Hidden Gems: Unbreakable
By Kyle Lee
July 11, 2016
So this is definitely the least “hidden” of any of the Hidden Gems so far. Many people are aware of it because of big stars like Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, and the name of M. Night Shyamalan. But Shyamalan is pretty much a joke now, after the colossal failures of his last few movies, but there was a time when he was thought of as a Spielberg/Hitchcock hybrid for a new generation, mainly due to the unthinkable success of 1999's The Sixth Sense, which got him Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. His career has been seen by most as a steady decline since then, with many pointing to 2002's Signs as his last good movie (though that movie has plenty of detractors, myself not among them). But with superhero movies the genre of choice at the box office over the last 10 or so years, I'd been wanting to revisit his 2000 movie Unbreakable, which I finally did.
Unbreakable concerns David Dunn (Bruce Willis) being the only survivor of a train derailment and the attention that brings from Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who tries to convince David that comic books are just exaggerated stories taken from real life, as ancient myths often were, and that David is the equivalent of a comic book superhero. We follow as David's marriage to his wife Audrey (Robin Wright) has frozen and they try to figure out whether to start over together, or to separate. Also, David's son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) is the only one who believes Elijah's seemingly ridiculous claims.
Elijah has a (real life) disorder that causes his bones to be weak and easily broken, and he assumes that if there's someone like him, so easily breakable, then there must be his opposite, who is unbreakable. Many feel like the ending, revealing that Elijah is the one who set up the train derailment in his search for an Unbreakable, was another Shyamalan twist, just like The Sixth Sense had famously had (and his later The Village would ridiculously have), but it really isn't, even if Shyamalan foreshadows it with Elijah's mother buying him a comic book as a boy and excitedly saying "they say this one has a twist at the end". Elijah being revealed as a villain has been obvious the entire time. We are just conditioned by others movies to have seen the type of relationship between Elijah and David as mentor/student, with Elijah helping David realize his potential as a hero. But Shyamalan sets up every step of the way that Elijah is the villain; we just weren't paying attention. We never wonder "what are Elijah's motives?" because other movies spoon feed us everything, but Unbreakable doesn't spell out with big letters that Elijah is the villain until the final scene, but it's not really a twist because the movie hadn't been hiding anything the way other twist movies do. It's all out there and it's not cheated or hidden, we simply assume one thing when another is the truth.
Still, the way the movie is laid out is just classic superhero stuff. There's even a scene where David and Audrey are out on a date trying to rekindle their romance and she asks him if he knowingly keeps her and their son at a distance. He says yes, but he doesn't know why. You almost sit there now and shout "to keep you safe! If the villains can't get to the hero they go after the hero's loved ones!" But superhero lore wasn't as common on the big screen in 2000 as it is now, 16 years later, when many of the tropes are obvious at a distance. There's the "discovering his powers," "first foray into actually acting the hero," and "confrontation with the villain" sequences just like in every other superhero movie. But Shyamalan took the same deliberate pacing he'd had success with and applied it to this burgeoning genre. People didn't take to it so much.