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What if Superman was here on earth... but he didn't know he was Superman?
Unbreakable is a Psychological Thriller that's also a Deconstruction of the Superhero genre. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, the film stars Bruce Willis as security guard David Dunn and Samuel L. Jackson as comic book art gallery owner Elijah Price.
Unbreakable begins with the birth of Elijah, whose mother discovers that he has been born with osteogenesis imperfecta (which makes his bones as fragile as glass) and that he was born with broken arms and legs. The film then jumps to the present day where David, on his way home to Philadelphia from New York, ends up in a horrific train crash that kills everyone but him -- and David himself is perfectly healthy and unharmed.
Elijah makes contact with David and theorizes that if Elijah is on one end of the spectrum (frail and brittle), then there must be someone in the world who is on the other end of the spectrum -- and he believes David to be this person. In addition to being (allegedly) Made of Iron, David also seems to have a subconscious ability to "read" people and know the evil things they have done...or are about to do.
David doubts the theory that he's a Real Life superhero, but the possibility leads to some deep self-examination. He begins to wonder whether it's possible that he's never been hurt in his life or if it's all coincidence and selective memory (and whether his alleged extra-sensory powers are all just in his imagination). David starts considering how the theory, if true, could affect his purpose in life and his family's failing happiness, especially after being the lone survivor of a train crash (both of which have already caused him deep depression). After all of that, David has to ask himself the most important question: is the risk he'll take to discover the truth worth it?
Unbreakable has a hell of a ending, and it's pretty much the only ending to a Shyamalan film that hasn't become an "It Was His Sled" ending. If you haven't seen the movie yet, avert your eyes from the spoilers below and see it for yourself.
This film provide examples of:
- Achilles Heel: Elijah is confused that David almost drowns just like anyone else, until he remembers that every superhero needs a specific weakness.
- Adult Fear: The scene when David's son finds and loads his gun. Dear God.
- Affably Evil: Elijah
- Alliterative Name: David Dunn, most fittingly.
- Animation Age Ghetto: In-universe. Elijah refuses to sell a rare piece of comic book art to a father who is only looking for a gift for his four-year-old son, rather than someone who would appreciate the work of art.
- Appropriated Appellation: Elijah takes his childhood nickname of "Mr. Glass" as his supervillain name. He lampshades this when he reveals it to David.
- Ascended Fanboy: Elijah. He used to read tons of comics in his lonely childhood, and became what is essentially a real-world supervillain.
- Author Appeal: It was Samuel L. Jackson (himself a major comic book geek) who suggested that purple be the theme color for Elijah. This is because purple is Jackson's favorite color, and is also the reason why he uses a purple lightsaber in the Star Wars prequels.
- Badass Cape: Played with. It's not a cape, it's a rain poncho, but it undeniably makes David look more badass during his first foray into superheroism.
- Bald of Awesome: When Bruce Willis isn't asked to don a hairpiece, You know You're in for something good.
- Berserk Button: Don't ever suggest to Elijah that comic books are just for kids.
- Bittersweet Ending: David is a superhero now...but his friend and mentor Elijah is actually his fated arch nemesis and comitted to a mental instution. To make it even more bittersweet, Elijah is happy about this outcome, as he finally knows where he belongs in life.
- The Cape: David is definitely this type of superhero. He even dons a rain poncho that looks somewhat like a cape.
- Underlined by a shot near the end of the film, when David comes home after saving the two girls; he hangs his guard's poncho up and the camera lingers on the word SECURITY on the back.
- Cheap Costume: A humble poncho. David still manages to make it look good, though, especially in the newspaper artist's recreation.
- Clark Kenting: Subverted; David has been unknowingly doing this his entire life, unaware of his true nature as The Hero.
- Played straight at the end though, only Elijah and Adam are aware of his secret as he accepts his destiny.
- Color Coded for Your Convenience: A deliberate addition to the style of the film. Like comic book characters, many of the people David encounters wear a signature colour. David's is green. Elijah's is purple. And like The Sixth Sense red has a very major symbolism in the train station.
- Also, whenever David senses someone has done or is planning to do something wrong, they are wearing bright colors or some other distinctive clothing that makes them stand out from the crowd.
- As shown in one of the behind the scenes features on the DVD, the wardrobe department played to this by having each character dress in more muted coloured versions of their outfits initially, with the colours becoming more vivid as their heroic/villainous aspects became more apparent.
- Combo-Platter Powers: David has superhuman strength, is at least Made of Iron if not Nigh Invulnerable, and can also see a person's evil deeds by touching them.
- Comes Great Responsibility: Embraced by David, who ended his sports career and started working as a security guard because he feels an urge to help and protect people.
- Create Your Own Villain: Inverted. Elijah kills hundreds of people in order to find a real-life superhero, then convince him to follow The Call.
- Creator Cameo: M Night Shyamalan plays a drug dealer.
- Dangerously Genre Savvy: Elijah, almost literally.
- Dead Sparks: David's marriage.
- Deconstruction: This shows us a very dark version of the idea of a superhero, and of someone being Genre Savvy.
- Evil Cripple
- Executive Meddling: The reason this movie was directed and billed as a psychological thriller rather than a superhero origin story as Shyamalan originally intended. Arguably, this resulted in a more interesting and unique film.
- Foreshadowing: Lots. Most notably every establishing shot of Elijah through his life being framed in a glass object (mirror, television, picture display panel) and his mother noting "They say this one has a surprise endin'!" Details like this make the movie equally entertaining during repeat viewings.
- Genius Cripple: Elijah. Which is not a very good thing.
- Genre Deconstruction: Deconstructed the "Real-world Superhero" long before that trope became popular.
- Genre Savvy: Elijah. And his genre-savviness killed hundreds of people.
