My entry in the "Ambitious Failure" blog-a-thon at This Savage Art...
There are many ways to achieve heroism or villainy in the world of comic books. One can be an alien (too many examples to mention), involuntarily exposed to radiation (Spider-Man), motivated by revenge (Batman), or able to put others ahead of oneself (the Silver Surfer, who is of course also an alien). But what if you found out you were a hero the whole time but hadn't been taking advantage of your gifts? That's the premise of M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable (2000), a film that attempts to put a comic book "origin story" into the real world.
We know David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is unhappy from the get-go, because in the opening scene of Unbreakable he slips off his wedding band to try to pick up a woman he meets on the train. A few minutes later that train crashes, killing everyone on board except the amazingly uninjured David. David's wife Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) and son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) are glad to see him, but David's home life isn't going well. He and Audrey are sleeping in separate bedrooms (for reasons never clearly explained) and he had been on the train in the first place returning from an out-of-town job interview. Not long after David goes back to work as a security guard (a job with obvious metaphorical implications) he's contacted by Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic book store owner who views David's survival of the crash as a portent of his heroism and indeed his invulnerability.
David is of course skeptical, but a series of events lead him to accept his destiny. One of the best scenes in Unbreakable, and may be the sweetest scene in the whole Shyamalan canon proves David's strength. While weightlifting David discovers Joseph has put more weight on the bar than he's accustomed to. Joseph promises to take weight off but instead adds more, which David again lifts successfully. As David becomes more aware of his own strength, he and Joseph continue to add more weight until there are paint cans dangling from the bar.
Much of Unbreakable has the "airless" feel that runs throughout Shyamalan's work, and here we begin to consider the reasons for the film's failure. All the actors except Samuel L. Jackson (including Willis) seem a little dazed, no one is quite up to normal speed. Shyamalan never lets up on the mood of foreboding and eventually we become anesthetized to it. The climactic scene in which David rescues children who have been victims of a home invasion is dragged out far too long and lacks a sense of David's fear or surprise at his own abilities.
M. Night Shyamalan was riding high after The Sixth Sense (Unbreakable was his follow up) and at the time it was said he envisioned Unbreakable as the first of a trilogy. The Sixth Sense was of course sold on the basis of it's twist ending, and in Unbreakable we get a similar conceit. David's telepathic abilities have manifested and a handshake with Elijah reveals the comic-book dealer (wheelchair bound due to a brittle bone disease) to be a terrorist who has engineered a plane crash, a hotel fire, and David's train crash in a quest to find a "sole survivor" who is "miraculously unharmed." Only the quest for a hero will cement Elijah's self-image as a villain. Unbreakable ends on an open-ended note, as a word of advice to aspiring screenwriters I'll say here that a fiction film should never end with titles on the screen describing the character's fate.
Shyamalan planned (plans?) to revisit these characters, and Unbreakable frustrates as it ends just when David accepts his fate and the Elijah-David adversarial relationship begins. But of course the failure of Unbreakable is based largely on expectations. I'd argue that the premise of Unbreakable is considerably more original than any of Shyamalan's other films, and that the presence of a strong hero and villain makes the film play better than say, Lady in the Water. But the mother and child so developed in The Sixth Sense are pushed into the background here; no disrespect to Robin Wright Penn or Spencer Treat Clark, who both perform well. Clark is every bit as good as Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, but he's a little older (or at least reads that way) and thus there's no cuteness factor. We were expecting a twist that resolves everything (instead of one that leaves us wanting more) and fraught emotional relationships, but Willis' reticence is overdone; he's in his own world.
I'd also say the lack of scares doomed Unbreakable, thought for me the scariest thing in The Sixth Sense is still vomiting Mischa Barton. After Unbreakable Shyamalan has gone on to attempt bigger and bigger statements in each film with diminishing returns. Was his biggest ambition to be a fanboy, and wasn't that enough?