Unbreakable On DVD

Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright Penn. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic). DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish), THX. Two discs. 107 minutes. 2000. Touchstone Home Video 21656. PG-13. $29.99.

When David Dunn (Bruce Willis) survives a horrendous train crash, in which many die, without a scratch, he grabs the attention of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson). The proprietor of a gallery specializing in comic-book art, Price has suffered from a rare illness since birth. His bones are as fragile as glass, and he is constantly suffering debilitating injuries. He's convinced that his polar opposite exists somewhere out there. Dunn, he believes, is that one, extraordinary person. At its core, the film is a study of two characters trying to discover who they are.

The film depends for its full effect on the viewer's becoming gradually aware of what is going on, though the story's secrets are not nearly as well concealed as in director M. Night Shyamalan's first and far superior film, The Sixth Sense. If you want to watch Unbreakable with as few spoilers as possible—the best way to see it—avoid reading the material on the DVD's cover. Even the list of Special Features will clue you in on a key plot point.

In mood and tone, Unbreakable is so similar to The Sixth Sense that another director (had there been one) might have sued. There is the same slow pacing, the same dark photography, the same deliberate acting style, the same relative lack of humor. It all works, up to a point, though here it serves a much less riveting story. Nevertheless, the story, style, and performances held my attention.

This two-disc set comes in an elaborate, fold-out slipcase that is well-designed but will probably not stand up to hard use. Disc 2 offers a complete set of extras, including additional scenes, documentaries featuring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, a multi-angle look at the train-station sequence, and an excerpt from an early Shyamalan film.

The images in Unbreakable are, with rare exceptions, dimly lit. The slightly soft video transfer is just a little short of the very best, but handles black-level detail very well. The sound is exceptional—not obviously spectacular or flashy, but with more than a few surprises. The music—a moody James Newton Howard score, given a fine Shawn Murphy recording—is extremely well done and adds significantly to the atmosphere. Both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are provided. After compensating for the higher levels of the DTS tracks (as much as 10dB, due to the fact that DTS lacks dialogue normalization), I found the DD track more open, if occasionally edgier, with superior bass. For example, right after the hallucination sequence in the final chapter, the DD track has a very deep bass trailing tone underlying the shot of Willis. It's almost absent in the DTS version.

Unbreakable tries for a mood and payoff similar to that in The Sixth Sense without quite delivering. But it's a noble failure and, like its successful predecessor, a welcome change from the usual Hollywood fare.