- Heel Realization: "I should've known way back when. You know why David? Because of the kids! They called me Mr. Glass."
- Heroic Bystander: The two kids who David rescues near the end of the film end up saving him from drowning. Definitely a crowner.
- I Just Want to Be Normal: David until he accepts the calling.
- I Just Want to Be Special: Elijah has this bad. Mostly due to his medical condition.
- Immune to Bullets: Played for drama when David's son threatens to prove Elijah's theory while pointing a gun at David. Ultimately an Aversion, since David manages to talk him out of it and we never learn what would have happened if David got shot.
- Infant Immortality: Horribly subverted. In a deleted scene, David asks a bishop about what happened, how he can be fine when his watch was crushed like it'd been hit by a sledgehammer. The bishop then angrily reveals that the kid on the train in front of David was his grandnephew... now remember the state of David's watch.
- Indecisive Medium: With references to Comic Book visuals, by positioning the characters in door frames, and such.
- Lantern Jaw of Justice: When showing off a piece of comic book art to a prospective client, Elijah explains how the square jaw is common to superheroes, while supervillains have more pointed facial features. Later, a sketch artists rendering of the the hero who saved the kids (David) is given a jawline to rival Dick Tracy.
- Law of Conservation of Detail: Like nearly all of his films, Shyamalan intricately controls almost every line of dialogue to have some significance. Listen carefully to the first scene between David and a train passenger, it all feels very natural but reveals a lot of current and future story elements.
- Kryptonite Factor: Explicitly acknowledged in the film, as every hero has some weakness.
- Made of Iron: Justified with David.
- Made of Plasticine: Justified with Elijah.
- Meaningful Rename: Elijah declares himself 'Mister Glass', after the name the other kids used to call him due to his condition. It's a stark contrast to David, who pretty much assumes the name of the film with his 'power'.
- Meta Casting: John McClane is Unbreakable, who knew?
- My Dad Can Beat Up Your Dad: Made especially ironic/funny when Potter says this to Joseph, who turns away so Potter won't see his smirk because he knows what his dad can do. And then it turns dark when Joseph nearly shoots David because he wants to know if it'll bounce off.
- Nigh Invulnerability: Deconstructed by the movie. It leads to serious Survivors Guilt. With Bruce Willis playing the hero it has added significance.
- The Oner: At least half the shots in the film; during several conversations the camera will pan between closeups rather than cutting.
- Painting the Fourth Wall: At one point, we switch scenes to find David, Audrey, and Joseph in the kitchen. Joseph is pointing David's gun at his father. The audience has to figure out what happened and how Joseph got the gun despite their shock, just like David does.
- Playing Against Type: Samuel L. Jackson plays the near mirror-opposite of his previous roles: a weak, fragile, soft-spoken character.
- Psychic Powers: David can see people's evil deeds.
- Serious Business: When Elijah is first seen as an adult, he is speaking about the artistic merit of a very valuable concept sketch for a comic character, and the customer says he'll take it. Elijah walks out while congratulating him on his purchase, but stops when the man remarks that "My kid's gonna go berserk." Elijah then tears into the man.
Elijah: Once again, please?
Customer: My son Jeb, it's a gift for him.
Elijah: How old is "Jeb?"
Customer: He's four.
Elijah: No. No, no, no, no, NO. You need to go. Now.
Customer: W-What did I say?
Elijah: Do you see any Teletubbies here? Do you see a slender plastic tag clipped to my shirt with my name on it? Did you see a little Asian child with a blank expression sitting outside in a mechanical helicopter that shakes when you put quarters in it? No? Well, that's what you'd see at a toy store. And you must think you you're in a toy store, because you're here shopping for an infant named Jeb. Now, one of us has made a gross error, and wasted the other person's valuable time. This is an art gallery, my friend, and this is a piece of art.
- Shout-Out: Elijah's hairstyle is based on Frederick Douglas'
- Given the movie's comic book themes, there is a subtle one that is Fridge Brilliance on later viewings. As has been mentioned, the color theme that goes with Elijah is purple, and his office has a large Egyptian pictoral behind his chair, both of which are references to Ozymandias from Watchmen. It's Fridge Brilliance after you've seen both movies, and know that both of them are actually secretly the villain of the work.
- Sole Survivor: David, in a train wreck.
- Superhero: Deconstructed. Unrealized sequels could have been intended as a Reconstruction.
- Super Drowning Skills: Played with. David has a phobia of water due to a childhood incident. It's shown that David may be invulnerable, but he still requires oxygen, so he can drown just like anyone else.
- Super Strength: Though it requires immense effort, helping explain why it wasn't realized before The Call. The film never actually confirms the upper limits to David's strength: they run out of weights to put on the bar for him to lift and put several heavy objects on top of that. (A deleted scene shows the total in excess of 500lbs.) David wasn't aware of this, as he never pushed himself beyond what he thought he could do. It's almost Strong as They Need to Be.
- He's able to rip the door off a (crashed) car. With one hand.
- Leading one to believe he could be at least as strong as a hydraulic rescue tool (the Jaws of Life) which are capable of applying 10,000 PSI of pressure!
- This Is the Part Where: "I think this is where we shake hands."
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: In-story, Elijah believes that the concept of the superhero, dating back to the epic heroes of the ancient world, was inspired by real-life people with superhuman qualities.
- What Could Have Been: The Unbreakable Trilogy. However, not being such a success, it's just a stand alone story.
- M. Night has said he is waiting for the right script, then he will beg Disney to make the sequel.
- Which is a bit odd, since the film was expanded from just the first act of the original script, due to it being the only part of the story that Shyamalan felt any passion for.
- Besides, the trilogy's already done - 1) The Sixth Sense, 2) Unbreakable and 3) Signs.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Elijah Price. He wanted to give the world a hero and he did, no matter what it took.