Back in the early sixties, a child was born with broken limbs, the result of a rare bone disease. Now, in the present day, he is Philadelphia comic book collector Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), and he is still afflicted with the condition, but takes solace in his passion for comics. Soon he will have reason to contact David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a security guard who a few days before had been travelling on a train into the city, trying and failing to make a connection with an attractive woman who sat down beside him then moved away thinking he was making advances towards her. That would mean very little after what happened next...
Going back to look at writer and director M. Night Shyamalan's earlier films is a tricky proposition, as he blotted his copybook with a selection of increasingly ridiculous works, as if his ingenuity ran out like the sand in an hourglass, leaving nothing that impressed anybody very much. Although he became a figure of fun in many quarters, it was a genuine shame that he squandered what was, with his first two hits, a very promising career, and while he was not wanting for work over the next decade after The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, there were few willing to do much with his efforts other than jeer at them.
So with all the later disappointments in mind, how did Unbreakable, for many his best film, stand up? The answer was that if you could set aside all that baggage, it was a slow building but undeniably well-crafted piece that operated as one of the huge number of comic book adaptations released around the turn of the millennium, but stood apart from them to examine their conventions. Not that Shyamalan was shy about making those associations, as after all there were plenty of allusions and references to this being set in a world of fiction, but they were approached with a sombre mind, and if society has felt the need for superheroes all the more in the years since, it could be that this arrived a little too early.
In its way Unbreakable anticipated the atmosphere that would settle like a stormcloud over the world after the events of the year that followed, and terrorism became the byword for all that had gone wrong, whether it was carried out by organisations or lone obsessives. Here Dunn is involved in a dreadful train crash of which he is the sole survivor; this attracts the attention of Elijah, who latches onto David's lack of injury as proof that he is an actual, real live superhero possessed of superpowers. David is understandably sceptical at first, but as if mirroring Elijah's feelings, his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), already reeling that his parents may be splitting up, needs to believe in his father to exaggerated proportions.
You might say, superpowered proportions. Of course, if you've seen enough movies on the origin of such characters, you'll be well aware that invariably they do turn out to save the day with their newfound abilities, and this film is no different. Shyamalan used subtle-but-not-really imagery to underline his protagonist's otherness and uniqueness, but also to show that relationship between saviour and saved and villain is not necessarily a healthy one. For Joseph, his drive to have his dad be the bestest one on the entire planet leads him to a kind of psychosis, and for Elijah the stakes are even higher, not only to his fragile body. We take these bonds for granted in most of the genre, but Unbreakable foreshadowed The Dark Knight in its unwavering examination of what makes the inhabitants of these stories tick, and the answers which emerged were troubling, as perhaps they should be. If you're writing off this filmmaker, then remember he had one truly excellent work in his canon, once upon a time. Music by James Newton Howard.
Indian-born, American-raised writer and director, whose forte is taking cliched fantasy stories and reinventing them with low-key treatment, usually with a child at the heart of them. After gentle comedy Wide Awake, he hit the big time with supernatural drama The Sixth Sense. Superhero tale Unbreakable was also successful, as was the religious alien invasion parable Signs. Shyamalan's mystery drama The Village was seen as ploughing the same furrow for too long by some, and his fantasies Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth (which he didn't conceive the plot for) were met with near-universal derision. On a lower budget, he made The Visit, which was cautiously received as a partial return to form, and Split, which was his biggest hit in some time. He also co-wrote Stuart Little.