You gotta give M. Night Shymalan credit: The man gives great preview. Though it's impossible to determine just how much of a hand he had in creating the theatrical trailer for his new thriller Unbreakable, by the time the words "from the writer/director of The Sixth Sense" hit the screen, they're completely superfluous; a mere 30 seconds in, you know it couldn't possibly be the work of anyone else.
For those who never saw it, it's a rather astonishing piece of work: The only information we're given is that Bruce Willis' character has survived a devastating train crash with nary a scratch on him, while Samuel L. Jackson's character intones that Willis' survival merely hints at the man he actually is. Add to this intriguing setup some gorgeously mysterious lighting (the topnotch cinematographer is Eduardo Sierra), another creepily effective James Newton Howard score, and Shymalan's effective use of quiet to build suspense, and you have what could almost be described as the model trailer - one that gives just enough information about the storyline and atmosphere to arouse curiosity without spoiling any important plot points (which, in this era of previews that seem to give away every significant piece of information in advance, makes it all the more astonishing).
Part of the reason Shymalan's The Sixth Sense became such a smash hit was due to its preview, too. Although it did commit the marketing sin of telling too much (turning "I see dead people" into an instant, and instantly annoying, catchphrase), the trailer had a different rhythm from others in its genre - hushed, secretive, methodical. The Sixth Sense's previews hinted that the film would be different from the norm, and with its gravity and staunch insistence on taking its time, the previews didn't lie. Within the first 20 or so minutes of Unbreakable, you might get the same rush that many got from The Sixth Sense. The film's deliberate pacing and slightly surreal staging suggest that Shymalan is in firm control of his material and that he's guiding us down a slightly scary path where surprises and twists await, and you're eager to follow him on the journey. And what happens? Damned if the film's story doesn't get in the way and muck up your good time.
There are many good reasons to see Unbreakable, just as there were many to see The Sixth Sense, but in both cases Shymalan can't quite grasp when Enough is Enough. For me, and five or six others, The Sixth Sense's ghost-story angle became more and more unbelievable with every new bit of information. (Haley Joel Osment sees dead people, fine, but those he sees don't know they're dead? Then why, as in the case of the little girl who was poisoned by her mother, are they giving Haley evidence of their murders?) And without giving away any major details of Unbreakable - in honor of the subtlety the filmmakers and those at the Disney studios showed in their previews - this new film suffers from the same problem. Once we're given the basic facts about Bruce Willis' character - he's a depressed security guard named David Dunn whose marriage to Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) is on the rocks - and the reasoning behind his miraculous emergence from the train crash (kudos to Shymalan for having this accident happen, refreshingly, off-screen), the story proper kicks in, and it can't hope to compete with the murky sense of ambiguity established at the start.
Shymalan is perhaps our only American filmmaker working exclusively in pop art who isn't trying to dazzle us with cutting-edge effects and state-of-the-art visuals. Bless him, he's more interested in atmosphere, character, and plotting working for him, and as the phenomenal success of The Sixth Sense proved, audiences are more than happy with that given that the film's story sucks them in. But it's hard to fathom exactly how audiences will react to Unbreakable, which creates a marvelously otherworldly feel and then gets mired in a rather dopey plot, further burdened by characters that don't have the depth you'd hope for. While it's always nice seeing him in a role that isn't tailored to his more smart-alecky instincts, Willis spends so much of the film carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders that he borders on the somnambulant, while Wright Penn has little to do but act mopey and put-off. (Wright Penn is, in general, a stiff performer, but it's even hard to imagine what an actress as vibrant as Julianne Moore, who was originally cast in the Audrey role, could have done with it.) As for Samuel L. Jackson, who plays a comic-book dealer with perilously fragile bones and an insight into David's true nature, he's a typically powerful presence, but that power almost counteracts his character's weaknesses, and he remains a rather marginal figure for too long. (For much of the film, he serves the same purpose that Laurence Fishburne did in The Matrix, imparting endless words of wisdom to the clueless lead.)
Directorially, the movie often has moments of greatness: There's a nerve-racking sequence in which David's son (played by Gladiator's Spencer Treat Clark, working a bit too hard) threatens to turn on his father, and a brilliantly designed scene early in the film in which David flirts with a fellow train passenger. Shymalan has a true gift for dread; by giving everything in Unbreakable a sheen of the unnatural, we're primed for anything to happen, and it's in those moments of expectation that the film is most enjoyable. But here, the resolutions to those expectations are generally unsatisfying; it's a frustrating moviegoing experience because you really want to like it, and nagging questions about logic and story keep getting in the way. (Shymalan the director is blind-sided by Shymalan the writer.) Don't despair, though; M. Night Shymalan is, without question, a rare talent, and when he finally comes up with a screenplay - subplots, twists, resolutions and all - that has as much power as the presentation he gives it, it'll really be something to see.