“They say this one has a surprise ending” | Unbreakable (2000)

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In 1999 audiences worldwide were stunned by a film titled The Sixth Sense. It arrived without fanfare; a sort of mid-list supernatural thriller designed to give audiences something to go to between the big summer blockbusters. Sure it starred Bruce Willis, but it came from an unknown writer-director and featured a relatively unknown supporting cast. Few were expecting it to become a massive hit, certainly not Walt Disney Pictures – who distributed it into just 2,161 theatres across American on 6 August, less than two other films premiering that week (The Thomas Crown Affair and The Iron Giant).

It debuted in first place, with an opening week gross of $43.8 million dollars. The following week, facing fresh competition from Bowfinger and Brokedown Palace, it grossed an additional $39.7 million – less than 10% below its initial gross. Studio films generally decline by 40-60% in their second week: The Sixth Sense bucked that trend. It was the most-watched film in the USA for its third week as well, picking up an extra $35.1 million and crossing the $100 million dollar barrier. It was the most-watched film in the fourth week too, selling another $34.6 million dollars’ worth of tickets. It took until its sixth week of release to drop out of the top spot at the American box office: that week it was second, earning $20.9 million dollars and crossing the $200 million dollar mark overall.

In a year full of high profile releases, this small-scale paranormal thriller ultimately grossed more than $600 million dollars worldwide. The following January it received six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. It had demonstrated a more sombre side to actor Bruce Willis, introduced American audiences to child star Haley Joel Osment and transformed its writer-director M. Night Shyamalan from a comparative unknown into one of the industry’s hottest talents.

The Sixth Sense was actually Shyamalan’s third feature film, although no one had really seen his independent debut Praying with Anger or his disastrously unsuccessful sophomore film Wide Awake (it starred Rosie O’Donnell, was delayed for three years by Miramax Films and grossed $282,000 dollars). The Sixth Sense represented a phenomenal jump forward in terms of technique and creativity. The film exploited the medium of cinema masterfully, hiding a third act twist in plain sight by manipulating the audience’s expectations of editing and narrative structure.

The experience of writing and directing the film clearly energised Shyamalan, because he wound up writing the screenplay to his fourth film – Unbreakable – while he was editing and promoting The Sixth Sense. Shyamalan said: ‘I had actually been working on another story for a few months during post-production on The Sixth Sense, and was just at the stage when I was going to commit to writing it. Then I had this idea about a man being the sole survivor of a horrific train crash who walks away without a scratch and how he begins to question who he is and what his purpose is in life. The idea was just so provocative and intrigued me so much, that I immediately started outlining it. Within a couple days I had it to the level of the movie that I’d been working on for months, so I just kept on going.’ [1]

Unbreakable focuses on David Dunn, a Philadelphia security guard with a troubled marriage who is the sole survivor after a horrific train accident. Not only did he survive, he is completely unharmed, and his efforts to find out how such a miracle was possible leads him to the disabled comic art dealer Elijah Price. What isn’t initially clear to the viewer, many of whom would have been expecting another supernatural thriller akin to The Sixth Sense, is that Unbreakable is a superhero movie: David Dunn discovers that he is, for all intents and purposes, indestructible, and learns to use that power to fight crime.

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Shyamalan offered his screenplay to the Walt Disney Company, following their productive relationship on The Sixth Sense. Disney purchased the script for a record sum of $5 million dollars – the most ever paid for an uncommissioned screenplay. They also paid Shyamalan an additional $5 million to direct, and helped the director to establish his own production company Blinding Edge Pictures.

