Lightning will almost certainly not strike twice for the combination of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan and star Bruce Willis, at least in terms of box-office receipts. Unbreakable — their follow-up to the immensely successful, Oscar-nominated The Sixth Sense — is simply too complex, too convoluted and, ultimately, too downbeat to repeat that success (or, in all probability, even come near it). Shyamalan was in an unenviable position from the start. Almost anything he might have done was likely to be found wanting after The Sixth Sense. But with Unbreakable, he seems to be actively courting critical and commercial disaster. The general tone of reviews to date would suggest that he has found it, too, which is unfortunate: All in all, Unbreakable is a better film than The Sixth Sense. It is also far less user-friendly. The very premise of the film is apt to baffle many viewers, since so much of it hinges on the concept of comic books as the modern repository of ancient myth and legend. The concept requires a certain intellectual leap on the part of viewers who consign comic books simply to childhood memories. If the viewer can make this leap, however, it becomes a simple matter to follow the logic of comics as the latest expression of man’s desire to find a superman — a concept as old as time. In Unbreakable, Shyamalan presents a potential superman in the form of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a supposedly ordinary man who survives — without a scratch — a train wreck that kills all the other passengers. This event intrigues Elijah Rice (Samuel L. Jackson), a man with a rare disease (osteogensis imperfecta) that makes his bones as fragile as glass. In fact, Dunn’s very breakable polar opposite believes — with somewhat alarming Nietszchean fervor –that Dunn may well be a bona fide “superhero.” The film then explores this possibility and all its ramifications — some of which do not become clear until the movie’s disconcerting, yet thoroughly logical, climax. It is this climax that will perhaps lose a large portion of Unbreakable’s potential audience. It does indeed provide (somewhat more effectively) the same kind of surprise fans of The Sixth Sense are apt to desire, but is so downbeat and grim that it isn’t what you’d call a crowd-pleaser. Every aspect of the film leads to this point, even if it isn’t apparent until the climax is reached. And when it is reached, everything that went before is turned upside down. With Unbreakable, Shyamalan proves himself not just a filmmaker of ideas (rare enough these days), but a major stylist. The film is never less than beautifully photographed, and presented in a manner where style is perfectly aligned with content and theme. For example, all the moving camerawork involving the “invincible” Dunn is smooth steadicam technology at its finest, while the moving camerawork applied to scenes with the extremely fragile Price is done in an unsteady hand-held manner, neatly underlining the differences between the two characters. Shyamalan is emerging as possibly the most promising of today’s young filmmakers. It’s unfortunate that he may have hit a brick wall with, ironically, his best film to date.
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