April 30th, 2004
Script Review: UNBREAKABLE - by M. Night Shyamalan. (October 8, 1999 Draft)
Reviewed by Christopher Wehner
WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS
M. Night Shyamalan has risen to the top of the screenwriting spectrum in my opinion. His screenwriting style, in its form and structure, is masterful. When you read one of Night’s screenplays you get the sense that this person takes great care in his writing. If there is one complaint I have about some screenwriters today it’s laziness. It’s easy to cut corners, cheat on your story a little, but ultimately you cheat your audience and that’s reprehensible. I would never compare Night’s work to the like, even if a piece was to fall a little short of the finish line. I’ve had the opportunity to read THE SIXTH SENSE and now UNBREAKABLE, both rich and wonderfully developed pieces.
The first thing I noticed about UNBREAKABLE are its white spaces. Each page almost looks inviting to read. That’s always a good sign. Nothing worse than pages full of paragraphs, one right after another, followed by chunks of dialogue. By taking great care in word selection, realizing that "less is more," Night demonstrates that he is in complete command of his story. His exposition never rambles on, we’re given the information we need to "picture" the scene and away we go. His structure is tight. Night always seems to get into the scene at the right time and then gets out. This is the sign of a confident writer, not one afraid to take chances.
Night, the son of two doctors, was born in India, but grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia. At a very young age he began showing interest in filmmaking, his parents got him an 8mm camera to play around with. While attending the Tisch School of the Arts (NYU) Night arranged financing for his second film WIDE AWAKE. After struggling with finances he flew to India and shot, PRAYING WITH ANGER -- for $750,000. Night was the writer, producer, director, and star. He was all of twenty-two.
Eventually Miramax came through with financing for WIDE AWAKE, releasing it in 1998, it quickly faded becoming one of the lowest grossing films of that year. Night then sold LABOR OF LOVE to Twentieth Century Fox for $750,000. He was now well on his way as a professional screenwriter.
After THE SIXTH SENSE, Night returned to Philadelphia to write another spec script, a story that he had been thinking about for some time, UNBREAKABLE. Night sold the script for the record sum of $5 million plus another $5 million to direct.
UNBREAKABLE (the draft I’m reading is dated October 8th, 1999) which has already started principal photography, is the story of two very different men: David Dunne (Bruce Willis) and Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson). David is a security guard at a football stadium. One day on his way back from an interview in New York the Amtrak train he was on crashes, everyone but him on the train dies. David survived the accident with nary a scratch. Elijah on the other hand was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a rare disorder that makes his bones less dense.
The development of each character is done with such care, it’s impressive to read. Night develops both story lines very nicely, then brings them together only after we have a clear insight into both David and Elijah. Clearly Elijah has had the harder life. He’s suffered not only physical pain from his condition, but emotionally as well. As a child the other kids began calling him "Mr. Glass," because his bones "shatter like glass."
Meanwhile we can see that David has had an average, but good life so far. After David learns he is the only survivor his life is thrown off balance -- there is an inner need to find meaning in something like that. This is where these two characters come together, about 20 minutes into the script. Elijah has been on a personal quest. If there can be someone like him, who is so weak and fragile, then there must be someone on the other end of the spectrum… someone unbreakable. Elijah is an intelligent man, he owns an art gallery/museum that specializes in "classic" comic books and art -- Elijah spent a lot of time as a child in a hospital bed reading comic books. We learn that Elijah has sought out every disaster in hopes of finding a hero, "A person… to protect the rest of us. Guard us."
The course of action that ultimately brings these two characters together is executed in such a way that the story doesn't suffer. As a reader I never found myself scratching my head over the way Night develops his prose -- it’s the control thing again.
Which brings me to the ending, it really was a shock in how much it disappointed me. Night is such a confident writer that he, I can only guess, took a calculated risk with his ending. With the success of THE SIXTH SENSE it’s not really a surprise that his next script doesn’t completely live up to his prior work… I don’t know if it’s ever possible (maybe my expectations were just too high). The pressure to continue writing at such a high level, it must be overwhelming at times.
UNBREAKABLE is such a well crafted story it captured my attention immediately and brought to the surface emotions that challenged how I viewed the world. That’s the true beauty in Night’s writing, and it definitely shines here as well. I almost see the ending as a desperate attempt to recapture the shocking and very satisfying ending of THE SIXTH SENSE.
I felt betrayed by Night. It’s almost like Night couldn’t go through with a true ending, so he lied. Instead he went for the shocking ending. Night’s ending, in my opinion, betrays his audience and his characters. In THE SIXTH SENSE Night delivers the payoff and still works in the shocking ending. The ending of UNBREAKABLE was too over the top, and right into a bottomless pit.
Still overall, it’s definitely going to be a movie that is talked about, much like THE SIXTH SENSE. It’s full of some wonderful writing, and will be a treat to watch. But, I really feel most intelligent reviewers will be disappointed with the ending. From what I’ve read about Night, he won’t change the ending. Perhaps another draft of the script will surface and prove me wrong, I’ll just have to wait and see.