Warning: this essay contains major spoilers for the 2000 film Unbreakable.
Unbreakable is a masterpiece of pop cinema.
Pre-dating the Marvel Cinematic Universe by nearly a decade and even the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man by two years, M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable was ahead its time – and that’s an understatement.
It’s also a crucial point to be made in assessing its significance – and brilliance – within pop culture. Unbreakable simultaneously divined and deconstructed the most popular movie genre of the early 21st Century, long before that genre was even a thing (let alone a revolutionary force).
Like most things prophetic, Unbreakable received a mixed reaction from fans and critics when it opened in 2000 on Thanksgiving weekend. After a solid opener, the word-of-mouth was muted (at best) and caused the highly-anticipated event to quickly peter out at the box office. Its final gross was only one-third the haul of Shyamalan’s 1999 cultural phenomenon (and Best Picture nominee) The Sixth Sense.
Back when being a nerd was still uncool and not some trendy self-empowering identifier, Shyamalan absolutely nerded out on comic book geekdom through the inspired high concept of Unbreakable. It wasn’t what audiences were expecting from him (or wanted, apparently), which translated into people rejecting it.
But it was that precise mix of playing to people’s expectations before radically subverting them that defined Shyamalan as a visionary artist and marketing showman extraordinaire at the peak of his, er, powers.
Every TV spot, trailer, and promo for Unbreakable essentially pitched another supernatural thriller from the guy who made The Sixth Sense. Nothing suggested the inspired take on the Superhero Origin Story that it actually was.
That’s why, for example, the film’s opening text about comic book statistics came entirely out of left field, so much so in fact that, upon first viewing, people couldn’t even grasp what was literally right in front of their faces. They had no idea why that obscure informatoin was there, what it meant, or where Shyamalan was about to take them.
Then, as the truth of what Unbreakable was became clear, polarization occurred in real time.
That moment of epiphany for each audience member occurred at different times, not in a singular shared moment. That organic disparity was a big part of Shyamalan’s genius: he was never hiding anything from us.
Everything we needed to know was right there, present in the visual and verbal text all along the way, not shrouded, and literally from the very first frame. Shyamalan wasn’t suggesting one thing to audiences only to, in a calculated surprise, reveal another. It was the origin template we’d seen countless times before; it was even being spelled out by Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah, a.k.a. “Mr. Glass”.
And it wasn’t just “there”; the archetypes and their iconography were ingeniously woven into a real-world setting and relatable milieu. If a real person were to become a superhero and, in the process, discover his archenemy, this is what it would look and feel like.
The trick: that didn’t look or feel like anything we’d seen in these stories countless times before.
It’s his unique, signature style that made Shyamalan a definitive auteur, if only for a brief time. Instead of morphing or sublimating his aesthetic to fit the tropes of genre (as most filmmakers would), he morphed genre into his formidable, singular style.
That style matched best to the chilling suspense of the horror/thriller, helping launch The Sixth Sense into the zeitgeist. But then Shyamalan applied it here, to superheroes, then next to alien invasion sci-fi in Signs, and then period piece folklore in The Village. Each genre different, each film undeniably made by the same filmmaker.
That blindsided people during Unbreakable, but that blindside helped prep audiences for Shyamalan’s subsequent successes.
One thing must be stressed: Shyamalan doesn’t repeat his style for style’s sake. While it certainly reveals his cinematic influences and inspirations, the reason he consistently applies it is because it reflects and elevates the character studies he’s most interested in: of broken people who have lost their way, are haunted, and seek – indeed, need – spiritual redemption.
It’s those bedrock themes that make Unbreakable much more than a superhero (and supervillain) origin story. It’s a lamenting, mournful portrait of a man who, having suppressed and denied who he is, finds himself in existential crisis; of how that denial – made out of love – has unwittingly broken his marriage, of a father/child relationship has become strained as a result, and a son who yearns so deeply to have a father be his hero that it’s literally heartbreaking.
That existential crisis also proves a potent fuel for the fated collision course that hero and villain unknowingly find themselves on, each one burdened by their own trauma. And if there’s a masterfully concealed secret in Unbreakable, it’s in that dynamic.
The entire time, we perceive Elijah as David Dunn’s mentor; even his wheelchair suggests a Professor X prototype. It’s only at the very end, in Shyamalan’s patented twist, that we realize Elijah is not the mentor but the nemesis. He and David share so much in common; both on the same curve, yet polar opposites.
Some people, even those who love Unbreakable, find this twist manipulative and unsatisfying. I don’t. I love it. It’s the dramatic coup de grâce that a great comic book story demands, and not simply for its cleverly plotted shocker.
Given how Shyamalan has led us to deeply empathize for the villain before we know that’s who he actually is, the revelation gives Elijah a genuine humanity that challenges and messes with our senses of compassion and justice, throwing the two in conflict. It also jolts the film’s themes and character arcs with a tragic final resonance.
(I could’ve done without the epilogue post-script text that shows Dunn acted responsibly to bring Elijah to justice – not the least of which because it’s utilizing a true story device in a genre movie – but I chalk that tag up to nervous studio brass. Effectively disturbed and fearing audience resentment, they – or someone – caved to mediocrity and forced a tidy closure.)
Few films have so effectively crystalized their genres while also completely transforming them. Given how Unbreakable came at a time when the public wasn’t quite ready for it, its perfect purity speaks to the earnest sincerity from which Shyamalan conceived it, created it, and meticulously crafted it.
But time has caught up with Unbreakable. If you haven’t, you should. Its cult classic status is earned. Even now, in the superhero saturation of our time (and perhaps because of it), Unbreakable makes a ubiquitously exploited mythos seem new, even personal. In the biggest twist of all, it’s the unlikeliest of pop culture criterion.