“Comics are capable of being anything the mind can imagine. I consider it a great privilege to be a cartoonist. I love my work, and I am grateful for the incredible forum I have to express my thoughts. People give me their attention for a few seconds every day, and I take that as an honor and a responsibility. I try to give readers the best strip I’m capable of doing.”- Bill Watterson, author of Calvin & Hobbes.
//Spoilers in post
Growing up in a time, when the only form of entertainment i had was going to the movies in a theater, or listening to the radio, and of course endless hours in the sun, during holidays, my only other pastime as a kid, was reading comics. Sure i had the reputation of being a book worm, reading anything and everything that came my way. But comics was a special fascination. I guess it had more to do with the age old funda of “A Picture is worth a thousand words”. I loved comics, and just laid my hands on whatever i could, it was quite an eclectic mix ranging from Tintin, Asterix to Disney to Marvel Comics to Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle and last but not the least, the entire gamut of Indrajal heroes Phantom, Flash Gordon, Bahadur. You think debates on movies and actors can raise passions, hah, that was nothing compared to the fist fights that often broke out, when we debated our favorite comic book heroes. While becoming an adult meant comics, were to be looked down upon, and you read only the novels, there still was some kind of love for the comics. But then reading them in public, was something of a no no, “You still reading comics, even though you are grown up?”. One good thing about the Noughties was the renewed interest in comics again. One was of course movies like Sin City, Spiderman series, Dark Knight that made me go back to the comics, another was that becoming a Dad, meant that i could indulge in my pleasure, along with my daughter without having to look sheepish, and last but not the least, buying comics did not really pinch the wallet.
But much as i love comics, i am not sure if would be as obsessed as Elijah Price( Samuel .L. Jackson) in Unbreakable, who seems to sleep, eat, breathe and drink them. Or maybe its more a result of his own fragile physical condition.
There are probably only four or five individuals in the world who can claim more knowledge of comics than myself. I’ve spent a third of my life in a hospital bed with nothing else to do but read. I have studied the form intimately. I have seen the patterns in them… The references to social and cultural events and the atmosphere that surrounded them. I’ve come to believe that comics are our last link to the ancient way of passing on history.
Actually that is the first time, i actually heard some one about comics in that light, even if it were a movie. Many of us do read comics, and quite often fantasize about the characters. But the difference is, Elijah Price, actually took them seriously, unlike most of us, who just see it as some kind of pulp stuff, to be read and discarded. But then it could have to do with his own physical condition, diagnosed with a very rare disease, commonly known as the brittle bones syndrome, i believe it’s scientific name is Osteogenesis imperfecta, that causes the bones to break easily. It is this disease that makes him rather secluded, cut off from the outside world, and the comics for him is not just another diversion, its a world he lives every moment in. The super heroes he reads about in comics are the polar opposite of him, people who never seem to get injured or hurt, people who are indestructible or “unbreakable” as you would rather take it.
Now while his views about comics may seem delusional, some of them do actually strike you as truthful, as his observations about Egyptians, depicting the history of their battles on the walls, through pictures. In fact, its not just the Egyptians, you do find this kind of pictorial depiction across all civilizations ranging from the cave paintings of the early men to the rock cut sculptures we have in our ancient Indian temples, as well as the paintings in the palaces, to the symbols inscribed upon by the totem poles by the Red Indians, and the paintings by the Chinese, some way or other, pictures have always been used to depict the history and life of a people. But Elijah’s search is something else deeper, he believes that if there could be some one like him, so fragile, so delicate, there would be some one else at the other end of the spectrum. A mighty super hero, who can never be injured, can never be defeated, can never be conquered, in short the “unbreakable” person, only Elijah feels that such a person exists in real life.
His feeling comes from the experiences of David Dunn( Bruce Willis), a security guard in Philadelphia, leading what seems to be a normal life. But David is not what seems to be your average Joe, he is the only person who has survived a horrifying train accident, that has killed around more than 100 passengers. And he actually has not sustained a single scar, bruise or injury during the accident, apart from being knocked out unconscious. Something which even the doctors, are confounded by. David’s concerns are however more earthy, his relationship with wife Megan( Robin Wright Penn) is going down, as she tells him when he asks her to sleep in our room, “It stopped being our room, a long while ago”. David’s son Jeremy however idolizes his father, he believes him to be a hero. What i loved here is the way director Shyamalan keeps building up the leads to David’s character. The first lead being the card asking him “How many days of your life, have you been sick?”. Unlike most of the superhero movies, where the character discovers his strengths with almost immediate effect, here the build up is more gradual. In fact for a major part of the movie, we are as unsure as David is, whether he is a super hero or not.