The lead roles of David and Elijah were specifically written with Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson in mind. Willis, who had enjoyed the experience of making The Sixth Sense, was happy to reunite with his director. By using Willis for the second film in a row, Shyamalan hoped to emulate the actor-director relationships of some of his favourite filmmakers. ‘It’s a thing where I look back at other directors I’ve admired,’ he said. ‘You see collaborations that started to establish a pattern of film-making. I just observed that, whether it was Hitchcock and some of the actors that he kept using or Spielberg with Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it’s a nice language to work in, to have a mass audience relationship.’ [2]

To secure Jackson, Shyamalan sent the screenplay to him via a mutual friend: fellow writer/director Quentin Tarantino. Jackson was only too happy to work with Bruce Willis again. Unbreakable was their third picture together, after Pulp Fiction (1994) and Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995).

In the role of David’s wife Audrey, Shyamalan cast Julianne Moore. Her casting was announced to the press in January 2000. ‘Julianne is on a very short list of naturalistic actresses working in the business,’ said Shyamalan. ‘She is able to emote and really connect with audiences, and will be a great match with Bruce.’ [3] Moore’s casting was short-lived, however, because in the final stages of contract negotiations the actress withdrew in favour of playing FBI agent Clarice Starling in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal. Robin Wright (The Princess Bride) was rapidly signed on in Moore’s place.

Rounding out the lead cast was child actor Spencer Treat Clark as David and Audrey’s son Joseph. Clark had previously co-starred in Arlington Road and Double Jeopardy (1999) and had recently completed filming on Ridley Scott’s epic Gladiator (2000) opposite Russell Crowe.

Filming took place in Philadelphia from April to July 2000. In a comparatively rare move, Shyamalan shot the film in-continuity: the first scene of the story was the first scene to be filmed, and so on. ‘It has been very helpful to shoot in continuity,’ Samuel L. Jackson remarked during the shoot. ‘It enables you to know from day to day what’s happened before and to know what is going to happen next. It allows you to prepare yourself in a whole new way so that the character develops naturally over the period of the shoot.’ [4]

Scenes were filmed across Philadelphia, with the city’s film office assisting the production in sourcing adequate locations for each scene. Pennsylvania State University’s Franklin Field stadium stood in for the stadium of the fictional Franklin State University: Penn State refused to allow the stadium’s real name to be used unless they received script approval from Walt Disney Pictures – approval Disney was unwilling to provide. Scenes inside the train station, where David first tests out his new powers, where shot inside the historic Packard Building in downtown Philadelphia. The building was specifically dressed to simulate the busy terminal floor. For a climactic scene involving a backyard swimming pool, the production crew dug and installed their own pool custom-designed for purpose. Following the shoot the pool was removed and the land returned to its original condition.

As with The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan shot the film on location and deliberately eschewed overly invasive production design. ‘It has to be very real with supernatural subjects,’ he explained, ‘done as if they were real and treated with that same kind of respect and importance. I don’t like artifice. More and more I am pulling artifice out of the movie as if I were making a documentary.’ [5] Shyamalan worked with cinematographer Eduardo Serra to develop specific colour schemes for the film’s central characters. For David, the colours gradually shifted from cold lights to warm, whereas for Elijah the process was reversed. In addition, David was lit in increasingly stylised ways throughout the film as he accepted his abilities and shifted towards a future as a super-powered vigilante.

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Artist Derek Thompson provided artwork for the numerous fictional comic books and pages seen throughout the film. On his website, Thompson wrote: ‘I had to develop multiple, distinctive styles to make the artwork feel as though it had been drawn by different artists. I did tons of sketches that I sent to the Production Designer, Larry Fulton. He would review them with M. Night Shyamalan, and would send back comments and revisions. I spent three months producing artwork. It was a challenging show, but I really enjoyed it.’ [6]

