WWE Royal Rumble 2019 Review

Let’s take a moment to talk about wrestling once again. This time, it’s the 2019 edition of WWE’s Royal Rumble, the first of WWE’s “big four pay-per-views” in the calendar year and probably WWE’s most loved PPV aside from Wrestlemania. Now, if you include the pre-show, this Royal Rumble went on for nearly seven hours, I’m going to try and keep my synopsis as short as possible. And I’m skipping the pre-show bits. Now let’s get started.

Becky Lynch vs. Asuka (C) for the Smackdown Women’s Championship.

The pay-per-view proper started off with a bang, as Becky Lynch challenged Asuka for the Smackdown Women’s Championship in a great match. Surprisingly, Asuka won completely clean by making Becky Lynch tap out, but they found a way to end the show making both women look strong, and it was such a strong match that Becky still looked strong in defeat.

The Bar (Sheamus and Cesaro) (C) vs. the Miz and Shane McMahon for the Smackdown Tag Team Championship

This match was…okay. Everyone involved pulled off some strangely stiff shots on each other, and Shane McMahon got some time to do his usual ‘he’s-too-old-to-be-doing-that-kind-of-thing’ top-rope stuff, including ending the match with a Shooting Star Press for the win and the tag team titles.

Ronda Rousey (C) vs. Sasha Banks for the Raw Women’s Championship

This match should have been better than it was. Not bad, but with how much progress Ronda Rousey has made in her year as a wrestler, and how good Sasha Banks always has been, it was a bit clunky. Rousey retained of course, and I don’t see her losing the title (or a match) until Wrestlemania.

30-Woman Royal Rumble match

This felt like the proper Royal Rumble of the night, and should have gone on last. Not a whole lot of surprise entrants, but we had the ironwoman of the match (Natalya Neidhart), the blink and you’ll miss it entrant (Liv Morgan), and all that jazz. It wasn’t anything too special, until Becky Lynch interrupted the entrance of an injured Lana, took her spot in the match (which makes no sense, but don’t worry about it), and went on to win the Rumble despite being beaten and battered after her war with Asuka. Great finish that, again, probably should have closed the night.

Daniel Bryan (C) vs. AJ Styles for the WWE Championship

“uhhh, okay… why not? I guess…”

As expected for two wrestlers of this world class caliber, the in-ring action was stellar. The ending, on the other hand… kind of random. Erick Rowan (AKA the guy who was one half of a tag team whose gimmick was carrying around giant mallets for all of last year) made his return, and conveniently showed up about a minute before the referee got knocked out, gave AJ Styles a choke slam, and helped Daniel Bryan retain the title. Because reasons.

This was just an utterly random ending. And if this were the route they were going with, couldn’t Rowan have entered the fray sooner? I get that it’s a show, but having the guy who’s bound to interfere enter the scene mere seconds before he’s supposed to do his thing kind of crushes the suspension of disbelief.

Brock Lesnar (C) vs. Finn Balor for the WWE Universal Championship

*Sigh*

Look, I get it. WWE has some bizarre infatuation with Brock Lesnar, despite the fact that his “special attraction” aura disintegrated years ago now. I knew Finn Balor wasn’t winning this. And to their credit, WWE did give Balor a lot of really good offense. So he almost looked good in defeat.

I say ‘almost’ because WWE decided to give the match a crap finish by making Finn Balor tap out after a less-than ten minute match. Okay, I get that the show was obnoxiously long already, but was this really the match to trim down? And making Balor tap out kind of undermined the whole “David vs. Goliath” story they were going for. Couldn’t they have made him pass out from taking too much punishment and refusing to give up or something? You know, an ending that would play into his heroism, even in defeat. And what about after the match? Balor just got destroyed by Lesnar some more! What was the point? Who benefits from this? I mean, other than Vince McMahon and his fetish for overplayed acts?

30-Man Royal Rumble Match

This was decent, but not as good as the Women’s Rumble. Seth Rollins won, of course. Narratively speaking, they haven’t built up anyone else who could have won (unless they did for Finn Balor what they did for Becky Lynch). So it was a pretty obvious conclusion, but at least they didn’t show a video package ahead of the show that more or less screamed who the winner would be like they did with Randy Orton in 2009.

The only real noteworthy story was that Nia Jax, after having been eliminated in the Women’s Rumble, beat up R-Truth during his entrance and took his place (again, don’t think about it too hard). She managed to eliminate Mustafa Ali, before taking a super kick from Dolph Ziggler, 619 from Rey Mysterio, and an RKO from Randy Orton before being tossed out (you would think she would have eliminated more people if WWE went through the trouble of adding this mini-narrative…but again, we’re talking about the company who still thinks the idea of Brock Lesnar as champion warrants a shred of interest).

