With the elegant simplicity which has become his cinematic trademark, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan envisioned a parallel world in The Sixth Sense, a shadow realm of the dead unseen by nearly everyone. Those able to see it are equally blessed and cursed with that vision, and must juggle their inherent fears with a newfound sense of responsibility. Shyamalan’s follow-up, Unbreakable, shares many of that film’s thematic concerns, particularly when demonstrating how a shift in perspective allows for the perception of what would normally be hidden.
Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) is an expert on comic books, not just as a populist art form but as a new form of mythology. By viewing the world through the filter of comics, he’s formulated a belief system which renders the unbelievable plausible. Suffering from a genetic bone disease which makes him extremely prone to breaks, Elijah has sought out his opposite, someone who seems impervious to injury. He seems to have found him in the guise of a mild-mannered security guard, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the sole survivor of a devastating train wreck who literally walked away without a scratch.
While he may be unbreakable, David feels remarkably fragile. Estranged from his wife, Audrey (Robin Wright Penn), his fractured self-image is at odds with the hero-worship of his son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), who sees only strength where David perceives vulnerability. Elijah intuits something beyond the pale, and gradually begins to convince this quiet, unassuming man — who instinctively keeps his head down and his nose clean —that he isn’t Clark Kent but a genuine Superman, and must act accordingly.
As fascinating as this film often is, Shyamalan is of two minds with Unbreakable and they are in opposition. The writer has created a story which calls for the blunt certainties of heroes and villains, while the director employs a muted and intimate style which builds on subtle shadings of character. Again, there’s a twist ending, but while The Sixth Sense’s conclusion forced a vital reexamination of the film’s narrative through a different filter, Unbreakable comes to a crashing halt as jarring as Elijah’s fragile limbs meeting concrete stairs.
What’s interesting is that the failures of Unbreakable don’t entirely negate its strengths. M. Night Shyamalan has found a niche with this type of tale, with its shades of Dead Zone-era Stephen King and metaphysical musings on untapped human potential. Again, he has managed to mesh the fantastical with the prosaic, allowing space for the remarkable to exist in our empirical world.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.