When it came to promoting Unbreakable, Shyamalan had always anticipated marketing it as a superhero movie, and emphasising the fantastical elements of the story. Executives at Walt Disney had a different view, however, insisting on marketing the film in an identical way to The Sixth Sense. ‘I remember the moment that it happened,’ said Shyamalan, ‘exactly where I was sitting at the table, the speakerphone. That moment may have been the biggest mistake that I have to undo over 10 years so the little old lady doesn’t go, “Oh, he’s the guy who makes the scary movies with a twist.”’ [7] The poster and trailers for the film pushed the central conceit of Unbreakable as being a mystery, something supernatural and deeply threatening. While that tone does to some extent exist within the film, it does still set the viewer up for a considerable surprise the first time they watch it. It is also arguable that the film would have been more successful if audiences had known in advance that it was presenting a different kind of a story to The Sixth Sense. Shyamalan followed Disney’s lead when talking about the film. ‘It’s more a movie about the milieu of comic books than it is a comic book movie,’ he explained in one interview. [8]

It is slightly unfortunate that, with Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan had written and directed the most effective superhero movie Hollywood had produced to date, and thanks to Walt Disney’s marketing efforts hardly anybody noticed.

Unbreakable opened in American cinemas on 22 November 2000. It grossed $36.2 million in its first week, somewhat less than The Sixth Sense and in second place behind Ron Howard’s Christmas film The Grinch. In its second week it shed 50% of its audience, earning just $18 million. The sustained popularity that had pushed The Sixth Sense to such heights was not to be repeated by its successor. By the third week Unbreakable’s earnings had dropped by almost 50% again to just $9.5 million and fourth place. In week four it was in seventh place, and by week five it was already out of the top 10. All told, the film grossed $95 million dollars in its entire domestic run. International sales brought its global total to $248 million – a hit by anybody’s standards, but a long way below the heights scaled by The Sixth Sense and a grave disappointment to Walt Disney Pictures.

American critics were not as enthusiastic about Unbreakable as they were its predecessor. TV Guide’s Maitland McDonough referred to the film as a ‘gloomy, preposterous supernatural thriller’ [9]. In The Village Voice, Dennis Lim criticised what he saw as the film’s ‘soggy mysticism, nagging inconsistencies, and coarse horror-playbook jolts’ [10]. In the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell was considerably more upbeat, writing: ‘What Unbreakable shows is Mr. Shyamalan’s remarkable growth as a director. Some of the sequences are particularly fine, crisp and contained, and given his thirst for commercial success, bewitchingly spare with long, fluid takes.’ [11]

Overall there was a distinct sense of America’s film critics deliberately taking Shyamalan down a notch, after building him up so highly with The Sixth Sense. ‘I think Night suffered from second-film syndrome,’ said Bruce Willis. ‘People wanted to say, “This guy isn’t the genius that everyone said he is.”’ [12] This generally lukewarm response to the movie belies the fact that, in many respects, Unbreakable is the superior film of the two – and arguably Shyamalan’s best work.

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It is a film that is, like The Sixth Sense, supremely well measured and paced. There is, I think, a distinct difference between a slow film and dull one. Through a combination of quiet tension, slow tracking shots and lengthy takes, Shyamalan is a master of the slow build. Take, for example, one of the earlier scenes in the film. In one lengthy shot on a train we are introduced to David (Bruce Willis) and learn a surprising amount about him. We watch his clumsy attempt to chat up a young woman next to him through the gap between the seats in front of him. As a result, we can only really see David or the young woman at the one time. Shyamalan makes us feel like we’re eavesdropping on an embarrassing moment in someone’s life.

In one conversation we learn David has an interest in sports, that he’s married but unhappy, that he’s out of practice in flirting with women and that he has a phobia of drowning in water. We get a strong indication of an overwhelming sadness – David is a man haunted by his past and emotionally dragged down by it.

Toward the end of the scene David rests his head against the train’s window. We hear the train rattling louder and louder, and the blurred background whipping by faster and faster. We hit a crescendo – and then nothing. Shyamalan deliberately denies us the ‘money shot’ of seeing the train crash. On the one hand it’s a canny money-saving device. On the other, it’s a brilliant creative stroke: real life isn’t about lavish CGI effects sequences. It is the small conversations, awkward pauses and embarrassing cock-ups depicted in this scene.

