Movies That Settle: Unbreakable

Posted: November 12, 2015 in Movies That Settle

First off, I want to preface this by saying that I always loved this movie, making it a unique choice for a movie that settled, since it was always good in my estimation (and also, apparently, for its director. M Night Shyamalan cites it as his favorite of his movies, as well.) Even as a lapsed comic book fan in 2000, I understood the hero/villain dynamic that Shyamalan was going for, and I really dug it.  The cool thing about this is that I’ll talk about a movie that was great in 2000, and see how it looks now after all these super-hero movies that have come since then.

So, here’s the skinny on Unbreakable, if you haven’t seen it (which is ludicrous.) David Dunn, played subtly by Bruce Willis, is a down-on-his-luck everyman. We learn immediately that his marriage is on the rocks and his life is kind of in the gutter. However, things take a turn when the train he is on crashes, killing every passenger on board (That sounds awful, but bear with me.) Miraculously, Dunn is not only alive, but he emerges without a scratch. This makes Dunn’s wife, played by Robin (Wright) Penn, feel sort of bad and come around a little bit, and his son to start hero-worshipping him like crazy.

Dunn soon receives a mysterious message from Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), asking him if he’s ever been sick. Elijah was born with a rare and unfortunate disease called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, which is smart-people talk for “his bones are like glass.” Elijah, who has had 54 broken bones in his lifetime, believes that if there is someone like him in the world, then there must be someone on the opposite end of the spectrum, i.e. someone who can’t be hurt, and he has been on a quest to find this person. Elijah also is obsessed with comic books, even owning an art gallery comprised entirely of original comic book art (Something I am extremely jealous of). This obsession is what inspires his quest.

Mr. Glass is not in Near Mint Condition

Mr. Glass is not in Near Mint Condition

Jackson even has paragraphs of dialogue in the movie about how comics are our modern-day mythology, which is ironic considering the pivotal role he would later play in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When they meet Elijah tells David that that he feels that he is more than an ordinary schmoe. That he survived the trainwreck because he is, in fact, the person he has been looking for. David obviously thinks that he’s crazy, but Elijah drives his point home, asking him if he’s ever been injured, and David’s son reveals that he was injured in a car accident in college, which derailed his professional football career. Dunn also works as a security guard at the local stadium, and Elijah points out that he wanted to protect people. The injury is the maguffin, however. Elijah pushes the matter further after Dunn’s wife becomes his physical therapist, and it comes out that she didn’t see herself with a pro football player, since the violence of the sport is contradictory to what she does.

Meanwhile, David starts to believe Elijah while lifting weights in his basement, when he realizes he can lift hundreds of pounds, and asks his boss when was the last time he had taken a sick day (He even gets a raise out of it, since he never has.) After analyzing all of the pieces of the puzzle, and stumbling upon a Sentry-Man comic, Elijah realizes that Dunn faked the injury he had in college to get out of going into professional football, because he wanted to stay with his future wife. The only other time David was sick was that he once almost drowned, and Elijah chalks that up to water being his kryptonite.

Eventually, Elijah convinces David to go to a public place where there are lots of people, and see what happens. He goes to a crowded train station. and it is dramatically revealed that David can detect criminals when he is near them. A vision of a janitor leads David to a home that the janitor has invaded. David subdues the criminal and frees the children he had taken prisoner. It is true. He is a hero.

Of course, Shyamalan always has a twist at the end, and in Unbreakable, the twist comes when Dunn shakes Elijah’s hand and discovers that Elijah himself is an arch-criminal. Turns out, Elijah had been creating tragedies in search of his counterpart, the person who is his exact opposite. It was Elijah who caused the train wreck that brought David to his attention in the first place. In the one part of the movie that’s a little disappointing, Dunn calls the police and has Elijah arrested for his crimes… off-screen. In a total Joker-esque moment, Elijah is happy to finally know his place in the world, as David’a opposite, because in all comics, you always know who the villain is, because he is the exact opposite of the hero.

Of course, that is just one instance of the comic similarities in this movie. Elijah is most definitely patterned after The Joker. The end title screen even says that he was committed to an institution for the criminally insane. They might as well has said Arkham Asylum. Even Elijah’s distinct purple color palette, and the way his hair is cut kind of askew point to the Clown Prince of Crime, and there is a line in the movie that says that old-school comic book villains are always drawn slightly disproportionate than normal characters, to better illustrate their skewed perspective. Let’s face it, though; if you had broken that many bones in your life, your perspective would probably be pretty messed up, too.

Elijah’s color palette isn’t the only one that stands out, as every person in the movie who is revealed to be a criminal is shown in vivid color, while the rest of the movie is rather muted. The janitor wears a bright orange jumpsuit. The fan who has snuck drugs into the stadium that David pats down (played by Shyamalan) is wearing a bright blue jacket. And the fan who David thinks is sneaking a gun into the stadium is wearing a bright green camouflage jacket. This is meant to reflect comic book coloring, which use distinctive colors to call attention to the action in a panel.

David Dunn is also reminiscent of a comic book hero. Even his name is a reflection of many comic heroes’ real names, which use repeated consonants at the beginning (Peter Parker, Matt Murdock, Bruce Banner). He also wears a green rain poncho with “Security” on the back with a hood, which is meant to resemble many comic heroes, like Green Arrow or The Spectre.

I'm Pseudo-Batman!

I’m Pseudo-Batman!

Nothing in a movie is by accident, and beyond the characters, the movie itself is reflective of a comic book. There are a lot of long tracking shots (almost all of them, actually), to mimic comic book panels, which are supposed to have one action per panel. There are a lot of shots, like Elijah’s birth scene, that are shot at mirrors or through windows, or reflections in the glass frames at the art gallery, to bring home the “Mr. Glass” aspect of Jackson’s character. These are the kinds of things that pop out when you let the movie settle and watch it again (or do some research on IMDB, if you’re interested.)

The thing that I find really interesting is that this movie says more about comic books heroes and villains than any one that Marvel or DC has made. I get that they are trying to make blockbusters and Shyamalan was trying to make something a little more thought-provoking, but why can’t we have a bit of both? Maybe that’s what they were going for with Man of Steel, because clearly they were trying to do… something, but whatever it was, they failed. And as much as I like most of them, Marvel’s movies don’t really try to get very deep, especially with the villains. Loki gets a little character development, with the whole “I was adopted and my dad didn’t tell me” thing, but mostly because he was given three movies to do it in (and Tom Hiddleston is pretty awesome). Other than that, HYDRA is bad, the Chitauri were bad (and pretty useless), and Ultron was really bad (in so many ways.) At least they got The Joker right in The Dark Knight, and it really makes me wonder if Christopher Nolan is also a fan of Unbreakable.

“Marvel-porn” is a slang term I have heard in some circles in comics (Do NOT Google that, by the way), mostly by people who prize independent comics over all other forms of art in human history who think that Marvel books are heavy on action and big boobs and light on anything meaningful. As an indy creator myself, I sort of understand where they are coming from, and you definitely need to take what you do seriously, whether it’s creating comics or saving lives, Still, we are talking about comic books, and they are just entertainment. Even so, entertainment doesn’t need to be quite so vapid. I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but as far as comic book movies, Unbreakable nailed it better than any Marvel or DC movie, and it’s as true now as it was 15 years ago.

Be a real super-hero out and buy or rent Unbreakable on Amazon and help keep this the Dursin-est site ever.

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