Judge Gordon Sullivan thinks M. Night Shyamalan should get Hitched with a decent screenwriter.
Our review of Unbreakable, published May 1st, 2002, is also available.
Are You Ready For The Truth?
The sophomore slump: is it hard fact or self-fulfilling prophecy? Certainly it's hard to top a behemoth like The Sixth Sense with your second time in the director's chair. Following up a psychological horror film with a low-key meditation on the impact of comic books would seem guaranteed to alienate the audience that previously flocked to your first hit. In any other context, Unbreakable's $90 million-plus gross would have been a triumph, but despite a fairly comprehensive release on DVD, the film has largely fallen off the cinematic radar in favor of the controversies surrounding Shyamalan's The Village and Lady in the Water. This is his first catalog release in the Blu-ray format (Lady in the Water was a day-and-date release), and Touchstone does a decent (if unspectacular) job bringing Unbreakable to high definition.
Facts of the Case
When he miraculously survives a train crash, security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis Die Hard) receives a message from Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction), asking if he's ever been sick. Elijah's theory is that David is a modern incarnation of the hero represented in comic books. As the two dig deeper into David's past, a number of revelations occur, shaking his life to the core.
I saw The Sixth Sense and Signs in theaters and was underwhelmed. I gave Unbreakable a try on home video and was even less impressed. I went back a few years later and gave The Sixth Sense another shot and, although I still wasn't very impressed, I appreciated the attention to cinematic detail the film showed. Since it's been a few years, I figured it was time to give Unbreakable another shot. Although I found that I still don't like the film, I again noticed Shyamalan's grasp of cinematic techniques. In fact, it was during this viewing of the film that I realized what I dislike about all of Shyamalan's movies: the writing. It's almost like he's two different people: one a talented director, the other a boring, hackneyed writer.
Shyamalan the director knows how to hold a camera. Unbreakable is filled with interesting shots, both static and moving, that are visually interesting. I especially love the scene where Elijah Price falls down some stairs. Using almost nothing but shots of Samuel L. Jackson's feet and hands, he conveys how out of control and dangerous the situation is. It's a brilliant moment, and the film is full of them. Shyamalan the director is also pretty smart. He fills a film about identity and doubling with lots of reflected shots and upside-down images. Perhaps not the most subtle technique in the cinematic arsenal, it gets his point across.
Shyamalan the writer has little to recommend him. The comics-as-myth idea is interesting, but has been handled better before (see Alan Moore's Watchmen for a perfect example). Then, there's the characters. Really, there's nothing to make me care about Bruce Willis' David Dunn. I don't know him, so why would I care whether he's ever had a sick day? The attempt to give him humanity by having an unstable marriage feels tacked on and unsuccessful. Samuel L. Jackson's Elijah has a more interesting backstory and I care about him, but he's written as an overblown character. The scene where he explains the fight between good and evil represented in the drawing in his gallery is a horrible piece of unsubtle drivel. His overblown nature may be intentional, but that doesn't make it any easier to swallow.
Shyamalan the writer also likes to rely on the "twist" ending. I'm not against twists in general, but they have to be supported by an otherwise effective film. The Usual Suspects is a perfect example of a film that has a twist ending but could also be enjoyed if you missed the reveal in the last few minutes of the film. The same could not be said for any of the Shyamalan movies I've seen so far. All are structures whose sole purpose is to support the twist, rather than the other way around. Shyamalan the writer is also not very smart, so a significant percentage of his audience is going to guess what the twist is. Without anything else to interest them, the rest of the film becomes an exercise in tedium.
Unbreakable isn't a bad film. The leads are watchable and the visuals interesting, but I just can't recommend it.
I also can't recommend the presentation on this Blu-ray disc. Like the film, it's not bad, but it also feels like a waste. The video looks pretty clean, though a few problems with a grainy source show up here and there. Not bad, just not wow. The audio was similar. There is some effective use of atmospherics, and the dialogue was intelligible, but it didn't blow me away.
The extras are a direct port of the Vista Series DVD, and include some EPK style material, with some onset footage and some talking heads participation from the principles. I especially enjoyed hearing from Samuel L. Jackson, who's a big fan of comics, in the "Comic Books and Superheroes" featurette. This extra was the highlight of the set, including a number of interviews with people who made comics great. In fact, many of them have done a better job demonstrating the mythic power of comics in their work than Shyamalan's movie did. There are also some deleted scenes and a multi-angle featurette which can help you appreciate Shyamalan's talent as a director. There's no commentary, which is a bummer because I'm sure Shyamalan has some stuff to say about his second film. It's also a pity that there's nothing new here. For the curious, all the extras are in standard definition.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film made more than $90 million at the box office, so someone must have liked it. I can see how the film would hold interest for some, with its air of mystery and relationship to comics—and if you like M. Night Shyamalan's other movies, there's no reason I can think of to avoid this one.
I hear a lot of talk on the Internet comparing M. Night Shyamalan to a modern Hitchcock. For me, the big thing that separates Shyamalan from the Master is that Hitch knew enough to not write his own scripts. I don't think I'll be watching another Shyamalan movie until he makes one from an outside screenplay.
As for this Blu-ray release of Unbreakable, I can't comment specifically on how significant the jump in audiovisual quality is, but that would be the deciding factor since nothing else has changed with this release.
Unbreakable is guilty of wasting a talented director on an untalented writer. Never mind that they're the same person. Touchstone is fined for simply porting over the presentation of the previous DVD release. The court will be keeping any eye on them in the future.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
• Deleted Scenes
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