I first saw ‘Unbreakable‘ when it was released in 2000, in a theatre in Brigade Road, Bangalore. I last saw it on TV yesterday. In between, I must have seen it at least 10 more times. Thats almost once every year, but I am still excited about it. Ironically, this is exactly how I feel about my superhero comics as well. I know exactly when Batman or Phantom or Bahadur is going to deliver the punch that’ll put the villain out. Yet, I crave for it and feign the surprise that lets the goosebumps appear in key, pre-decided scenes of the comic. Surreal.
It was Shyamalan’s absolute best as a writer and definitely up there as a director. It was also the time when the creator was always one step ahead of his audience – be it the climactic shock of ‘The Sixth Sense’ or the fantastic unraveling of ‘Signs’. Far cry from the present, where he is huffing and puffing to catch up with his audience by the end of the first hour. Exhibit A: The simplistic ‘Lady in the water’ and the bizarre ‘The Happening’. ‘Unbreakable’ though, is completely different from the rest of his cinema. Yes, it has the trademark ‘shyamalan moment’ at the end which hits you hard and ‘ties it all together’, but it is not a deceiving script that is written backwards from there. To borrow Elijah’s (Samuel Jackson) words from the film, “This is a piece of art”.
Some of this film’s most powerful aspects are its smallest touches.
Like how all key moments in the film begin with a frame that is upside down – like how David Dunn’s (Bruce Willis) son looks at the TV news reporting the accident of his dad’s train, lying upside down on his couch. A brilliant metaphor for our askew perceptions.
Like how just the frames give David’s character that super-hero shadow, though he is written as a regular guy. Five minutes into the film, you see the silhouette of David, standing inside the stadium with his regular raincoat on. Except the hood is exaggerated into a cape-like look; Even the name David Dunn has the same ‘syllabic’ ring to it as a Peter Parker or a Clark Kent.
But the most brilliant part of this film is how the character of Elijah is etched out. The absolute anti-thesis of a ‘villain’, because of his own frailty. Also the reason why every single scene that involves Elijah’s character is associated with ‘glass’ as a metaphor. The opening scene of the film where Elijah’s mother gives birth to him is almost entirely shot as a relflection on a mirror; The conversation between Elijah – the boy and his mother is shot as a reflection on a TV screen and he chooses David’s car windshield to leave his note. And of course the more ‘in your face’ metaphor of his glass walking pole. When he announces to David in the last scene of the film “The kids. They used to call me Mr. Glass”, you not just go through the ‘Shyamalan moment’, but also momentarily get nostalgic with all your favourite villains from Lex Luthor to Evelyn to The Joker.
The film also had some fantastic lines. There is a scene when Elijah asks David if he wakes up every morning with a ‘feeling of sadness’ and when David says ‘yes’, Elijah explains how that is because ‘you are not doing what you are supposed to be doing’. That was a powerful line, one that everybody watching the film – comic fan or not, would remember and replay in their minds. I did, for a long time and I still do. In a scary, sentimental way, I even get what he means.
The film did not win any major awards, except from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror. It is not even top-of-mind among Shyamalan fans. But for me, it will always remain his best and probably the only film that ever married real life to the comic fantasy of our childhood.