Do superhumans live among us? I’m not talking about folks who can run at near-light speed, leap tall buildings without getting a wedgie, or create illusions out of thin air (without the use of sleight-of-hand tricks, I mean. That means you’re out, Chris Angel.). I’m talking about someone who is naturally above what we consider peak human levels of physical stamina, strength, resistance to injury or disease, etc. Let’s assume there is such a person for argument’s sake. Would this person know they’re superhuman, or would they assume they were just a normal human, living out their lives like everyone else? What if one of these people realized they were in fact something… else? M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable tries to answer these questions, so let’s get to it.

Unbreakable opens to the back room of a Philadelphia department store circa 1961, where an African-American woman has just give birth to a son, whom she names Elijah. A doctor steps in to examine the newborn and assess the reason behind his excessive crying. The doctor looks confused for a moment then recoils in a mix of shock and horror as he explains that young Elijah has sustained some abnormal injuries while in the womb. Essentially, both of his arms and legs were broken before being born. Cut to present day, where we see a man, later identified as David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is sitting on a train headed for New York out of Philly. There is a short scene where he attempts to pick up on a married woman while he himself is married, which ends disastrously. It’s about that moment when David notices the train is traveling faster than it should, and is on the verge of careening off the tracks. Which it then does. David awakes in an emergency room, where the doctor questions him for a few minutes, then reveals to him that he is the only man to walk away for the train wreck, and even more peculiar, he appears to have no injury.

After attending the memorial service for the victims of the crash, David id surprised to find a note left on the windshield of his car. The envelope has the words “Limited Edition” on it, and the note itself has a single question: “How many days of your life have you been sick?” David go about finding the answer, first by asking his boss how many sick days he’s taken, which eventually lead to him getting a raise for never taking a day off in 5 years. He also asks his wife, Audrey (Robin Wright Penn), who tells him that she doesn’t remember. There is some tension there, and it’s obvious that they’re having some problems (if the near-cheating wasn’t a clue).

Back in the past, this time in 1974 in West Philadelphia (born an’ raised… you finish the line!), young Elijah has grown quite a bit, but has never gotten past his easily-broken bones. This has caused a lot of unhappiness for Elijah, and has earned him the nickname “Mr. Glass.” Hmmm… do I smell foreshadowing? In an attempt to get her son to leave their apartment, Mrs. Price has bought him a stack of comic books, and told him that there will be one waiting for him outside across the street every day. The scene transitions back to the present (there’s only one more of these flashbacks, please bear with me), where a grown-up Elijah (Samuel L. “Effin’” Jackson) is attempting to sell a piece of priceless comic art to a man, only to go all “comic book guy” on him when he says it’s for his 4 year-old son. He asks the man to leave and never return to his gallery, named (you guessed it) Limited Edition. David and his odd son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) stop in, attempting to find out more about the man who left the note. Elijah eventually explains his disease to the duo, and reveals his theory that comic book superheroes are in actuality the real-life stories of men and women who were physically above the rest of the worlds’ populace, and that if one man could be born extremely prone to injury, there could be someone who is the opposite end of the spectrum.

David doesn’t believe him, naturally, and he and his son leave. After some extra badgering by Elijah, David slowly begins to come around. However, there are two major hurdles that have to be cleared before Elijah’s theory can be totally proved: As a child, David almost drowned in an elementary school pool, and he was in a car accident with his wife while in college that ended his football career. A few scenes pass, including one where David begins lifting weights and discovers he has no foreseeable limit to his strength and another where we see that he may have the beginnings of some sort of extra-sensory perception that allows him to sense when someone’s done wrong, then we are treated another flashback, this time on David’s college accident. As it turns out, not only did he not get hurt in the crash, he RIPPED THE CAR DOOR OFF ITS HINGES to save his future wife. Apparently, he faked the injury to stay with Audrey. While this is going on, Elijah deduces that water may be David’s kryptonite. Finally fully believing Elijah, he sets out to find a crowded to hone his perception power, now manifesting as full-blown visions of the evil act.

