Night Falls

Unbreakable's writer-director is far from infallible

His complete faith in the divine notwithstanding, M. Night [Shyamalan] would like to dominate the movie business, to earn more money than any filmmaker in history... His name above the title, above the stars, like night itself.

--Rolling Stone, December 7, 2000

 

According to the article quoted above, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan wrote The Sixth Sense after repeat viewings of Ordinary People, Presumed Innocent, and Carrie. There's no word on what he watched while writing the followup, Unbreakable, but it's a shame that Charlie's Angels hadn't come out yet. Seeing as he was planning a comic-book caper, Shyamalan might have done well to borrow a bit of the self-referential mockery, or the lightheartedness, or the pace, or the hot pants, or anything, really, that would have derailed this lumbering, dimly lit attempt at apocalyptic allegory. Rolling Stone hype notwithstanding, Unbreakable is a film delivered with all the arrogant pretension and interminable portentousness of a 19-year-old who has read a little philosophy and smoked a little pot, and now feels qualified to set the world straight on a couple of counts.

Some advice to those who haven't already plunked down for Unbreakable: If you want to see Bruce Willis as a onetime stud gone to seed, scorned by his wife and his gun-toting kid until an injured black sidekick enters his life (at which point the requisite heroics restore his dignity and his family), rent The Last Boy Scout. If you want to see a tortured comic-book hero take orders from a guy in a wheelchair while grappling with the emotional fallout of his superpowers, check out X-Men, or stay home on Tuesday night and watch Dark Angel. If you want to groove on a mysterious, omniscient black man who helps white heroes to find their missing mojo, watch The Legend of Bagger Vance, or The Green Mile, or that Big Red commercial I keep seeing. And if you liked The Sixth Sense, rent it again: There's nothing for you here.

In hopes of equally explosive results, Unbreakable lifts its plot wholesale from its predecessor. As in The Sixth Sense, we open with a lethal trauma--this time, it's a train wreck instead of a gunshot. Our hero, who survives, struggles with the questions raised by the incident while separately trying to mend a broken marriage. There are some gross-out scenes, and, before the credits roll, a parent has tearfully reconciled with a child. And then--surprise--there's a big twist. But where The Sixth Sense had Haley Joel Osment in a hospital bed, confiding his secrets in pained whispers, Unbreakable has Samuel L. Jackson in a purple Lord Fauntleroy suit and a wheelchair, spewing lines like, "Comic books are the last link to an ancient way of passing on history" and "Water is your kryptonite."

In The Sixth Sense, you had two wounded people grappling with a great mystery, swerving between faith and doubt while they decided whether to trust one another. The answers they found, and the mysteries that were revealed, served to heal the rifts in their relationships with the people they loved most. In Unbreakable, you have a sissified know-it-all (Jackson) trying to convince a dolt (Willis) that he's a superhero. (Like those dead people, our hero walks around like regular folks, except when he's bench-pressing incredible amounts of weight and ripping open burning cars.) Despite what you'd think, Willis's character is slow to take interest in the prospect, and his disdain is contagious. Before long, everyone seems to have lost interest in the question, much less the answer. The great mystery here is what this flat-footed, tin-eared, thuddingly unspectacular tale is actually about.

Nevertheless, Unbreakable does serve a purpose in that it identifies the likely magic-makers behind The Sixth Sense through their conspicuous absence here. Present and accounted for are Shyamalan, producers Barry Mendel and Sam Mercer, Bruce Willis, and a wooden decoy that looks suspiciously like Haley Joel Osment. Absent are the actual Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, director of photography Tak Fujimoto, and producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy. The result: All of the same elements, none of the same effect.

This reminds me of yet another movie in which the appearance of a mysterious black man sparks an eventual reawakening in the lives of our white heroes: Six Degrees of Separation. I'm thinking specifically of the scene in which Donald Sutherland's character visits his children's school to find out why the paintings by a certain class are so unbelievably good. "I know when to take them away," the teacher tells him. Clearly, a director whose last film earned $700 million worldwide has fewer people lining up to take the painting away this time around. More's the pity. At least Shyamalan nails the meta-metaphor: Unbreakable is indeed a train wreck from start to finish.

 
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