As much as most people want to attain success, few know what to do with it once they've managed to grab it. I'm not talking about finally refinishing one's kitchen, learning how to play the piano or even finishing school. Instead, I'm referring to career goals where much of one's life has been set on being the best at whatever you do.
Once that status is reached, those who achieve it pretty much have three options. They can retire at the top of their game. They can coast and continue what they're doing without taking any risks or changing their ways. Or, they can strive to do even better each subsequent time they go "up to bat."
The problem with the latter is that eclipsing one's prior success - especially if it was big and in the public eye -- can often be a difficult, if not impossible task that occasionally paralyzes the participant or leads them down the road to weirdness, eccentricity or self-destruction (see Michael Jackson, Howard Hughes and Elvis for further details).
While writer/director M. Night Shyamalan is still too new and too young to be considered a complete success in his line of work, and few probably worry that he'll soon fall into such traps, he does have a large cinematic monkey on his back in the form of "The Sixth Sense." The surprise box office hit of 1999 known for its fabulous, knock your socks off ending may not have delivered Shyamalan into the promised land of success (although nominated, the Best Picture, Director and Screenplay Oscars - out of the film's total of six nominations - went to "American Beauty"), but it certainly put him high up on a moviemaking pedestal.
As a result, many people - studio executives, critics and moviegoers - now expect nothing less of lighting to strike twice, and thus hope/wish/demand that his latest film, "Unbreakable," will be at least as good as "The Sixth Sense."
Of course, one must remember that Shyamalan's earlier effort, "Wide Awake," a drama about a boy looking for God, was a little seen and less than critically or publicly well-received picture. Thus, there's always the possibility that he could be the cinematic equivalent of a one-hit wonder, destined never to repeat his success.
While that's seemingly unlikely and certainly too early to call, this latest effort - which pairs the writer/director once again with star Bruce Willis - unfortunately doesn't completely answer that concern. At times brilliant, engaging and creepy, while at others boring, a bit goofy and occasionally pretentiously manipulative, the film suffers from playing on the same field as "Sixth Sense" and thus draws the inevitable critical comparisons.
In the end, both that and the fact that Shyamalan teases the viewer with the prospect of another big ending (for instance, a mother tells her son that a comic book reportedly has a surprise ending) ultimately proves to be something of his and the film's undoing. After all, most anything he could come up with would have a difficult, if not impossible time of equaling, let along topping that other jaw-dropping conclusion.
To make matters worse, it also serves to distract the audience, as many will spend a lot of time and energy trying to sort out the possible "clues" and figure out the ending before it arrives. While in theory that's not necessarily a bad thing since it does get the viewer involved and makes them pay more attention than they normally would, such increased attention places unrealistic expectations on the film and doesn't let it be just another movie that unfolds at its own pace, with its own ending, shocking or not.
Where the film also falters is in that it and the viewer can only take so much methodical deliberateness. There's no denying that Shyamalan knows how to set up a scene and milk it for all it's worth when there doesn't initially seem to be much there. Yet, with so much anticipation and the lack of a more traditional supernatural aura (as was found in "Sixth Sense"), this film's credibility and momentum often ebbs and flows and it even occasionally gets a bit tedious.
While much of that's obviously due to Shyamalan's deliberate, unhurried style - as well as all of that anticipation stemming from both the director and the audience - part of it also comes from Bruce Willis ("Disney's The Kid," the "Die Hard" films). Delivering another of his subdued and solemn performances (which I think fits him rather well), he's good in the role and plays it right, but the restrained nature of his character certainly doesn't help the film's slow pacing.
Although Willis' understated performance plays well with the simmering creepiness that Shyamalan layers into the film, the latter's script eventually and unfortunately abandons its characters. The whole comic book analogy of heroes and villains begins to wear thin with repeated references and viewers are likely to react in as much disbelief to such elements as does Willis' character.
The bit that then follows and deals with real-life heroism and the ability to see the past in a touch-induced ESP fashion fares just about as poorly. As a plot development, it feels somewhat underdeveloped and not satisfactory considering the buildup, and it will certainly elicit memories of other films, such as "The Dead Zone," where it was done earlier and more effectively.
As the protagonist's wife and son respectively, Robin Wright Penn ("Message in a Bottle," "She's So Lovely") and Spencer Treat Clark ("Gladiator," "Arlington Road") deliver decent performances, but the former suffers from embodying a character that isn't developed enough while the latter's somewhat similar physical appearance and demeanor to "The Sixth Sense's" Haley Joel Osment will have viewers waiting for something "weird" or important to develop regarding him, but it never does.
As in most films in which he appears, things perk up - and the creepiness factor escalates - when Samuel L. Jackson ("Shaft," "Rules of Engagement") and his odd character show up. While Willis can submerge and/or suppress his emotions behind a near stone-like expression, Jackson has that intense, wild-eyed look about him (not to mention his unique vocal delivery) that acts like a shot of adrenaline whenever he appears onscreen As a result, you can't take your eyes off him.
That also holds true for the overall film in a visual sense. Shot in master shots (with few cutaways) and reportedly done so in chronological order (a rarity in today's filmmaking world), Shyamalan and cinematographer Eduardo Serra ("What Dreams May Come," "Wings of the Dove") have fashioned a somewhat surreal look that keeps the viewer off balance for most of the film.
Overall, and despite the aforementioned objections/faults, the film is often compelling and perhaps deserves a second look sans the high level of anticipation, but with the knowledge of how it ends. Doing so would certainly allow more attention to be focused on Shyamalan's story that offers plenty of potential the first time around, but ultimately suffers from too many built-up expectations and unfulfilled promises.
Nonetheless, and while it's neither great nor horrible - especially for those who go in with little or no hopes of greatness - I came out with mixed feelings about the film. At times, I found it terrific and effective, but at others, it felt boring and occasionally a bit goofy. As such, and especially considering the last third and ending that still feel like a letdown considering the intentional buildup, the film rates as just a 6.5 out of 10.