Unbreakable is a 2000 American superhero thriller film written, produced, and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, and starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, alongside Robin Wright, Spencer Treat Clark and Charlayne Woodard. It is the first installment in the Unbreakable series. In Unbreakable, a security guard named David Dunn survives a horrific train crash. After the incident, with the help of a disabled comic art gallery owner named Elijah Price, he learns that he possesses superhuman powers. The film follows Dunn trying to explore and confront his powers and his life thus far while trying to navigate a difficult family life, constantly under the eerie, looming influence of Elijah Price.
Shyamalan organized the narrative of Unbreakable to parallel a comic book’s traditional three-part story structure. After settling on the origin story, Shyamalan wrote the screenplay as a speculative screenplay with Bruce Willis already set to star in the film and Jackson in mind to portray Elijah Price. Filming began in April 2000 and was completed in July.
Unbreakable was released on November 22, 2000. It received positive reviews, with critics praising its aesthetics, the performances, and the score by James Newton Howard. The film has subsequently gained a strong cult following. A deconstruction of the superhero genre, many regard it as one of Shyamalan’s best films, and one of the best superhero films. In 2011, Time listed the film as one of the top ten superhero movies of all time, ranking it number four. Quentin Tarantino also included it on his list of the top 20 films released since 1992.
After years of development on a follow-up film, a thematic sequel, Split, with Willis reprising his role as David Dunn in a cameo role, was released in January 2017. After the financial and critical success of Split, Shyamalan immediately began working on a third film, titled Glass, which will be released January 18, 2019, thus making Unbreakable the first part of what has been referred to as the “Eastrail 177 Trilogy“.
In Philadelphia in 1961, Elijah Price is born with Type I osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare disease that renders sufferers’ bones extremely fragile and prone to fracture. As revealed later in flashbacks, Elijah—who grows up to become a comic-book art dealer—develops a theory, based on the comics he has read during his many hospital stays, that if he represents extreme human frailty, there must be someone “unbreakable” at the opposite extreme.
In the present day, another Philadelphia man, security guard David Dunn, is also searching for meaning in his life. He had given up a promising football career during his college days to marry Audrey after they were involved in an auto accident. Now, however, their marriage is dissolving, to the distress of their young son Joseph.
As he returns home from a job interview in New York City, David’s train, the Eastrail 177, crashes, killing the other 131 passengers. He is the only survivor, sustaining no injuries. At the memorial for the crash’s victims, he finds a card on his car’s windshield, inviting him to Elijah’s store. Elijah proposes to David that he is the kind of person after whom comic-book superheroes are modeled and repeatedly pursues the issue with David and Audrey, trying to learn whether David had ever been ill or injured during childhood. Although Elijah unsettles him, David begins to test himself. While lifting weights with Joseph, he bench presses about 350 pounds (160 kg), well above what he had thought he could do. Joseph begins to idolize his father and believes that he is a superhero, although David still maintains that he is “an ordinary man”.
David challenges Elijah with an incident from his childhood when he almost drowned. Elijah suggests that the incident highlights the common comic trope whereby superheroes often have one weakness. He contends that David’s weakness might be water: it is easier for him to drown or choke than regular people. While surveying the stored wreckage of the train crash that he survived, David recalls the car accident that ended his athletics career, remembering that he was unharmed and ripped a door off the car in order to save Audrey. David used the accident as an excuse to quit football because Audrey did not like the violence of the sport.
Under Elijah’s influence, David realizes that what he thought was just a natural “instinct” for picking out dangerous people during security checks is actually a form of extrasensory perception. Now consciously honing this ability, David discovers that when he comes into touch contact with other people, he is able to glimpse criminal acts they have committed. At Elijah’s suggestion, David stands in the middle of a crowd in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. As various people bump into him, he senses the crimes they perpetrated, such as theft and rape, and finds one he can act on: a sadistic janitor who invaded a family home, killed the father, and held the wife and their two children captive.
David follows the janitor to the victims’ house, frees the children, and finds their mother dead, but the janitor ambushes him and pushes him off a balcony into a swimming pool. David nearly drowns since he cannot swim, but the children rescue him. He then attacks the janitor from behind and strangles him until he is dead, while he is once more uninjured. That night, he and Audrey reconcile. The following morning, he secretly shows a newspaper article on the anonymous heroic act, featuring a sketch of David in the hooded rain poncho he wore while confronting the janitor, to his son, who recognizes the hero as his father.
David attends an exhibition at Elijah’s comic book art gallery and meets Elijah’s mother, who explains the difference between villains who fight heroes with physical strength versus those who use their intelligence. Elijah brings David to the back room of his studio, extends his hand, and asks David to shake it. Upon doing so, David sees visions of Elijah orchestrating several terrorist disasters, including David’s recent train accident, causing hundreds of deaths. David is horrified, but Elijah insists the deaths were justified as a means to find him. Calling himself “Mr. Glass”, a nickname his peers had used to taunt him with when he was growing up, he explains that his own purpose in life is to be the villain to David’s hero.
The film ends with David walking away in horror and disgust while Elijah taunts him, and screen captions reveal that David eventually reported Elijah’s actions to the police, and that Elijah was convicted of murder and terrorism and committed to an institution for the criminally insane.