[Written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
What if superheroes were real, not some four-color pulp fantasy or Spandex-and-mask-clad movie daredevil, but a part of the fabric of the world? That’s the core of Unbreakable, a potentially interesting idea deflated by the absurd proclamations of an arch screenplay and smothered under the ponderous gravity of M. Night Shyamalan’s dreary direction.
His much anticipated follow-up to The Sixth Sense draws heavily from that hit; the somber colors and hushed soundtrack create a similar mood of unease and otherworldliness, and Bruce Willis again plays a man disconnected from his life who must discover the secret that leaves him “unfulfilled” with the help of a young boy, in this case his son.
Willis is David Dunn, the sole survivor of a devastating train wreck. He emerges without a scratch or an explanation for his deliverance. Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic book collector afflicted with a rare skeletal disease that leaves his bones fragile and brittle (school kids nicknamed him “Mr. Glass”), approaches him with a doozy of a theory.
Comic books, he proposes, are a mix of modern pictograph and 20th-century cultural myth, “an exaggeration of the truth,” and that David is really a superhero who hasn’t grasped his natural powers. Elijah presents himself as the indestructible survivor’s frail opposite and prods him with questions: Were you ever sick? Have you ever been hurt?
Meanwhile David’s failing marriage (to an equally disconnected Robin Wright Penn) is tearing up his adolescent son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), who worships his father and hangs onto Elijah’s proclamation with a desperate faith. Joseph’s hysterical need for a hero rises to a dramatic crescendo so extreme that it transcends unshakable conviction and suggests instead a terrifying emotional instability.
Shyamalan amps up the moody atmosphere, but it comes off as affected and artificial, missing the frisson of suggestive images and the emotional resonance that both electrified and grounded The Sixth Sense. He doesn’t even crack a smile at Elijah’s crazy philosophy when he starts quoting old comic books stories: “The answer was staring me right in the face! In issue 167…” Jackson’s Elijah is less a pulp sage than a crackpot who’s been reading too many comic books, while Willis is wrapped up and inexpressive as David, not so much lost as simply numb.
It’s a ponderous and at times laughable attempt to be mythic, with superheroes and psychos in the place of gods and monsters. Shyamalan tries desperately to make the fantastic credible, but Unbreakable reads less like a pop culture riff on Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung than a juvenile’s idea of playing out a superhero melodrama in the mortal world with banal literalness.
Maybe it’s Shyamalan who’s been reading too many comic books.