After a few despicable visions, David has one about the janitor of a bus station, one dealing with the murder of a man and the overtaking of his house. David follows the man, and eventually makes his first truly heroic deed, defeating the evil janitor and save the homeowner’s two children. David returns home, and has the best night of sleep he’s ever had, now knowing his purpose in life. The next day, he visits the official gallery opening of Limited Edition, and meets with Elijah to explain his heroic deeds. Elijah reaches out to shake David’s hand, and when he does, David receives a multitude of visions, all of horrific actions, including the train accident he was in. See, Elijah was so sure there was someone like David in the world, he orchestrated the untimely deaths of thousands of people. As David leaves to summon the police, Elijah proclaims, “Now that we know who you are, I know who I am” and “I should have known all along. It was the kids! They called me MR. GLASS!”

I’m going to try to keep this next section as unbiased as I can, but I have to say that I’ve immensely enjoyed this movie for a long, long time. The cinematography does an excellent job invoking the essence of a comic book with the use of primarily static shots. Anyone with even a minor knowledge of comics can practically see the panel layouts scene for scene. There is one sequence in which David is moving through the murdered homeowner’s bedroom that was especially amazing. The camera was placed outside the window, and the ripples of the curtain created a sort-of strobe effect, where characters movements are all but removed, which looked very comic book-y. The music also fits well with the tone of the film, and should be commended.
Now, the movie is not without faults, but they are almost negligible. The acting was so muted and deadpan throughout the entire film, I would suspect that any casual viewer would get bored by about half way through. We also had another unneeded cameo by M. Night, this time as a possible drug dealer. Since this was only his second film, we weren’t aware of the full extent of his tendency to write him himself into his films, which culminated in the massive mistake Lady in the Water. And as his films go, the twist ending was not much of a surprise to anyone familiar with the concept of arch-villain.

The most interesting point about Unbreakable is that it was, and still is from what I hear, conceived as just the origin story to a much grander tale, and that after years away from the project, there may be more work from the Unbreakable Universe in the future. All I know is, if this is just the beginning, I can’t wait to see what comes next.

I give Unbreakable an impressive 4 ½ out of 5 stars.


The Author

Sam Dunham

Sam Dunham

Sam Dunham was born at a very early age, and shortly after became entangled in the world of film. His first memories are of seeing King Ralph in his local theater. He learned to talk with the help of Adam West's Batman: The Movie. He's one of the few people to still own a working RCA Videodisc player (heck, it's where he first watched Young Frankenstein!). When Sam is not perusing his extensive B- movie collection or sitting in dark theaters with a tub of popcorn, he is usually found reading comic books, fixing computers, toiling away at his day job, working some nights at a local radio station as a "soundboard guy," and going to class so that he can one day toil away at his day job fixing computers. One time, Lou Ferrigno conned him out of $20.00. But that's another story...

Previous post

Friday Sing-Along: My Freeze Ray

Next post

Interview: Al Rio


  1. lifeisaglitch
    October 9, 2009 at 12:48 pm — Reply

    Great, great movie and in my opinion MNS best (Yes better than 6th Sense)and i liked Lady In The Water…even if only because of the whole world/mythos building.

    But yeah Unbreakable rumors keep popping up and considering MNS sucky hit-rate of late we might see him try something with a built in fanbase. Also notice how Samuel Jackson doesnt play “Samuel Jackson” in this movie, whoa did i just break your mind O__O

  2. Kyle
    October 9, 2009 at 2:10 pm — Reply

    Unbreakable was an amazing and under appreciated gem that remarkably predicted the Comic Book movie boom. X-Men was considered a surprise hit a few months earlier, but it wasn’t until 2002 (Spider-man) that the industry saw blockbuster potential in adapting comics. Ironically, parodies and allegories seem to come after a flood of shared themed material but Unbreakable was ahead of its time. After trilogies of Spider-man and X-men films had been released we then saw Superhero Movie and Watchmen. These movies spoofed and deconstructed the motifs of comic books. I’m curious if Unbreakable would have been better received or if Shyamalan’s proposed trilogy would have been green light if it was released in the post Dark Knight climate.

