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NEWS FEATURE: `Unbreakable’ Reveals Filmmaker’s Spiritual Sensibilities

c. 2000 Religion News Service (UNDATED) When a person is called a “visionary,” it often means one of two things. Artistically, the term describes someone who is unusually gifted and creative, while spiritually, it refers to someone who has been granted extraordinary powers or insights. In the case of movie maker M. Night Shyamalan, whose […]

c. 2000 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) When a person is called a “visionary,” it often means one of two things. Artistically, the term describes someone who is unusually gifted and creative, while spiritually, it refers to someone who has been granted extraordinary powers or insights.

In the case of movie maker M. Night Shyamalan, whose films seamlessly blend entertainment and enlightenment, these two meanings are united in unique and exhilarating ways.

“Unbreakable,” the fourth film by the 30-year-old Indian-American writer/director, explores the inner life of a security guard named David Dunn (played by Bruce Willis), who wrestles with questions about the meaning of life after becoming the sole survivor of a catastrophic train wreck.

The film, which opens nationwide Wednesday (Nov. 22), reunites Shyamalan and Willis, who collaborated on “The Sixth Sense,” a phenomenally popular and critically acclaimed film about life, death and the afterlife.

“Unbreakable” doesn’t have its predecessor’s jaw-dropping trick ending, its instantly memorable one-liner (remember “I see dead people”?), or its gore. While “The Sixth Sense,” which featured disturbing depictions of the dead, “Unbreakable” skips over the train wreck that starts David Dunn on his spiritual pilgrimage, and is rated PG-13 for fleeting violent and sexual content

But “Unbreakable” does possess the earlier film’s uncanny ability to depict invisible spiritual states in bold cinematic relief. This, along with Shyamalan’s increasingly deft use of light and darkness and his ability to capture images reflected from windows and mirrors, lends a moody, otherworldly feel to his films, a feel that’s entirely appropriate to the metaphysical mysteries he routinely explores.

In recent interviews in Rolling Stone magazine and The New York Times, Shyamalan says he has a calling to make movies that transcend the “familiar, unimportant, popcorn-type pabulum.” He says “Unbreakable” is intended to help viewers discover “the best version of ourselves, finding the supernatural elements of our own lives.”

In the film, Dunn tries to find his purpose in life while grappling with profound theological questions like whether humans are alone in the world, or why bad things happen to good people.

Dunn receives guidance from a mysterious character named Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who was born with a devastating genetic weakness that makes him as weak and vulnerable as Dunn is strong and invincible.

Price spent much of his childhood in bed reading comic books. And while some people dismiss comics _ or all of popular culture _ as meaningless and base, Price sees in their colorful pages a profound, if exaggerated, source of wisdom about heroism and the differences between right and wrong.

Price is the film’s moral center and the source of some of its most provocative lines. “These are mediocre times,” he says at one point. “People start to lose hope. They find it hard to believe that there are extraordinary things inside themselves.”

Throughout the film, Dunn and Price represent the universe’s mystical yin and yang. While Dunn claims, “I am just an ordinary man,” Price challenges him to look deeper. “Perhaps you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing,” he urges. “The scariest thing in life is to not know your place in this world … to not know why you’re here.”

The film’s official Web site (“areyouunbreakable.com”) further explores these issues, asking visitors to take a test to see if they are unbreakable, and featuring stories people have posted about their own brushes with destiny.

Shyamalan made his inauspicious film debut with 1992’s semi-autobiographical “Praying with Anger,” in which he starred as an Indian-American student who experiences culture shock during a visit to India.

But by 1998, the Philadelphia native was busily carving out a distinctive niche with “Wide Awake,” a surprisingly sweet film about a 10-year-old boy’s search for God. The film contains many elements that have since become the filmmaker’s staples: it was shot in Philadelphia; it features an adorable child and his family; it uses issues of life and death to introduce spiritual questions.

For Shyamalan, the son of two Indian physicians, matters of body and soul have always been inextricably linked. His parents routinely talked shop in the family’s home, which featured a shrine decorated with statues of the Hindu gods Shiva and Krishna, as well as various ancestral deities. As a child, Shyamalan regularly communed with the dead and seemed unusually sensitive to the thoughts and emotions of the living.

Around the time he was 10, Shyamalan first picked up a camera, and the theology in his films is as eclectic as his own upbringing. Raised in a devout Hindu household, he attended private Christian schools before graduating from New York University’s film school.

In “Unbreakable,” Shyamalan once again employs his exceptional artistic abilities to explore complex subjects regularly discussed in Sunday sermons or thick philosophical tomes, but he does so in ways that are often intriguing, usually inspiring, and always thoroughly entertaining.

DEA END RABEY