'Unbreakable' shatters Shyamalan

by Steve Kantor | 12/5/00 6:00am

A great chef doesn't follow a recipe; he innovates. With "Unbreakable," M. Night Shyamalan follows a recipe, and that doesn't make a five-star restaurant, or even a two-star movie.

The writer/director thrust himself into the public eye with last year's "The Sixth Sense," garnering multiple Academy Award nominations while earning popular and critical acclaim. With "Unbreakable," however, Shyamalan shatters his reputation as an artist. His latest film, while flagrantly plagiarizing from a popular book, reveals that Shyamalan, under the semblance of genre, follows a paint-by-numbers approach to screenwriting, relying on formula for box office success.

The Shyamalan formula consists of four parts. First, Bruce Willis. The actor starred in "The Sixth Sense" as a protagonist with extraordinary qualities which, at first, he does not recognize. His role in "Unbreakable" fits the same description - while his "Sixth Sense" character is unknowingly a ghost, David Dunne, his role in Shyamalan's latest cinematic travesty, is not aware that he is impervious to physical harm. The similarity is not the actor's fault, it's the screenwriter's. Either Shyamalan can't direct without Willis, or he can't write for any other actor.

A problem-plagued relationship sub-plot is the second ingredient in Shyamalan's sour cinema stew. In "The Sixth Sense," Willis and wife can't communicate (because he's dead). "Unbreakable" sees Dunne and wife Megan (Robin Wright) on the verge of divorce. In both films, the love between man and woman is re-affirmed.

The third glaringly obvious component is a male child actor, wise beyond his years, who shares an uncommon bond of communication with Willis. "The Sixth Sense" launched Haley Joel Osment to fame when he uttered, "I see dead people;" Spencer Treat Clark (Lucius in this past summer's "Gladiator") plays Jeremy, who while lacking supernatural powers, speaks with the same maturity as his Sixth Sense counterpart.

The fourth and most hideously apparent ingredient in Shyamalan's formula is a surprise plot twist 60 seconds before the closing credits. In "The Sixth Sense," this revelation comes when Willis realizes that he's twelve months in the grave (everyone's seen the movie by now, so it's OK to talk about the ending). A similar epiphany occurs just at the end of "Unbreakable," as well. Both endings invite repeat viewings, wherein the final surprise becomes more and more obvious.

Shyamalan has written and directed two other films, 1992's "Praying With Anger" and 1998's "Wide Awake," both of which were well received critically but met with mediocre ticket sales. With "The Sixth Sense," Shyamalan hit it big. He wanted to do it again, make another film to generate media buzz and, most importantly, box office revenue, so he went back to "The Sixth Sense" and used its most important elements to make "Unbreakable." Doing so, Shyamalan perpetrates a crime on the audience and the film community - he attempts to pass off a cookie-cutter movie as art. Art is about truth, and the only truth that Shyamalan reveals is his lack of integrity.

"Unbreakable" also rips off Stephen King's "The Dead Zone," published in 1987. In addition to his resistance to illness and injury, David Dunne is able to separate criminals from the innocent by touch - when he brushes against a bad guy, Dunne gets a mental image of his past crimes. The protagonist of "The Dead Zone" has a very similar ability, and becomes a political assassin, killing a senator to prevent him from starting World War III. "The Dead Zone," like every other Stephen King novel, is an international best-seller; it was also made into a fairly successful film. Shyamalan is either plagiarizing outright, or he commits the lesser but still grievous crime of unoriginality.

What's especially sad about "Unbreakable" is that Shyamalan has a good cinematic eye and often puts cinematographer Eduardo Serra to good use. The beginning of the second scene of the film, a dialogue between Dunne and a sports agent, is shot between two train seats; the camera shifts from side to side, alternating between capturing Willis and his companion. It's unfortunate that such cleverness behind the camera lens is wasted on a movie built from a pre-existing prototype.

Similarly, Shyamalan's use of theme is squandered. Another recurring motif is that of objects appearing upside down - a television screen, a comic book, a menacing figure in a camouflage jacket, etc. The writer/director uses this to emphasize his theme of opposites - everything that should be right-side-up can be upside-down as well, an idea that is central to the movie's twist. Adding a good theme to a bad movie, however, is like adding great icing to a moldy cake; it seems sweet at first but is awfully hard to swallow.

Artists don't imitate anyone else, not even themselves. Shyamalan's "Unbreakable" is built on a thirteen-year-old premise and is organized according to a formula, but it has been introduced to the public as a statement. The only truth put forward by this movie is one of the corruption of artistic integrity by Hollywood fame and money.