2020/12/22

The Eastrail 177 Trilogy: Part 1

Eastrail 177 1

They say that when you've got it, you've got it. Then, at some point, you lose it.

That would have been an apt summation of M. Night Shyamalan's directorial career in the mid-late aughts. After an early hit that invited frequent comparisons to Steven Spielberg, Shyamalan was widely perceived as having squandered his promise on a run of self-indulgent schlock. The man who'd been the toast of Hollywood became joke fodder for a late-night puppet show.

Shyamalan kicked off the 2010s with a critically panned live-action cartoon adaptation and a Jaden Smith vehicle nobody asked for. Everybody thought the ex-golden boy had peaked too early. He seemed fated to serve out the rest of his career doing the studios' scut work.

Before Shyamalan's fall from grace--and after, as we'll see in the coming days--he gave moviegoers just cause to conclude that his success wasn't a fluke after all. Fresh off the cinema sensation of The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan followed up with what would retroactively become Part 1 of the Eastrail 177 trilogy: 2000's superhero thriller Unbreakable.

As with its direct predecessor, Unbreakable played its marketing campaign close to the vest. The teaser trailer and television spots gave only scant clues that it was a superhero movie at all. What the ads did reveal of the film's premise was nonetheless intriguing.

A passenger train derails outside Philadelphia. There is a lone survivor, miraculously unharmed. He turns out to be a middle-aged everyman who's as baffled by his situation as the medical experts who confirm the disaster left him without a scratch.

Ask any professional writer, including yours truly, and you'll hear that a good story is 1% premise and 99% execution.

Damn, but Unbreakable has a solid gold premise, though!

Unbreakable breaks another screenwriting convention in that its plot synopsis doesn't sound dumb. It immediately stokes curiosity that practically compels viewing of the movie, just to find out how the miracle happened.

That same driving need is shared by one of the film's major supporting characters, which is a brilliant feat of characterization. But more on that later.

For now, be warned that discussing the movie further without spoilers is effectively impossible. This is a twenty-year-old flick, so if you haven't seen it, that's on you.

Getting back to our protagonist, David Dunn--played by the newly cueballed Bruce Willis--is a working class stiff on the wrong end of a midlife crisis. His marriage is on the rocks, and his career has hit a dead end. In an eerily prescient nod to the film's director, the college football glory days of David's peak are many years behind him. Walking away from the trainwreck is the first extraordinary event to befall David in decades.

News of David's miraculous survival brings him into contact with a man named Elijah Price--portrayed by a pre-Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson. Elijah is an art dealer who escaped from the agony of a rare bone disease by immersing himself in comic books.

Mister Glass

In a meeting at his gallery, Elijah reveals his theory to David. Comics are the last vestiges of a pictorial history dating back to cave paintings. Their four-color panels preserve a secret history passed down through Egyptian hieroglyphs, stained glass windows, and 15th century woodcuts. Elijah's life's work has convinced him that comic books stand at the end of a millennia-long telephone game, transmitting garbled but real information about the human condition.

This is the part they didn't tell you about in the ads, which was smart, because this is where the movie almost stops working. If anybody other than Samuel L. Jackson had delivered the spiel about a bunch of nice Jewish guys from New York unwittingly carrying the torch passed down from ancient Greek poets and Mayan high priests, Unbreakable would have gone the way of The Happening

Thankfully, Jackson makes his speech with unflinching sincerity and actually manages to sell the audience on it.

He's not as successful at selling David on the notion that he survived the crash because he's a real-life superhero. Or rather, he's the reality that cape comics only glimpse in a mirror darkly.

Speaking of which, yes, the character names "David" and "Elijah" are thematically significant. More on that in a minute.

David goes home convinced that Elijah is a crank. His son, on the other hand, isn't as skeptical. Elijah's influence begins having subtly positive effects on David's life. Asking his boss how many sick days he's taken, at Elijah's suggestion, earns David a small raise for perfect attendance. In a proto-red pill moment, the mere hint that her husband might be the superman rekindles his wife's desire for him.

In this act, Shyamalan does a fine job exploring the mystery of whether David might really be superhuman. He presents the evidence with just enough plausible deniability and red herrings to keep viewers guessing. Even Elijah has reservations upon learning that David suffered a bout of pneumonia as a child and lost his shot at the NFL due to an injury suffered in a car accident.