 

Overall, it was an okay show. The Royal Rumble matches are always fun to watch as they happen, but after the fact you can think about how well everything played out. And well, the Rumble winners were expected but deserving, and the in-ring work of every match was solid. But the ending to Daniel Bryan/AJ Styles (a match that needed no screwy finish), and especially the ending of Lesnar/Balor really dampened the show. And with a five-is hour main card, and a total of seven hours including the pre-show, and the 2019 Royal Rumble was another example of a modern WWE pay-per-view being waaay too long.

The only other noteworthy bit to take away from the show is that Kacy Catanzaro and Naomi out-Kofi Kingston Kofi Kingston. That is to say, Catanzaro and Naomi saved themselves from elimination in their Rumble match in more creative (and believable) fashion than Kofi Kingston did. I always enjoy the Kofi Kingston spots we get to see every year during the Royal Rumble, but this year Kofi did two, both of which seemed derivative of previous spots from yesteryear, and both of which I swear both of his feet hit the ground anyway.

An okay show, and hopefully Seth Rollins and Becky Lynch’s victories mean things will pick up from here. And here’s hoping that something will actually come out of Finn Balor’s loss, instead of him just being another unnecessary burial to Lesnar. Far from the best Rumble (I don’t think it was nearly as entertaining as last year’s edition), but not the worst either (that would be 2015).

Advertisements

Tetris Effect Review

*Review based on Tetris Effect as played on Playstation 4. Maybe one day I will experience it on PSVR*

There is a common misconception that video games are an “in the moment” medium, and that whatever the current landscape of gaming is is guaranteed to be its apex, knocking yesteryear’s games to irrelevancy. While it’s true that video games are a bit more susceptible to age than other mediums given both their interactive mechanics and that technology advances so quickly these days, plenty of titles from gaming history stand the test of time, proving that fun and creativity aren’t bound to the technology that presents them. And perhaps no game has better stood the test of time than Tetris. The brainchild of Alexey Pajitnov has remained a touchstone in gaming for over three decades, shaping the puzzle genre and seeing a re-release on any and every platform that’s capable of playing video games to this day.

Tetris Effect – the PS4 exclusive named after the real world psychological effect Tetris can have on the mind – is but the latest iteration of the timeless puzzler. While the ageless masterpiece remains intact, a few additional modes, along with some spectacular visual effects and music, make Tetris Effect feel like the go-to version of Tetris on contemporary hardware.

The core gameplay is, of course, as it’s always been: block pieces fall from the top of the screen, and players have to fit them together into full rows, thus eliminating them and racking up points. The blocks (called “Tetrominos”) come in seven different shapes, and as the game goes on and the blocks drop faster, the player has to think fast in order to continuously complete rows to keep the game going.

There is a new addition to the classic gameplay, however, with the ability to enter “the Zone.” By eliminating rows, you gain energy, and once enough energy is stored, you can enter the Zone at the press of a button. While in the Zone, time freezes, and the blocks no longer fall on their own. This gives the player some time (until the energy runs out) to complete extra rows and earn additional points, and can be a real godsend when the speed really picks up in the late game.

Tetris Effect features a kind of campaign mode, in which the player has to complete twenty-seven different stages in order to complete the game. While all these stages can be replayed once completed, in order to progress in the ‘story’ players have to complete 36 rows on each stage (save for the last, which requires 90). The stages are separated into different ‘worlds,’ and if you perform well enough on each stage, you can complete a whole world without continuing for an even greater score.

“Can I, like, drown in this game?”

While the only gameplay difference between stages is the difficulty, every last stage boasts its own visuals and musical score. And, my word, what fantastic visuals and music they are! Each level is an audial and visual wonder, with brilliant little touches added to the experience, such as each fallen block adding a beat to the music, and a surprise visual effect accompanying the completion of a Tetris (four rows at once). Tetris Effect is a stunningly beautiful game, but its aesthetic wonders aren’t so much a display of PS4’s hardware capabilities (though they are that too) so much as they are used to showcase an almost spiritual reverence for the Tetris experience. This isn’t merely another port of Tetris, but a gushing love letter to the iconic puzzler. Every audio and visual pleasures serves as its most blatant means of worship towards the grand daddy of falling block games, and to give the player that same level of reverence for Tetris.

