2000. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Eight years before Marvel would begin its cinematic universe, M. Night Shyamalan directed an intimate take on the superhero origin story, focusing on the complexities of a hero’s family life and the karmic symbiosis of good and evil. Featuring a stellar supporting performance by Samuel L. Jackson, a resplendent score by James Newton Howard, and a minimalist presentation, Unbreakable is Shyamalan’s gentle masterpiece.
The sheer vision in this production, from it’s dangerously self aware script to the uncharacteristically moving visuals, is a testament to the depth of Shyamalan’s love for the ethos of comic books. Everything is as should it be, but the presentation is so intelligent, the viewer is often lost in the mysteries of the story and the plight of its two fragile leads, comfortably flexing the boundaries of established spandex canon, but never violating them. Unbreakable presents the superhero origin as an organic eventuality, rather than a metropolis crushing reality.
Bruce Willis stars as the reluctant hero, an uncertain paragon in a mediocre age. He is supported by Samuel L. Jackson in the performance of his career. His Elijah is both a comic book mentor and supplicant. How the fabled texts play into his personal story is the film’s greatest, if slightly predictable surprise. The chemistry between both men is a hors d’oeuvre that the audience eagerly devours as the narrative slowly progresses into unknown territory. Jackson’s unquestioning, possibly sinister faith contrasts Willis’s doubting Thomas in a duel of beliefs on a battlefield of shared reality in which three colored possibilities walk the lonely streets of Philadelphia. Eduardo Serra’s cinematography magically emulates comic book frames with precise angles and countless reflections. The major players are always framed in vibrant emeralds and lush violets that set them apart from their mundane surroundings, hinting at the destinies that ultimately await them.
James Newton Howard’s score brims with emotional depth and intensity, clinging to Willis’s every movement with a sense of dark wonder and responsibility and it is these two themes that pull Unbreakable into masterwork territory. Many films flirt with the familial duties of heroes as comic relief or as a source of easy bereavement to endear the audience. Shyamalan refuses to indulge and keeps everything in the gray of reality, where a struggling couple decides that their family is worth fighting for, where in the eyes of a child it is their parents who are larger than life heroes, and most importantly where the rubber meets the road between wielding cosmically endowed powers to protect the innocent and the everyday obligations that tie us to those whom we defend.
Unbreakable is a multilayered epic that hinges on a carefully constructed secret history. Everything is methodically downplayed, with Joanna Johnston’s costume designs taking the ethereal costumes and immoral villains and repackaging them in rain slicked hoodies and ruby red t-shirts, driving home Shyamalan’s color coded dissertation on the nature of heroism and how it is reflected in comic book fantasy. Respect is even paid to the avid fans, insinuating that their weekly loyalty to their ink lined icons is part of the mystique’s power.
Available now for digital streaming, Unbreakable is not only Shyamalan’s greatest film, it’s one of the best superhero films ever made. A quiet poem about heroics and acceptance, this is a film that reminds us why imagination is so important Through its beautifully restrained story, Unbreakable explores the concepts of family and faith without gunfire and explosions, leaving the fireworks within the viewer’s heart, the place where real heroes are born.
Highly. Highly Recommend.