By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
Unbreakable, the second film from The Sixth Sense's writer-director-producer M. Night Shyamalan, is the first issue of a comic book, the origin story revealing how a mortal becomes a reluctant god. It is the movie X-Men wanted to be but could never have been no matter how many writers tackled it. Those heroes were two-dimensional, ripped straight from square boxes and word balloons, while David Dunn is a most human hero, overcome with all the fear and angst of a 1960s Stan Lee creation. He knows he is not spending his life the way he expected--David was once a star football player, blessed with the gift of the touchdown gods--but being a hero was never on his to-do list. It takes a train derailment at the film's beginning, one that leaves David as its sole survivor, and a man who is David's exact opposite to convince him to use his gifts.
Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) is the ultimate breakable man: Suffering from osteogenesis imperfecta, which causes the bones to be extraordinarily fragile, Elijah was born with broken arms and legs. As a child, he was afraid to go outside and play, a near impossibility anyway since his arm was always in a sling. He would only leave his mother's apartment to retrieve the gifts she left for him each day on a nearby playground bench--comic books, the covers emblazoned with the Technicolor battles between square-jawed good and bug-eyed bad. "You make this decision to be afraid," Elijah's mother (Charlayne Woodard) tells her son when he is still a little boy, "and you will never turn back.'' Instead, Elijah turns the pages of thousands and thousands of comic books: As an adult, he opens a gallery in downtown Philadelphia called Limited Edition, in which he sells original comic-book art only to the true believer.
Elijah even looks as though he's stumbled from the pages of an old DC Comic: He drives a car with an interior covered entirely in black padding; he walks with a cane made of glass; he dresses in clothes that look as though they were left over from old episodes of Star Trek; and he sports a cockeyed Afro that makes him look as though he's moving even when standing still. Elijah has surrounded himself with comics, turning his home into walls of display stands containing thousands of bagged books that stare at him whenever he passes. The man quite literally lives in a comic book, obsessing over their power and promise. "Comics are a form of history someone felt or experienced," he explains to David when they first meet, like a preacher obsessed with saving nonbelievers. (Unbreakable is the world's best advertisement for comic books, an elegiac infomercial.)
When Elijah hears that David has survived the train wreck that opens the movie--it is never shown, as Shyamalan is far more interested in the aftermath than the destruction and carnage--he knows he has found his Superman, a man who can provide hope in "mediocre times." After years spent scouring newspapers for survivors of horrifying disasters--skyscraper fires, plane crashes--he's finally stumbled across that magical combination of words: "a sole survivor who is miraculously unharmed." He wants David to be a flesh-and-blood god, the ultimate security guard who protects and guards not just a college campus but an entire world. David at first isn't interested. His marriage to high-school sweetheart Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) has crumbled to the point where the two sleep in the same house but not the same room. His young son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), is only beginning to warm up to his father, who has consciously kept wife and son at a distance for years. David is just too unhappy to assume the mantle of superhero. After all, how do you stop an evil genius with a whisper?
As this is the work of M. Night Shyamalan, there are layers and layers beneath Unbreakable's surface. If nothing else, the filmmaker is a genius for making films people need to see repeatedly to decipher meaning and motive; no wonder The Sixth Sense is the 10th highest-grossing film of all time. Unbreakable is, in some ways, a far better film than The Sixth Sense, which played like the greatest Twilight Zone episode never aired. With Sixth Sense, once you discover the twist, the brilliant gimmick, you want to go back only to see whether Shyamalan cheated. Watch it a second time, and the story itself contains little emotional resonance, no matter how thoughtful the performances. The telling of the tale is far more important than the tale--or, for that matter, the people in it.
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