This deliberate act of grounding the film in a small, quiet and banal setting continues throughout the film. It is a superhero movie, as Shyamalan intended, but it contains one brief action scene that is over before it begins. It is a film of constant rising tension, doubt and emotion – both crushing and uplifting.

Unbreakable is a film rich with superhero tropes and archetypes. David Dunn, for example, has a deliberately alliterative name, echoing famous comic book alter-egos such as Clark Kent, Bruce Banner and Peter Parker. Just as most superheroes and villains follow a strong colour scheme – Superman is red and blue, the Incredible Hulk is green, and so on – both David and Elijah are typified by strong colours. David, in his waterproof parka, is green. Elijah is invariably dressed in purple. Both characters fit comic book archetypes: David is the physical powerful, near-indestructible paragon akin to Superman, Captain America and other such heroes. Elijah is an intellectual “super-genius” in the vein of Lex Luthor or the Joker, who battles the heroes brawn with brains and fiendish schemes. As the film develops, the colour and lighting slowly changes: David in particular is gradually lit in a more stark and defined manner that subtly transforms him from everyday civilian to noble hero.

Bruce Willis gives a distinctive performance here. While it would be easy to compare it to his understated, haunted (no pun intended) acting in The Sixth Sense, he presents a very different character. David Dunn is a man crippled by sadness. His marriage is disintegrating, despite his giving up a promising football career to save it, and his discovery of his own superhuman strength and endurance give him doubts and worry rather than elation or drive. Critically, even the film’s conclusion – in which he achieves a deliberately typical sort of superhero victory – he walks out of frame sad rather than happy. Shyamalan’s film doesn’t simply ape comic book tropes. He simultaneously defies them as well.

In the entire movie, David receives precisely one traditional heroic ‘hero shot’. He has finally used his powers, tracked a sadistic killer to a suburban house and in a disastrous first attempt to tackle him is thrown out of a first story window and into the backyard swimming pool. He begins to drown, but is saved by two young children who have been hiding in the house. His slow, measured rise out of the water, accompanied by James Newton Howard’s stirring orchestral score, is not just David’s only archetypal superhero moment; it’s one of the best such moments ever committed to film. Part of its power comes from the fact that it is such a unique moment within the context of Unbreakable. It takes us a long time to reach it and, crucially, Shyamalan makes sure he has earned it.

When David returns inside the house to tackle the violent criminal, it is the deliberate antithesis of a superhero action scene. He grabs the villain in a headlock and doesn’t let go until the man is dead. The killer thrashes around in an attempt to shake David off, they both smash holes in the walls and demolish the furniture, but eventually the killer collapse, and David rises once again. To my mind it’s one of the most effective action scenes ever, precisely because it is so simple and realistic. Once again Howard’s score gives the scene an extraordinary amount of emotional power – I find it difficult to watch without tears welling in my eyes.

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It’s worth briefly mentioning Newton Howard’s work on Unbreakable. In response to Shyamalan’s request that the music represent a sense of ‘singularity’, Howard went about stripping the standard Hollywood orchestra of most of its players. The final score was recorded in London inside a converted church. ‘You could have recorded the same music in a studio in Los Angeles,’ admitted Howard, ‘and it would have been great, but there is something about the sound of that church studio.’ [13]

Much has been written about the film’s conclusion, primarily a lot of criticism of its apparent twist ending. The Sixth Sense developed a lot of its popularity through its twist, and many viewers seemed to feel cheated that Unbreakable attempted the same feat again. I have always felt that this was an unfair criticism, primarily because Unbreakable does not really have a twist ending in the sense that many people think it does. A twist is supposed to blindside the viewer and provide a shocking turn of events that forces them to re-evaluate the entire film they have just seen. Such a twist does exist in The Sixth Sense and works brilliantly. Unbreakable differs for it, however, because in its case the film deliberately and repeatedly foreshadows the ending before it occurs.

