What I've Been Watching: July 2020July 31, 2020, 10:27 PM Criticism, Watching
Unbreakable Series (or the Eastrail 177 Trilogy)
I saw Unbreakable, the first movie in what turned out to be a trilogy from M. Night Shyamalan back when it came out in 2000. I was still in high school, and I remember thinking the movie was cool, but that I wasn't particularly wowed. Shyamalan was riding high in popularity after The Sixth Sense 1999, but I don't think Unbreakable captured the magic he'd found in The Sixth Sense. Sixteen years later, Shyamalan released Split 2016 with James McAvoy. I have a lot of respect for McAvoy and was interested in the movie as a thriller, only to later learn it tied into Unbreakable. Perhaps it was that tie-in that kept me from seeing it right away. Then, of course, Glass came out last year (2019), which unmistakably referred to Samuel L. Jackson's character from Unbreakable. I'm a fan of Jackson and remember thinking his role was the most interesting of the first film. At that point, I was pretty sure I'd watch the series, it just took me a while to get to it.
Now 20 years out from seeing Unbreakable, I thought it was best to go back to the beginning. I'm glad I did, but it meant finding 6-7 hours to dedicate to the series. Altogether, I think the trilogy works very well, and I really enjoyed it. Unbreakable holds up. McAvoy was great in Split. Anya Taylor-Joy, who some might know from The Witch, was an unforeseen delight in Split. Bringing all the fascinating characters crafted through the first two movies, including Taylor-Joy's, to a collective head in Glass was fantastic. On top of that, without giving any spoilers, it's worth discussing the series connection to comic books and, in turn, comic book movies. Obviously, comic book movies have dominated the box office over the last ten years, with Marvel's colossal franchise.
The Unbreakable trilogy is meta, unlike the blockbusters. They're internally aware of comic books and of comic book culture. Marvel and DC movies aren't. Once more, similar to Watchmen (Both the movie and series), Unbreakable takes a dark but realistic look at how regular people react to superpowers or superheroes when they encounter them. In Marvel's movies, the government wants to control the Avengers so that there are some restrictions and accountability for the team's actions. That's a fair notion. In some Batman and Spiderman movies, the police or governments all the heroes vigilantes. However, the people, and secretly some of the authorities all root for them.
In the Unbreakable series, people are not so welcoming. They're more likely to be scared and label "super" differences as marks of insanity. This fear-driven reaction to something different comes off as far more realistic, sadly, in our worlds, making this series of films feel quite a bit more mature than other big-name franchise installments. The X-Men series also shines a light on how people treat those with differences poorly, and people who are radically different terribly, which is why I've enjoyed some of that franchise. It just feels a bit more grown-up. James McAvoy appears in that one too...coincidence?
My enjoyment of the series also forces me to look back at why I wasn't so impressed with Unbreakable back in '99, and I think there are a lot of problems. First, the movie revolves around David Dunn (Bruce Willis) realizing his unusual strength and health, being told by Jackson's character, Mr. Glass that he is a superhero like in a comic book, and then wrestling with whether or not to believe it. It seems like Dunn is in limbo and wrestling with many things in his life, including his marriage. If that is the story, seeing him either reject the idea and willfully go back to a mediocre existence, or seeing him accept it, and become the hero seems to be the endings the movie is building toward, but that is not where the movie ends.
Dunn does go out and do one heroic act, using his powers to save a pair of endangered teens and catch a killer, but we get no indication that is what he plans to keep doing. The movie ends (spoilers) with Dunn telling Glass, and then a big Shymalan, quintessential twist, where Glass reveals he committed mass murders in order to find Dunn, and that Glass is essentially a comic book mastermind type villain. The movie, for me, just ends but does not finish. And that is not better illustration than that the last minute is literally, paragraphs on the screen telling us that Dunn had Glass arrested and sent to jail. Dunn can become a hero, Glass believes himself a supervillain, and all we get is a few paragraphs telling us Dunn reported Glass. It was just a big let down. I think, just five more minutes showing Dunn deciding to become a hero, and acting like one; or, showing Glass and Dunn in conflict, and then GLass flee, so we know the story will continue, would have been far better.
Now, once the other films are taken into account, this ending isn't such a big problem. We know the story is just getting started. The end of Unbreakable just signals the intermission, so to speak, before act two. In this way, it now serves as a setup to a larger story, and it works far better.
In short, Unbreakable was so-so as a stand-alone in 2000, but it turns out it was a compelling start to an exciting and deep trilogy.