They say that when you’ve got it, you’ve got it. Then, at some point, you lose it.
That same driving need is shared by one of the film’s major supporting characters, which is a brilliant feat of characterization. But more on that later.
For now, be warned that discussing the movie further without spoilers is effectively impossible. This is a twenty-year-old flick, so if you haven’t seen it, that’s on you.
Getting back to our protagonist, David Dunn--played by the newly cueballed Bruce Willis--is a working class stiff on the wrong end of a midlife crisis. His marriage is on the rocks, and his career has hit a dead end. In an eerily prescient nod to the film’s director, the college football glory days of David’s peak are many years behind him. Walking away from the trainwreck is the first extraordinary event to befall David in decades.
News of David’s miraculous survival brings him into contact with a man named Elijah Price--portrayed by a pre-Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson. Elijah is an art dealer who escaped from the agony of a rare bone disease by immersing himself in comic books.
In a meeting at his gallery, Elijah reveals his theory to David. Comics are the last vestiges of a pictorial history dating back to cave paintings. Their four-color panels preserve a secret history passed down through Egyptian hieroglyphs, stained glass windows, and 15th century woodcuts. Elijah’s life’s work has convinced him that comic books stand at the end of a millennia-long telephone game, transmitting garbled but real information about the human condition.
This is the part they didn’t tell you about in the ads, which was smart, because this is where the movie almost stops working. If anybody other than Samuel L. Jackson had delivered the spiel about a bunch of nice Jewish guys from New York unwittingly carrying the torch passed down from ancient Greek poets and Mayan high priests, Unbreakable would have gone the way of The Happening.
Thankfully, Jackson makes his speech with unflinching sincerity and actually manages to sell the audience on it.
He’s not as successful at selling David on the notion that he survived the crash because he’s a real-life superhero. Or rather, he’s the reality that cape comics only glimpse in a mirror darkly.
Speaking of which, yes, the character names “David” and “Elijah” are thematically significant. More on that in a minute.
David goes home convinced that Elijah is a crank. His son, on the other hand, isn’t as skeptical. Elijah’s influence begins having subtly positive effects on David’s life. Asking his boss how many sick days he’s taken, at Elijah’s suggestion, earns David a small raise for perfect attendance. In a proto-red pill moment, the mere hint that her husband might be the superman rekindles his wife’s desire for him.
In this act, Shyamalan does a fine job exploring the mystery of whether David might really be superhuman. He presents the evidence with just enough plausible deniability and red herrings to keep viewers guessing. Even Elijah has reservations upon learning that David suffered a bout of pneumonia as a child and lost his shot at the NFL due to an injury suffered in a car accident.
The one bit of misdirection that comes off as cheating is the unexplained false positive returned by David’s crime-sensing ESP. It’s not clear why he flagged Jai--director Shyamalan in a recurring cameo--as a drug dealer but failed to turn up any contraband in a subsequent patdown.
Anyway, Elijah manages to prove David’s powers at great personal cost to himself. David uses his abilities to rescue two children held hostage by a madman. It is when he and his friend and mentor Elijah finally shake hands that David’s ESP reveals the twist that Shyamalan has become notorious for.
David is not the only superhuman. Elijah engineered the crash of Eastrail 177--as well as two other mass murders--to find his polar opposite: an invulnerable man to balance his extreme vulnerability.
Elijah at last has proof that his birth was not a mistake. He, too, is a superman--but not a superhero.
“I should have known,” Elijah calls after David as the stunned hero leaves to summon the police. “The kids--they called me Mr. Glass.”
The revelation of a second superhuman retroactively introduces one of Unbreakable‘s main themes at the end of the movie. It’s ground previously trod by the likes of Watchmen and The Wrath of Khan, but Shyamalan’s fresh perspective makes revisiting the morality of the superman worthwhile.
One reason Unbreakable has had such staying power is because of the questions it leaves viewers with at the end. What if superhumans were real? Would they be forces for good or evil? Can ordinary humans even fit superhuman behavior into categories like “good” and “evil”?
David Dunn and Mr. Glass represent opposing answers to these questions--in every detail of their characters. David, as his messianic name implies, is a savior character. His powers--physical integrity and infused knowledge--are the same which prelapsarian man possessed in the garden and which the blessed will possess at the resurrection. He embodies the Christian concept of the superman: a saint who undergoes theosis by grace.
Even David’s weakness to water--which sucks for someone living on a planet whose surface is 70% covered with the stuff--alludes to baptismal immersion as a type of death prior to rebirth in Christ.
Also like the saints, David has a mission. This aspect of his character is poignantly handled when he confides in Elijah about waking up each morning haunted by sadness he can neither shake nor explain. It is only taking up his mission to save the innocent and punish sinners that exorcises this sadness.
Skipping ahead a bit, David’s superhero name turns out to be the Overseer. The Greek word for “overseer” is episkopos, which the Church renders in English as “bishop”.
David’s awakening to his mission by a man named Elijah further testifies to his divine election. David is a divinized soul given special gifts to enforce the precepts of natural and divine law. He exercises his appointed role of Overseer by serving those in his charge.
Mr. Glass, in contrast, is a wholly different type of superhuman. He represents the Campbellian ideal of the superman as posthuman product of evolution. Like the typical evolved humans of sci fi’s silver age, Mr. Glass’ frail body is more than made up for by his superior mind. Unbreakable only hints at Glass’ genius. The third film in the trilogy demonstrates what a mastermind truly is.
Like Star Trek’s Khan Noonien Singh, Mr. Glass believes that his superior status exempts him from moral judgment by lesser men. By his calculus, murdering 500 innocent people to discover the Overseer was not only an acceptable loss--but morally justified.
Glass is more than an ends-means consequentialist who sees the good David will do as proportionally greater than the loss of life he caused. He transcends mere lists of pros and cons with his theory of emergent human evolution. Derailing Eastrail 177 uncovered two supermen and proved Glass’ theory. Since he and David are special, there must be more people out there who are oblivious to how extraordinary they are--perhaps many more.
To Glass’ way of thinking, he’s not just giving the world a superhero, he’s ushering in the next stage of human advancement. What man is fit to judge the maker of supermen?
Mr. Glass shares another trait with other superhumans who fancy themselves above human morality: hubris. David has the power to detect evil, and this power judges Elijah guilty. Since his own superhuman status is contingent upon David’s, Mr. Glass can’t deny David’s judgement without destroying the internal consistency of his own theory.
It’s not clear if that implicit condemnation of Mr. Glass’ actions is deliberate. If it is, a great many critics have grossly underestimated M. Night Shyamalan.
In the final analysis, Unbreakable is a flawed--but not that flawed--masterpiece. Its call to cast off the mediocrity and fear that too often keep us from realizing our potential is sorely needed today.
Until then, here’s some reading material to keep you entertained.
Originally published here.