Elijah is deliberately constructed as an opposite character to David. Where David is effectively indestructible, Elijah suffers from Type I osteogenesis imperfecta and has brittle bones that shatter from the smallest impact. Where David is generally portrayed as physical, Elijah is generally portrayed as intellectual. In one crucial early scene, Elijah explains the aesthetic of a comic book cover to customers in his gallery. As he explains how the villain’s head was deliberately drawn larger to accentuate his criminal nature, it is impossible not to notice Elijah’s own exaggerated head in the reflection of the framed glass. In a flashback a young Elijah is given a pile of comic books by his mother. She hands one to him, saying ‘they say this one has a surprise ending.’ Through a series of cues and deliberate moments, Shyamalan carefully and clearly foreshadows the film’s final revelation. For his own part, Shyamalan once argued: ‘Having a twist isn’t something you can just add at the end. It needs to be in the basic fabric of the movie. If it’s just some extra turn, people aren’t going to be satisfied.’ [14]

The film ends like the best of superhero origin stories. The hero is established and given a purpose and identity. A clear arch-nemesis has also been established, and placed in direct opposition to the hero. At the time there was a clear intention to produce a sequel, and potentially a trilogy of Unbreakable films, but the lukewarm box office and critical response appears to have killed that possibility. In his succeeding films, Shyamalan – I suspect through a combination of progressive weaker writing, a perceived reliance on plot twists and shock ending and a public identity prone to ridicule – has shifted from Hollywood’s newest sensation to an unwarranted punch line. His most recent film, 2013’s After Earth, was his first since The Sixth Sense not to trade on his name for marketing purposes.

There is still great potential in M. Night Shyamalan as a writer and director, and indeed there remain many elements to recommend within his later, noticeably flawed, works. I can only hope that sooner or later he strikes gold once again and delivers a film experience as satisfying, layered and intriguing as Unbreakable.

REFERENCES

  1. Quoted in Unbreakable production notes, Touchstone Pictures, 2000.
  2. Roald Rynning and John Reading, “Night’s Time”, Film Review, February 2001.
  3. Charles Lyons, “Moore gets ‘break’”, Variety, 13 January 2000.
  4. Unbreakable production notes, 2000.
  5. Unbreakable production notes, 2000.
  6. Derek Thompson, “Unbreakable”, Derekmonster (http://www.derekmonster.com/projects_film_unbreak.html, accessed 11 January 2013.)
  7. Allison Hope Weiner, “Shyamalan’s Hollywood nightmare”, New York Times, 2 June 2008.
  8. Scott Brown, “Comic relief”, Entertainment Weekly, 6 December 2000.
  9. Maitland McDonough, “Unbreakable”, TV Guide, 22 November 2000.
  10. Dennis Lim, “This won’t hurt a bit”, The Village Voice, 21 November 2000.
  11. Elvis Mitchell, “A security guard, then kapow!’, New York Times, 21 November 2000.
  12. Jeff Giles, “Out of this world”, The Daily Beast, 4 August 2002.
  13. Rick Lyman, “A full plate for the holidays”, New York Times, 24 November 2000.
  14. Rynning and Reading, 2001.
  1. I can remember expecting something different from what I got when I saw it and it was disappointed. Perhaps that was the fault of the marketing. On his other films, I did enjoy signs for a much different take on an alien invasion, from the viewpoint of an isolated family that had no idea what was going on. It really held on well to its suspense all the way through. I did enjoy his recent horror film Devil too.

    Reply

  2. Pennsylvania State University’s Franklin Field stadium stood in for the stadium of the fictional Franklin State University: Penn State refused to allow the stadium’s real name to be used

    University of Pennsylvania owns Franklin Field, is located in Philadelphia, and is an Ivy League school. Penn State is located hours outside of the city and is a Big Ten school.

    Reply

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