The one bit of misdirection that comes off as cheating is the unexplained false positive returned by David's crime-sensing ESP. It's not clear why he flagged Jai--director Shyamalan in a recurring cameo--as a drug dealer but failed to turn up any contraband in a subsequent patdown.

Anyway, Elijah manages to prove David's powers at great personal cost to himself. David uses his abilities to rescue two children held hostage by a madman. It is when he and his friend and mentor Elijah finally shake hands that David's ESP reveals the twist that Shyamalan has become notorious for.

David is not the only superhuman. Elijah engineered the crash of Eastrail 177--as well as two other mass murders--to find his polar opposite: an invulnerable man to balance his extreme vulnerability.

Elijah at last has proof that his birth was not a mistake. He, too, is a superman--but not a superhero.

"I should have known," Elijah calls after David as the stunned hero leaves to summon the police. "The kids--they called me Mr. Glass."

The revelation of a second superhuman retroactively introduces one of Unbreakable's main themes at the end of the movie. It's ground previously trod by the likes of Watchmen and The Wrath of Khan, but Shyamalan's fresh perspective makes revisiting the morality of the superman worthwhile.

One reason Unbreakable has had such staying power is because of the questions it leaves viewers with at the end. What if superhumans were real? Would they be forces for good or evil? Can ordinary humans even fit superhuman behavior into categories like "good" and "evil"?

David Dunn and Mr. Glass represent opposing answers to these questions--in every detail of their characters. David, as his messianic name implies, is a savior character. His powers--physical integrity and infused knowledge--are the same which prelapsarian man possessed in the garden and which the blessed will possess at the resurrection. He embodies the Christian concept of the superman: a saint who undergoes theosis by grace.

Even David's weakness to water--which sucks for someone living on a planet whose surface is 70% covered with the stuff--alludes to baptismal immersion as a type of death prior to rebirth in Christ.

Also like the saints, David has a mission. This aspect of his character is poignantly handled when he confides in Elijah about waking up each morning haunted by sadness he can neither shake nor explain. It is only taking up his mission to save the innocent and punish sinners that exorcises this sadness.

Skipping ahead a bit, David's superhero name turns out to be the Overseer. The Greek word for "overseer" is episkopos, which the Church renders in English as "bishop".

David's awakening to his mission by a man named Elijah further testifies to his divine election. David is a divinized soul given special gifts to enforce the precepts of natural and divine law. He exercises his appointed role of Overseer by serving those in his charge.

Mr. Glass, in contrast, is a wholly different type of superhuman. He represents the Campbellian ideal of the superman as posthuman product of evolution. Like the typical evolved humans of sci fi's silver age, Mr. Glass' frail body is more than made up for by his superior mind. Unbreakable only hints at Glass' genius. The third film in the trilogy demonstrates what a mastermind truly is.

Like Star Trek's Khan Noonien Singh, Mr. Glass believes that his superior status exempts him from moral judgment by lesser men. By his calculus, murdering 500 innocent people to discover the Overseer was not only an acceptable loss--but morally justified.

Glass is more than an ends-means consequentialist who sees the good David will do as proportionally greater than the loss of life he caused. He transcends mere lists of pros and cons with his theory of emergent human evolution. Derailing Eastrail 177 uncovered two supermen and proved Glass' theory. Since he and David are special, there must be more people out there who are oblivious to how extraordinary they are--perhaps many more.

To Glass' way of thinking, he's not just giving the world a superhero, he's ushering in the next stage of human advancement. What man is fit to judge the maker of supermen?

Mr. Glass shares another trait with other superhumans who fancy themselves above human morality: hubris. David has the power to detect evil, and this power judges Elijah guilty. Since his own superhuman status is contingent upon David's, Mr. Glass can't deny David's judgement without destroying the internal consistency of his own theory.

It's not clear if that implicit condemnation of Mr. Glass' actions is deliberate. If it is, a great many critics have grossly underestimated M. Night Shyamalan.

In the final analysis, Unbreakable is a flawed--but not that flawed--masterpiece. Its call to cast off the mediocrity and fear that too often keep us from realizing our potential is sorely needed today.

