M. Night Shyamalan used to be such a promising filmmaker. His breakthrough picture, The Sixth Sense, was a word of mouth sensation. A Hitchockian horror shocker with a whammy of an ending, the film was a massive success, and made Shyamalan's oft-mocked name a household word. His next release, another pairing with Bruce Willis entitled Unbreakable, was highly marketed, but did less than expected at the box office and received mixed critical reception. However, in the wake of Shyamalan's subsequent releases, Signs, The Village, and Lady In The Water, we can now look back at Unbreakable as the last time Shyamalan bothered to make a film with actual character and a story that wasn't made entirely to support a ridiculous twist ending. If only he could have continued in such a strong vein instead of descending into self-parody.
Bruce Willis stars as David Dunn, a security guard with a crumbling marriage. Despite his estrangement from his wife (Robin Wright Penn), the two still live together for the sake of their son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark). However, it looks like they may never get another chance of happiness when a train on which David is riding is derailed, killing everyone inside. Everyone, that is, except David, who is miraculously entirely unharmed. A few days later, he finds a note on his car from Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) suggesting that he might have some answers. Dunn meets Price at his art gallery, devoted to comic books, where Price throws out the theory that Dunn is, in fact, a superhero. At first, Dunn is skeptical, but Joseph is certain that Price is right. And over time, Dunn discovers that he can do more amazing things than he ever even dreamed.
Unbreakable was a comic book film before the genre found a resurgence in popularity with the 2002 release of Spider-Man. This, combined with the fact that it is an original story, and not based on a well-known character, explains why the movie was not well received at the time of its release. However, as comic book movies go, it's better than 90% of the releases in the genre. Shyamalan directs the piece with a sure hand, not overplaying the graphic novel aspects, letting the ideas and visual cues slowly seep in around the edges. While the film does open with a text about comics, and at times a few shots scream "Hey look at me!" but overall Shyamalan is content to let the story flow.
Unbreakable has without a doubt the best characterization of any of Shyamalan's films. Bruce Willis' portrayal as David Dunn is an understated bit of work, proving once again that his acting range is still very underrated. Robin Wright Penn also does a great job as Dunn's wife. Sensitive but hesitant, she's willing to give their relationship another try, but is worried that it's just a false start. Spencer Treat Clark is no Haley Joel Osment, but he's no slouch. He's particularly great in one key scene involving a gun. In fact, Unbreakable also features Shyamalan's best directorial moments: scenes of tension and suspense that are so effective because we care so deeply about the characters.
Perhaps the best cast member is Samuel L. Jackson. Known for playing strong and often loud men, Jackson's role as Price, the man with bones of glass, is some of the most internal work he's ever done. Price is responsible for the "surprise" ending of the film, but unlike Shyamalan's other twist endings, Unbreakable's ending is simply a logical extension of the comic book theme. The movie does not hinge upon the ending, nor is the script written to support it. The picture is about a David's journey and how it affects the people around him, and the ending is simply the resolution of Price's character arc. Price also offers some of the most arresting visuals in the film. From his glass cane to the stunning sequence where he tumbles down a flight of stairs, Price is central to Unbreakable.
That, in a nutshell, is the secret to Unbreakable's success as an artistic venture. Shyamalan tells a straightforward tale with style and quiet confidence. He doesn't try to run rings around the audience or wow us with his "amazing" authorial prowess. He doesn't cast himself in a lead role (he has a small cameo where he doesn't stand out in any way), and has enough faith in his story and his actors to not try and impress anyone, and in so doing ends up with the best and most substantial film of his entire career. Shyamalan should take some notes from his own work if he wants to salvage his catalogue from the one-note joke it's become.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Touchstone Home Entertainment presents Unbreakable in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 in an AVC-encoded 1080p transfer that is one of the weakest Blu-ray discs Disney has yet released. I'll admit I only saw Unbreakable in the theater once, but I cannot imagine that it's as soft as the image is here. At times the detail is so low that I thought I was watching a very clean DVD. And by clean I mean free of artifacts or edge enhancement, not free of dirt. Yes, there's noticeable specks and scratches on the print used for this transfer. A few shots here and there stand out as something you might expect from a 1080p disc, but the majority of the image is decidedly disappointing. And note that I'm not trying to compare the disc against Spider-Man 3 or anything like that. I just think a proper remastering job would have offered a far cleaner and sharper image than what we get.
There are three tracks on this disc. The first is an uncompressed PCM 5.1 mix (48 kHz/24-bit), a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and a French Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The PCM track is quite enveloping, with the rears almost constantly in use. You can hear the train running over the tracks in the beginning, PA announcements at the stadium where David works, and of course the rain in the finale. The pounding bass of the score is palpable, and the dialogue is always clear, even with David's constant mumbling. However, there are audible audio glitches at two points in the film, one around the 8:30 mark and another at 1:28:21. They're short, but hard to miss. They're not present on either Dolby Digital track, but hopefully Disney will offer replacement discs to correct this error.
Unbreakable was originally released in a two-disc set. All of the extras from that released have been ported over in very poor standard definition video. Looking at them now, the selection feels paltry, a sign of how far home video formats have progressed. Interestingly, there's a warning at the beginning of the disc saying that it may take 2-3 minutes for the disc to fully load. Thankfully, on my PS3 there was almost no load time at all.
- Behind The Scenes: This fifteen minute segment is essentially an EPK. We get a few interesting facts about how the comic book themes are woven into the picture, but most of it is the standard "Gosh we all loved working on this movie!" kind of stuff. There is one interesting part where Shyamalan talks about the lure of including an ending that surprises the audience. In the clip, he seems genuinely unsure of when he'll stop using the gimmick. At this point, it seems like the answer is never.
- Comic Books and Superheroes: A nice capsule summary of the progression of comics from bright and sunny to dark and dingy. Such illustrious greats as Will Eisner, Dave Gibbons, and Frank Miller give their thoughts on the superhero genre. It's an interesting feature, and my only gripe is that it runs for twenty minutes. I could easily have watched for an hour or more.
- Deleted Scenes: Half an hour's worth of scenes, with introductions by Shyamalan himself. While some are brief, the scenes are quite interesting, and show how judicious Shyamalan was in cutting the film.
- Multi-Angle Train Station Sequence: A short scene allows you to cut back and forth between the original storyboards and the final cut. Probably an impressive feature when it first debuted, the interactive capabilities of Blu-ray make this look completely obsolete.
- Night's First Fight: A scene from one of Shyamalan's first movie's, shot when he was a kid. By the director's own admission, the clip is awful, but it is funny.
Unbreakable was unfairly maligned upon release, but eight years on, it holds up surprisingly well. And given the rapid and severe decline in Shyamalan's output, Unbreakable may actually look better now than it did back then. Unfortunately, this Blu-ray disc isn't representative of the stellar quality we've come to expect from Disney. The image is soft and lacking detail and the lossless audio has glitches. While all the extras from the DVD are ported over, they're not nearly as substantial as they felt like years ago, and they're offered in very poor quality standard definition. While I wholeheartedly recommend giving Unbreakable a chance, this Blu-ray doesn't offer enough of an improvement over the DVD to warrant the hike in price. Rent It.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.