I recently rewatched Unbreakable with my girlfriend in preparation for the film’s 15th anniversary, and it was my third viewing but her first. After the movie ended, she looked over at me and said, “The Sixth Sense was way better,” which in turn led to at least a ten minute discussion about The Sixth Sense, the quality of the fear it evokes in its viewers, and how well it holds up on repeat viewing. This was followed by a significantly more brief conversation about her indifference over Unbreakable and my admission that it didn’t have as much of an impact on me as it did the first time around.
Later that night I began to wonder exactly why this film didn’t pack as much of a punch as it did 15 years ago, and I realized it was because of the unfair comparison that was being made between it and The Sixth Sense, which was one my 13-year-old self didn’t make at the time of the original release. Although it’s obvious why the M. Night Shyamalan’s best and most important film is brought to the table in reference to Unbreakable due to the timeline and some of the basic similarities, it’s an injustice to judge the quality of these two movies side by side in an assessment that usually leaves Unbreakable standing meekly in the shadows like a ghost of its powerful predecessor.
The reasons for the immediate comparison between Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense are obvious, but many of these reasons are also why both of these films work so well. The similarities that exist are also supporting evidence as to why these two films deserve to stand side by side on equal ground. Shyamalan brings out the best in Bruce Willis, showcasing a restraint and subtlety that remain unique over the course of Willis’ extensive career. In both Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense, Willis’ character spends the duration of the story arc on a journey of self discovery; in one case a discovery of his place and purpose in this world, and in the other that his place and purpose as he knows it no longer exists at all.
In addition to Bruce Willis’ role as the everyman who turns out not to be so ordinary after all, Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense also both feature a young boy who pairs with Willis in father/son capacity either in the literal or figurative sense, and in each of these films the father figure ends up learning more from the boy than he teaches. Partly because of its horror elements and mostly due to the notably remarkable performance by Haley Joel Osment, the character of Cole Sear and his relationship with Dr. Malcolm Crowe are much more memorable than that of Joseph Dunn (Spencer Treat Clark) and David Dunn, although the father-son relationship is one of the most realistic and genuine dynamics in all of Shyamalan’s films.
In Unbreakable, Cole Sear hangs on every word and every action, desperately trying to connect with his father who is oblivious to how his son looks up to him, trying instead to convince Cole – as much as himself – that he’s not a superhero. Only when David Dunn admits to himself that he’s important, that he can make a difference, does he reach out to his son for approval and confirmation, creating the most special moment in the film. Cole’s eyes light up as he realizes both his father and the rest of the world might discover that he’s a hero, which is something he’s been to Cole all along.
Finally, we have the big reveal ending, which is not unique just to these two films, but a signature for movies directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The Sixth Sense makes an appearance and often tops nearly every list that ranks or discusses the best twist endings in film. The climax of The Sixth Sense works so well because it’s embedded in the crafting of the storyline from beginning to end, and it creates an entirely different viewing experience the second time around, increasing the appeal of repeat watches.
Unbreakable, on the other hand, is susceptible to criticism for its lackluster or anticlimactic ending. The reveal, although surprising to most, doesn’t change the way audiences watch the movie as a whole, and it doesn’t provide closure or answers to questions we didn’t know we had, but really, it’s far more important than that. The true identity of Elijah Price as David Dunn’s arch enemy, along with the uneventful repercussions of this reveal and swift wrap-up that follows, intelligently cements the goal of this film as a story that weaves together the concept of hero and villain as we know them in the comic world and in the real world.
The revelation of Elijah Price and the dichotomy of their symbiotic relationship is a nod to the fact that neither the superhero nor the villain exist without one another, for every yin there is always a yang. And although many viewers may be disappointed that this realization doesn’t lead to an epic showdown that involves witty quips and more than a few punches and explosions, that’s the opposite of this film’s intentions. David Dunn walks away, and we discover Elijah Price is subsequently taken down in a much more uneventful way, because although one is a superhero and the other is a villain, the focus is intended to be on how these two archetypes would coexist in the real world, and that’s more original and creative than lazy and disappointing.
David Dunn’s kryptonite is water. It’s his only weakness. After 15 years, Unbreakable’s kryptonite is still The Sixth Sense, and it’s time for Unbreakable to overcome its only weakness. So next time you watch Unbreakable, and there really should be a next time, celebrate both its originality and its similarities to its predecessor, because this film really is heroic.
Featured Image: Buena Vista Pictures