“Seriously, I want to eat, sleep and breath this game.”

There are a number of additional modes added to the mix to keep things fresh. One sees players trying to eliminate ‘cursed’ blocks by completing the rows they’re found on, with more cursed blocks spawning after an allotted time. One of my favorite new modes will count down a set number of blocks, and after said blocks are placed, a line block will automatically fall into a designated spot, leaving the player to strategize around the inevitable line blocks. The new modes are fun and plentiful, and give a variety of alternatives for when you want a change of pace.

Sadly, there is one glaring omission with Tetris Effect: it lacks multiplayer. Though players can check out other player profiles around the world and see what modes they’re currently playing or prefer to play, you can never actually play a round of Tetris with another player, whether locally or online. This is more than a little disappointing, given that puzzle games are often at their best when they bring out the competitive nature in multiple players (see Tetris Battle Gaiden). And with the fun new modes Tetris Effect brings to the table, it makes you wish the game would have put that same inventiveness to the test for a multiplayer mode (even something as simple as two or more players taking turns in placing Tetrominos on the same board would bring a fun new twist to the formula). For all the many things Tetris Effect gets right, the absence of any kind of multiplayer mode feels like a missed opportunity.

Tetris Effect may not reinvent the timeless formula Alexey Pajitnov created over three decades ago, but it does deliver an undeniably beautiful experience that may just deepen your appreciation for what is the most accomplished of video games. Tetris Effect expresses such a devout admiration for its source material that it’s impossible not to be taken aback by it.

 

8

Donut County Review

Donut County is an indie game by Ben Esposito. Released in 2018, Donut County was one of the pleasant surprises of the year, and can be described as something along the lines of an inverse Katamari Damacy. While Katamari saw players bundle up as many objects (and people) imaginable to create one giant mass, Donut County sees players take control of a hole in the ground to engulf everything (and everyone) in sight.

“Sometimes the gameplay takes a break and sees the characters texting each other. You can select the duck button to send a quack to the person on the other end. Just because.”

Taking place in the titular county, the primary characters of the game are employees at the local donut shop; Mira, a human, and her boss, BK the raccoon. Whether or not this shop sells actual donuts is up for debate, as most of their business (unbeknownst to Mira at first) is that BK uses a cell phone app to deliver “donuts” to customers…except that these donuts are actually holes in the ground the slowly increase in size as they swallow more objects, and have ultimately been trapping people underground along with their homes and all of their stuff.

The majority of the game is told in flashbacks, as Mira and BK have been sucked down a hole themselves. The other residents of Donut County recount the events of how they got sucked underground, and their stories are then played out as the game’s stages. All the while, the residents of Donut County try to help BK come to the realization that what he did was wrong (he simply wanted to build up points with the app to purchase a drone). It’s a delightfully bonkers game that really does feel like a little love letter to Katamari Damacy.

As stated, the player doesn’t control any characters, but the hole in the ground. The hole always starts out small, and increases in size with the more objects it swallows. You’ll begin stages sending pebbles and flowers down the hole, and gradually work your way to larger objects, before the hole becomes so large it can overtake houses. It all sounds simple – and truth be told it is – but it’s a whole lot of fun and will keep a smile on your face.

Donut County does find ways to keep the concept fresh, with puzzle elements introduced early on, which continue to grow as the game progresses. For example, an early stage sees the player guide the hole to swallow a campfire, which results in smoke emanating from the hole, with the player then guiding the hole under a hot air balloon so the smoke can help it lift off. And later on in the game, BK purchases a “catapult attachment” to the hole, which can launch specific items out of the hole. You can catapult these objects to knock down out of reach items, which may be necessary to increase the size of the hole. Donut County takes its simplistic concept, and finds fun and inventive new ways to utilize it throughout.

The entire campaign of Donut County should take roughly two hours. So it’s a very short game, which isn’t a bad thing (give me a compact but complete game over an overly long one filled with padding any day). The downside, however, is that there’s not too much incentive for replay value other than to complete the ‘Trashopedia” (the collection of objects you’ve sent down holes, with each item having its own humorous description), but chances are you’ll already have the Trashopedia nearly complete after your first playthrough anyway.

There may not be a whole lot of content to make up for the short campaign, but everything that is present in Donut County – simple though it may be – is undeniably charming and fun. Similar to Portal or (you guessed it) Katamari Damacy, Donut County introduces an innovative gameplay concept, and presents it in so many playful ways it will continuously pique players’ interest to see what’s around the next corner.

