Face-Off: Unbreakable vs Signs

With M. Night Shyamalan's latest film, THE VISIT, set to hit theaters this Friday, it seemed like an appropriate time to take a look back over the work of the filmmaker who rose to fame with the twisty 1999 ghost story THE SIXTH SENSE but whose career entered a steep decline soon after.

When choosing which Shyamalan films to pit against each other, it seemed a good idea to instantly count out THE SIXTH SENSE, since it's his most highly regarded film by a substantial margin. Having a face-off between his lowest rated films would be one way to go, but those are THE LAST AIRBENDER and AFTER EARTH. Would I even survive such a double feature? It soon became obvious that the right choice would be his last two films to have a mostly positive reception, 2000's UNBREAKABLE and 2002's SIGNS.
When University of Pennsylvania stadium security guard David Dunn walks away from a train crash that killed everyone else on board without a scratch on him, it kicks off what may be the most low-key superhero origin ever put on film. With encouragement from his young son and a mysterious comic art gallery owner, David realizes he has extraordinary abilities that can be used to save lives and bust criminals.
The story of a global alien invasion is told entirely from the perspective of a small family living 45 miles outside of Philadelphia. Feelings of dread and tension begin when crop circles start showing up around the planet, including in the field beside the family's home, and continue to build until a climax reminiscent of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as aliens besiege a boarded-up Pennsylvania farmhouse.
Damaged Family
Bruce Willis plays David Dunn as a stoic Everyman at the head of a household that is at first shrouded in depression. As he starts to find his way in life, he's able to mend his marriage with Robin Wright Penn's Audrey and establish a good relationship with his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark). There are some fun scenes with both David's wife - like the revelation that her favorite song is "Soft and Wet" by Prince - and his son, who is in awe of the idea that David could be a superhero, but these characters have been quite beaten down by the recent years of their lives, so they're not the most vibrant bunch.
Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a former Reverend who lost his faith after the recent accidental death of his wife. Graham is now raising his two children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin) with the help of his failed baseball player brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). While these characters are nursing some serious hurt, they're also a lot of fun to spend time with. It's amusing to watch Gibson play a character who can't even bring himself to curse, Phoenix has some great jock moments, and the children are precocious without being annoying. Extra points for the fact that a friend of mine shares Bo's inability to finish a glass of water, as they either get "contaminated" by hair and dust or start to "taste old".
Samuel L. Jackson's frail Elijah "Mr. Glass" Price has taken his love of comic books and mythology too far, deciding that his path in life is to be a supervillain to a superhero who is his opposite. In the search for his hero, Elijah has caused the deaths of hundreds of people. He may not be a physical threat, but his twisted mind makes him a very dangerous and terrifying individual.
Crop circles are followed by hovering UFOs and then finally a ground raid by tall, chameleon-like creatures that can secrete a poison gas from their wrists. These aliens provide some jolts, but they're scarier when we're wondering what they might do when they exit their craft than they are once they finally do exit their craft.
Water Weakness
Impervious to physical damage and illness, David has one weakness. Water. This is built up with a back story about David nearly drowning while in school, but his first vigilante mission is only briefly disrupted by a fall into a pool.
The aliens of SIGNS have become a bit of a laughingstock in the sci-fi community due to their water allergy. 71% of the Earth's surface is covered with water, and these things are invading us when just stepping on some morning dew can cause them intense pain? It may not make much sense, but the revelation that water is their weakness is an emotional pay-off that makes way for triumph.
UNBREAKABLE is a superbly crafted film across the board, built on the foundation of an excellent script by Shyamalan. The man's career was somewhat derailed by the same thing that drew so much attention to THE SIXTH SENSE - twist endings. It's something that Shyamalan even gives a cutesy nod to here (a character says a comic book has a surprise ending), and is something he seemed preoccupied with until it backfired with THE VILLAGE. Here you can sort of see the Mr. Glass twist coming a mile away, David and Audrey are always suspicious of Elijah, but it doesn't matter. This is a great story of a hero rising from a drab, dreary life.
The script for SIGNS is something of a mixed bag. The slow build of the alien invasion is wonderfully handled and makes it seem like we're on a path to an experience of pure terror, but the actual attack on the Hess home (and the planet as a whole) ends up being rather anti-climactic. The aliens give up quickly and the Hesses go to sleep for twelve hours. The characters and their interactions are entertaining, but there is some really cheeseball, hokey stuff in here. I also get the impression that Shyamalan is not a dog owner.
Going into this Face-Off, I was pretty certain that UNBREAKABLE had the whole thing in the bag. It's the only Shyamalan movie I actually own a copy of, so hadn't it already won? I hadn't seen SIGNS in over ten years, though, and revisiting it I was surprised to find just how well it holds up, putting up such a good fight against UNBREAKABLE that I can't make a call between the two.

UNBREAKABLE has the better script and a more satisfying resolution, but for most of its running time I find SIGNS to be the more enjoyable viewing experience. UNBREAKABLE appeals to my love of superhero stories, SIGNS to my love of horror and suspense. In the end, I feel that they're both great movies, as is THE SIXTH SENSE, and even if the quality of Shyamalan's work has gone downhill in the years since, we shouldn't let it sully our opinion of his earlier work. The guy has provided us with some solid entertainment, and I hope THE VISIT will harken back to his glory days.



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