Friday Flashback: In the Year 2000 with UNBREAKABLE

Friday Flashback: In the Year 2000...


represents something of an anomaly in the annals of comic and super-hero related films. It’s one of the few films to tread into the genre as an original concept rather than an adaptation. It was the second release of a director that was experiencing a rocket-like rise, but whom would later become something of a pop culture punchline due to some wrong-headed choices. It stars two men that are rather famous for action films and gives them roles that would be rather action-oriented in another film, but here figure as mostly deliberate and passive. The year was 2000; let’s see what was going on . . .

2000 in general: Becky and I got married, so that’s pretty much the most important event that year as far as I’m concerned. You might remember that the year started with either a letdown or hilarity; if you were totally insane and thought that the Y2K bug meant societal collapse, then you were probably let down, and if you didn’t buy the hype, then you probably spent some time laughing at your neighbor’s extinction-level event shelter. AOL merged with Time Warner. There was an election, which . . .ah, hell, let’s just move on.


2000 in Film:
Aside from today’s topic, you had the arrival of X-Men at your local theatre. The film is a hit, and Hugh Jackman becomes a star. Other big movies include Mission: Impossible II, Gladiator, the live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and The Perfect Storm.


2000 in Music:
During the TeenPopalypse, *NSYNC sells 2.4 million copies of “No Strings Attached” in its debut week. Metallica girds its loins for battle with Napster. Britney Spears releases “Oops!…  I Did It Again” which sells 20 million copies, making the best-selling disc by a female artist during the decade (soul crushing, is it not?). Eminem also racked up huge sales when “The Marshall Mathers LP” did 1.76 million in its first week. Keen observers may note that MTV was still playing music videos in 2000, although those viewings would drop precipitously in the next couple of years.


2000 in Comics:
2000 was a rough year for legends and talent in the field, as Charles Schulz, Goseki Kojima, Don Martin, Gil Kane, Steven Hughes, Dick Sprang, Chic Stone, Alfredo Alcala, George Roussos, Dorothy Woolfolk, Pat Boyette and the otherwise immortal Carl Barks all passed away. On the narrative front, Grant Morrison concluded his storied run on JLA with the “World War III” arc. The Ultimate line debuted at Marvel with Ultimate Spider-Man.

Back to Unbreakable. One of the things that makes this film so interesting is that it did essentially happen in a sort of vacuum. The Batman franchise was dead. The Superman franchise was long dead. For comic-based films in the ‘90s, you’d had two good ones (The Rocketeer and The Crow), two box office or critical failures (The Shadow and The Phantom) , and a hit that a lot of people didn’t actually realize was a comic at all (Blade. Seriously, many, many people had no idea that Blade was a comic book character when it was trailered.) X-Men beat Unbreakable to theaters by four months, but clearly, M. Night Shyamalan wasn’t chasing X-Men, as he’d sold the spec script to Disney in 1999 in the wake of his triumph with The Sixth Sense.

Shyamalan’s approach here was basically an attempt to decode the super-hero origin story and put it in an entirely real world dramatic context. The film moves at a very deliberate pace precisely because it attempts to echo real life, a place where things of import frequently just don’t happen. The difficult marriage of David and Audrey, Elijah’s medical condition . . . these things are rendered in a painfully real way.

Of course, the fundament of the story is Shyamalan’s examination and explanation of comic book tropes. Certain scenes of the film echo panel construction with the framing of characters. More than once Elijah (or his mother) remark on the ways that books were written and draw that offer meta-commentary on the unfolding plot. David’s double-initial, his job in security, the cape-like nature of his poncho . . . all of these things reflect and comment upon the object of the writer/director’s interest in comics.

While Unbreakable did decently well at the box office, it labored under two things. One was an advertising campaign that suggested Sense when this was really a very different film. The other was the expectations that built up after the “surprise ending” of Sense. This one contains a surprise of sorts if you miss the cues, but Shyamalan is STILL living down his rep as the “twist ending” guy; in fact, his attempts to recreate those kinds of moments have hobbled later films like Signs (WATER?!?! Get the f--- out of here!) and The Village.

Nevertheless, Unbreakable is an important moment in comic-related super-heroic cinema. It demonstrates that original stories of this type can be created and work for film (something that has receded a bit in the wake of wildly successful adaptations). And it demonstrated a great respect for the source material. Whereas most of the original films of this type tend toward comedy and heavy action, this one had the guts to be slow and dramatic. It’s interesting work, and it’s your Friday Flashback.

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