    Good article. It’s always nice to see Unbreakable get some love, but I would have liked to heard more about your impressions of the film than a recap of the plot.

  3. arcee
    October 9, 2009 at 2:11 pm — Reply

    Best. Realistic. “Superhero”. Movie. EVER.

    For me the ending WASN’T a surprise. In fact, I had so emotionally invested in Jackson’s acting (his character being born with a cruel defect) that when he revealed himself as the villain it caught this cynical, comic book old timer TOTALLY off guard. I guess I didn’t want to believe it despite the evidence to the contrary.

    MNS’s “flaw” (for me) was casting Bruce right after the mega hit of Sixth Sense. He should have done like his mentor Hitchcock – who was (at times) adverse to casting same actors so soon after a BO smash. Too many people went to this flick expecting a ‘Sixth Sense’ – which made it an unfair comparision.

  4. October 9, 2009 at 4:36 pm — Reply

    It’s by far my favorite MNS movie, easily. Loved it from the day I saw it at the theater and bought the DVD the day it came out.

    My favorite scene is after he struggles to climb out of the pool after the kids helped him. He’s on one knee and fists are on the ground and he rises but the camera doesn’t move with him and his poncho hangs and weaves like a cape with the kids in the background just out of focus. Gives me the chills every time.

  5. Navarre
    October 9, 2009 at 5:58 pm — Reply

    Shawn, I am completely with you on that scene. There are a couple of moments that actually bring a tear to my eye.

    One is that scene because it is the essence of comic book glory. Another is at the end when Elijah truly knows that he too wasn’t a mistake; that he has a purpose as reflected by David.

    My favorite moment is only a few seconds long though. It is when David has followed the janitor to the home. The man goes inside and David hangs his head in the pouring rain…and then raises it again as he determines to do what is right.

    It is that pivotal moment that marks David as a hero. He lets go of his own self-absorbed problems and embraces the potential for Good that has been waiting for him.

    It is a powerful, exhilarating moment for me. So few of us rise above the weight with which we burden ourselves.

    Heroes must. Seeing a character do that reminds me of everything I love about comic books.

    “David follows the man, and eventually makes his first truly heroic deed, defeating the evil janitor and save the homeowner’s two children. David returns home, and has the best night of sleep he’s ever had, now knowing his purpose in life.”

    ^ Yes! This movie is about one thing: Purpose.

    It is the need for purpose that drives us. Without it, we are meandering animals waiting for death.

    So few of us find our true purpose; that thing that drives us. David has. … and so has Elijah. They really are alike, as Elijah claims.

    Unbreakable is my favorite movie ever. I don’t believe any movie will ever make me more remember the power of comic books and how in those pages we find hope, strength, and maybe even the purpose we so desperately need.

    Thank you for the review, Sam.

  6. October 10, 2009 at 2:39 pm — Reply

    Unbreakable is a great film, and it took me quite a while to figure out that it was a superhero movie… that’s how realistic it seemed. ;)

    One of the most memorable scenes for me is in the beginning when the son tries to reconcile his parents and puts their hands together. They then walk a bit and let them slip away again. Such a sad moment that tells you a lot about their relation without being blatant.

  7. Navarre
    October 11, 2009 at 8:44 am — Reply

    Or the moment near the end of the film when David hangs his poncho on the closet door after saving the children. I am sure he has hung up that poncho a thousand times.

    But this time it is different. This time he is taking something that represents the very best parts of himself, the part he has denied his whole life, and placed it with care until he resumes it again.

    And the great thing is he doesn’t, metaphorically, take it off. It is a part of him now.

    The shot basically says, “This is who David Dunn is now. He is more.”

    This is illustrated non-metaphorically immediately after when David goes to his wife and lays down next to her. She asks him what is wrong and he says “I had a bad dream.”

    This is the point he mentioned before where he previously couldn’t tell her that and knew they were moving apart. The truth is that he was moving away from himself at that time.

    Now he has returned. He is whole.

    The movie is brilliant in its subtlety. It is brilliant in all regards.

You know you have something to say, say it in the comment section