly right over most people’s heads. Just like they were unable to totally grasp Unbreakable.
I don’t know.
But I’m still really glad M. Night Shyamalan had the balls to make this little movie.