That analysis isn't entirely final, though. Tomorrow we'll take a look at the belated second film in the Eastrail 177 Trilogy.

Split

Until then, here's some reading material to keep you entertained.

Combat Frame XSeed: S - Brian Niemeier

13 comments:

  1. This was my favorite Shyamalan film back in the day before he jumped the shark with The Village.

    I believe his background has Catholic (possibly Jesuit?) education so the amount of such themes in his early work is hard to ignore, and is probably what help buoyed his first three films to success despite their problems.

    I read an article about what caused his fall a few years back, and it came down to the fact that his ego spun out of control. He no longer took criticism, multiple drafts, or notes. This all happened after the success of Signs, where he believed he could do no wrong, and it ended up destroying his momentum with a deluge of turkeys in a row.

    The worst part is that they all had decent premises, but were utterly destroyed by their execution. Avatar even having successful source material proved as much. For a long time it looked like he just wouldn't right the ship again.

    I'm not certain what happened to him that allowed his ego to shatter and humbleness to take charge, but I am grateful for it. Talent should be used, not wasted.

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    1. One point I forgot to mention is that Shyamalan never learned to write dialogue. He tends toward the opposite extreme of Smith and Whedon and ends up in the uncanny valley.

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    2. I always liked The Village and never got why people hated it. Perhaps they'd caught on to Shyamalan's overreliance on twist endings.

      Say what you want about The Village, Shyamalan could have played it safe with a by-the-numbers monster flick like everyone expected. Instead he took a substantial risk.

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    3. My problem with The Village is that I saw everything coming before it happened. It was completely without surprise, and I'm not just referring to the twist.

      I would have been surprised if there were actual monsters, honestly.

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    4. What happened is that "Split" was written back when Shymalan was good.

      I have not seen the third film in the trilogy but from what I know of it, he wrote it more recently and it shows.

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    5. >He no longer took criticism, multiple drafts, or notes.

      It's the story of every creator turned sour. Lucas and Wachowski, most famously, made a megahit with a bunch of talented help, but then forgot about the help when they got a mountain of cash for the sequels. People forget that Star Wars was a turd that was saved in editing, for example.

      And now, we see GRRM going down the same road. Hey George, maybe Tolkein actually managed to finish writing his stories because he *didn't* waste hundreds of pages lovingly stroking the twin vices of lust and gluttony.

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    6. Maybe not the best example, since Tolkien actually finished exactly two of his long form stories, and left everything else unfinished.

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    7. Tolkien succeeded where he did because Jack Lewis knew how to provide the constructive criticism he really needed. The rest of the Legendarium is as chewy as it is because the Inklings meetings stopped.

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    8. Point taken, but Tolkien still provided two stories with endings in less time than it's taking Martin to spit out one, and Martin seems to like skewering Tolkien whenever somebody decides to interview him.

      It made me more than a little irritated when he implied recently that LotR is flawed because Tolkien's lack of explicit sex leaves the reader wondering where little hobbits come from.

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    9. @Malchus,
      I had not heard that. I suppose his need to cast aspersions on the inventor of the genre indicates second rate talent.

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    10. In an effort to spread the love here, Tolkien did not invent the genre, though he is quite influential in the genre as it currently exists. Go look up the works cited in Appendix N or the 1st edition Dungeons and Dragons DMG. Many of them predate Tolkien. Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs are good places to start for pre-Tolkien fantasy.

      I've been going through it and loving it.

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    11. I consider things like LoTR to be in a separate genre from Conan and the rest of Howard's work. They are low fantasy, oe sword and sorcery, whereas as LoTR is high fantasy, because the conflict is explicitly between good and evil, featuring recognizably good and evil characters. It's epic high fantasy because the world itself hangs in the balance.

      On reflection, while ASoIaF is epic in scope, it is too sordid and grubby to qualify as high fantasy. It features few if any heroes and nothing for them to save. I've heard of Appendix N, and read some what I assume is on it, but I've never read the list myself.

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  2. Funny you mention that. Just watched a riff of a movie that seems to be the reverse:

    https://youtu.be/t23ZEKqGHzs

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