Something which Elijah feels he is. Elijah’s fascination for the comic book superheroes is something that is established right up in a flashback, when his mother gifts him a comic book. But for him comics are a form of high art, they are something to be pondered over philosophically. As he explains to a client, about the significance of an art work, featuring the super hero Slayer locked in combat with the villain Jaguaro, the hero having a square jaw head, and the villain’s head being slightly disproportionate to the size of his body. Now this is again a common feature in most art forms, the best example i can think of being the greenish mask for the hero and the reddish green hues for the anti hero characters in Kathakali. Now assuming that comics do follow some standard guidelines, while depicting the characters, why are they not classified as art? I feel it lies in the explanation Elijah gives at the end of it
When the characters eventually made it to the magazine, they were always exaggerated,.. as always happens.
So was it like the creators of comics, actually had some artistic sensibilities, but which were commercialized for business purposes? Again no straight answer there, but the fact that Unbreakable actually made me keep thinking and raising those questions, shows its triumph. Elijah is furious, when he comes to know that the business client wants to buy that painting for his 4 year old son, for him it is unacceptable, that a work of art, could be so trivialized in this manner.
I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome- Friedrich Nietschze, Thus Spake Zarathustra.
On a deeper level, though Unbreakable is a more philosophical quest, the age old question of man and Superman, the one which seeks to find the real person within us. The quest here is by Elijah, but he is not seeking the superman within himself, he is seeking it in the world around him. And he is convinced that David is the answer to his question.
If there is someone like me in the world, and I’m at one end of the spectrum…Couldn’t there be someone the opposite of me, at the other end?A person who can’t be hurt like the rest of us. A kind of person they were talking about in those stories.
David however is not too convinced, after all he had an accident, that put and end to his football career. Elijah looks more like a scamster for him, some one who is trying to rip him off. Elijah however is now even more convinced, that David is the one, especially the fact that he works as a stadium security guard.
You could have poured coffee in Starbucks, you could have learned to install track lighting in office buildings, you could have told people their horoscopes on the internet… You could have been one of ten thousand things… but in the end, you chose to protect people. You made that decision… and I find that very, very interesting.
Elijah is convinced that underneath David’s seemingly normal persona, lies a super hero waiting to be found out. The super hero he has been seeking all life, for whom David is the Holy Grail he has been in search of. This is what makes the interaction between those 2 characters so fascinating, one searching for the truth, and finding it, and the other reluctant to accept it. In another excellent scene, Elijah tracks a person, whom David had earlier apprehended at the stadium. David calls it just “gut instinct” and nothing more than that, Elijah however tracks him to the subway, and then the camera closely tracks him slipping down, falling the stairs, and he sees that the man was indeed armed.
One really chilling scene in the movie is when David’s son, who by now totally convinced about his father being invincible, tries to fire at him with a revolver. His belief is that his Dad would not die. The way David talks his son out of it, trying to convince him, he is after all mortal, he is not God, is brilliantly done. In one way, the scene also showcases the perils of blind adulation, which David does not want his son to suffer from. Unbreakable is more about the relationships, but primarily the 3 major ones are between David and his wife, trying to save a marriage that is on the rocks, between David and his son Jeremy, the latter idolizing his father as a hero, the former trying to prove to him, he is only human, and of course the most important one between David and Elijah. It is the way Shyamalan handles these relationships, that make the movie fascinating.
Unbreakable for me is Shyamalan’s finest work to date, i would rate it much higher than The 6th Sense. Supernatural beings, ghosts and aliens from outer space is something the average American is fascinated, which is what Shyamalan dealt about with in 6th Sense and Signs. Unbreakable was however a bit more deeper, looking at the human fascination for the super heroes, but more importantly, the psychological desire to reach out to some one on the other side, the human fascination with a person who is above you. The fascination a normal looking person has for a beautiful looking one, or the awe with which an academically average student looks up to the class topper, or a normal middle class Joe being swayed by the rich and the powerful. But why does Elijah carry his desire to obsessive levels, why does he so want to reach out to David, remind him of his super heroic abilities? I believe it lies in the way the movie is spaced out. Many have criticized the “twist” in the end, or maybe they were expecting another 6th Sense kind of twist, but if one observes Elijah’s motivations, and his interaction with David, what happens in the end makes perfect sense.
Unbreakable also is helped by some excellent performances by the cast. Bruce Willis going away from his Die Hard image, comes up with a restrained and excellent portrayal of a person, who begins to rediscover himself, as also having to deal with the people around him. His acting especially in the scene, where he talks his son out of firing at him with the pistol was pretty good. Samuel Jackson, of course steals the show, and it helps he has some of the best lines in the movie. One part that i particularly loved, when he cooly holds up a comic book, asking the store clerk the price, this after he has made a mess out of half of the store. Robin Wright Penn as Megan and Spencer Treat Clark, as his son Jeremy, put in good supporting acts. Makes me wonder though what has happened to Shyamalan of late, Village was the last good movie i liked, though the climax made no sense to me. Unbreakable shows that he is too good a director to be kept down for too long.