Shyamalan Breaks Down
Original review written: November, 2000
You’ve heard the one about the brilliant new, young director who breaks through with his first feature film that becomes the stuff of legend but then goes on to make an ordinary film the second time around. There are differing schools of thought as to why the sophomore slump exists with filmmakers. Some say the expectations are so high and the pressure so intense to create another masterpiece that they are doomed to fail the second time. Others say the creative genius gets spoiled by success, that the first time, as an unknown, is truly the only shot these geniuses have at being appreciated. The Hollywood machine that swallows them whole after an out-of-nowhere success diminishes their creative juices and tempts them to give in to studio hype and the allure of big stars and even bigger budgets. Steven Spielberg had only one Jaws. Steven Soderbergh had only one sex, lies, and videotape. The Farrelly Brothers had only one There’s Something About Mary. John Singleton had only one Boyz N The Hood. Even Orson Welles would never match his Citizen Kane debut. No matter how hard they tried, there was never that recapturing of that first, breakthrough success. [Full disclosure: Steven Spielberg’s official first film was The Sugarland Express and The Farrelly Brothers directed Dumb and Dumber first, but, for each of these directors, their real breakthroughs and legendary pictures were their next ones.]
So the pressure was on and the expectations were naturally high for the current wunderkind of American cinema, M. Night Shyamalan. His directorial breakthrough, The Sixth Sense, is one of the top ten grossing films of all time, won an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, and catapulted the screenwriter of Stuart Little to international acclaim and to the top of the director-of-the-moment pedestal. As with all the members of the First-Time-A-Blockbuster club, Shyamalan was given the ability to write a blank check for his follow-up. When you gross over $600 million for a studio, as Shyamalan did for Disney with The Sixth Sense, you can do whatever you want. Such is the temptation, and, often, such is the pitfall.
Enter Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s much-anticipated follow-up film. The pressure was on. Shyamalan at least sticks to something familiar, a similar spiritual theme that resonated throughout The Sixth Sense. A mystical film about ordinary human beings carrying extraordinary powers (ala The Sixth Sense), Unbreakable does seem familiar. It even stars the same Hollywood mega-star, Bruce Willis. It even has a working-class mother with certain strengths of her own (played by Toni Collette in the original, Robin Wright Penn in the follow-up) and a pre-teen boy who serves as the emotional center of the film. Unbreakable is stylish and dark, with twists and turns and unexpected surprises. Sound familiar? It is. Except for one key thing: The Sixth Sense had a story from start to finish. What Unbreakable gains in symmetry to its enviable predecessor, it lacks in depth and heart.
It begins powerfully enough, as the first 30 minutes are breathtakingly powerful, establishing parallel stories of two men who are on opposite ends of the gene pool. They become connected and one is made aware, throughout the piece, of some special facets of his existence. Shyamalan’s imaginative capabilities have never been questioned and I’m not questioning them here. He is on par with the great Stephen King in the way he delves within the human psyche and is able to scare the beejeebubs out of us with just the possibilities that lay within our own minds and bodies. But Unbreakable runs out of steam. And runs out of story. It is impossible to describe my critique without giving away key elements of the story, and I will not reveal anything about this story. Even though I discourage you from spending your hard-earned money on this film (the $9 I doled out left me feeling quite pained), I will not ruin it for those who may want to see it. The power of this film is in the unraveling of the story, the pulling off of the layers, and to know anything about it would take away whatever power this film does, in fact, have.
So suffice it to say that the film just runs out of story. The journey to the discovery is wonderful, and a joyride. But once the character has arrived at the destination, the film fizzles. There is almost an hour left of plot contrivances and cliched situations that left me feeling cheated.
If you are expecting another start-to-finish mystical, emotional roller coaster like The Sixth Sense, you will be sorely, sorely disappointed. But, again, had Shyamalan not had the expectations of that film to have to live up to, this film perhaps would be able to stand on its own, for no other reason than his style of film-making is still unique and truly his own. This is a dark, mystical film with disturbing moments and quick edits and stomach-churning twists, but its emotional center is nowhere near the depth of The Sixth Sense. As for the acting, Willis is cold and doesn’t allow himself to give in. And Samuel L. Jackson is wonderfully cast and delivers an amazing performance in an absurd and ultimately farcical character.
It is hard to live up to a smashing debut, I’ll grant you that. But you at least need to give yourself an entire story to begin with. Unbreakable begins with an amazing idea and runs out of gas when it tries to develop that idea into a story. It’s too bad. I worked hard for that $9.
My rating: ** wait for video
Shyamalan should’ve taken more time and not rushed to get out his second film so quickly. The temptation to do a one-two punch must have been monumental, but this film suffers from a lack of through-thought. But what hurts this film the most is the fact that it takes itself FAR too seriously. Shyamalan, it seems, would serve to be humbled a bit, and the failure of this film could do the trick. If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, check out the film’s website: www.areyouunbreakable.com.