There are few things in gaming as satisfying as the combination of fun, original gameplay and a unique, quirky charm. Donut County is a terrific example of just that.

 

7

Ask Me Anything IV

 

It’s that time again! I’m fast-approaching my 800th blog here at the Dojo (this particular post is number 790). And that means it’s time for another edition of Ask Me Anything!

Yeah, I know, I never get a whole lot of questions. But who knows, I have a relatively larger following now. Maybe I’ll get a decent amount. But probably not. But maybe.

Anyway, if any of my loyal readers have any questions they’d like to ask me about this site, my opinions on stuff, my hopeful game-development endeavors. Basically anything, really. You can ask multiple questions if you wish. You can even suggest a game or movie you’d like me to review. Just leave your questions and such in the comments of this post, and I will answer them in blog #800.

And I’m thinking after I reach the 800 milestone, I’ll finally get around to my video game awards for 2018. After that, I’ll try to have some surprises in store along with my usual reviews and such.

Now then, ask away!

Glass Review

*Caution: Review contains major spoilers for both Unbreakable and Split*

 

If ever there were a textbook example of how to bring a movie trilogy to a satisfying close… Glass is the exact opposite of it.

Now, to be fair, not everything in Glass is terrible: The early portions show a lot of promise with the concept of a singular film serving as a sequel to two others, and the main players of Bruce Willis as Dennis Dunn, Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah Price (AKA the titular “Mr. Glass”), and James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb (AKA “The Horde” due to the multiple personalities existing within him) bring with them all the talents they brought to Unbreakable and Split. But poor M. Night Shaymalan just can’t help himself. Instead of the satisfying conclusion to Unbreakable and Split’s respective mythologies we were hoping for – or the build-up to more Shaymalan super heroes and villains it could have been – we get an eye-rolling, stereotypical Shaymalanian plot twist that robs the third act of any and all momentum, with the remainder of the film limping feebly to get to the end credits.

It seems like “subverting expectations” is the big thing directors are going for these days. On one hand, I can totally respect that. Audiences don’t want to see the same thing over and over, and seeing something new or being surprised can be a real treat. But there are also times when maybe filmmakers should take a step back and not try to buck trends just for the hell of it. Subverting genre norms can indeed work wonders (M. Night Shaymalan did it himself with Unbreakable). But if you give me the option between a well-directed, good movie that may be a tad formulaic, or a clunky, bad movie that also happens to be original, well, I know which one I’d rather watch.

Glass seems like it’s actively trying to disappoint fans by the end of it. I’m almost impressed with how much effort seems to have gone into giving the “Eastrail 177 trilogy” as unsatisfying of an ending as possible.

Now, again, there is some merit to be had with Glass, but mostly in its first half. David Dunn now operates a security company by day, and dishes out vigilante justice at night. Having embraced his superhuman abilities since the events of Unbreakable, David has earned the monicker of “The Overseer” for the watchful eye he has over the city. The film begins with Dunn tracking down The Beast who, as anyone who watched Split will know, is the super-powered, animalistic personality of Kevin Wendell Crumb (who has a total of twenty-three other, non-super-powered personalities).

When Dunn finds Crumb’s hideaway and rescues his most recent captives, the fight that ensues – true to the nature of the series – is nothing flashy or pretty to look at. It isn’t heavily choreographed and there’s no spectacular stuntwork. It’s an appropriate slugfest between an average Joe and a mentally unstable individual who both just happen to possess super strength.

“There’s a little too much of THIS in the movie. A little more anything else would have been nice.”

But then…the fight abruptly ends, as both men (all twenty-five men?) are then taken into custody by the police, and are sent to a mental institution. Another patient of the institution is Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price, the super genius with fragile bones who served as the deuteragonist/surprise antagonist of Unbreakable. Because of his super intellect, Price is under constant sedation to prevent him from causing harm or escaping. All three men are under the watchful eye of Dr. Ellie Stapler (Sarah Paulson), who believes all three men to be suffering from delusions of grandeur, and that there’s nothing truly ‘super’ about them.

And then… most of the film takes place in the mental institution. That’s right, this crossover sequel featuring a super powered Bruce Willis, an unhinged James McAvoy and an evil genius Samuel L. Jackson is predominantly relegated to the cramped rooms and halls of a mental institute. Gee, I’m sure that’s exactly what fans were hoping for after Split revealed itself as a surprise Unbreakable sequel just before the credits rolled.

Once again, in the name of fairness, I was onboard with the confined setting for a while, as it seems that the film was actually going to be more about David Dunn, Kevin Wendell Crumb and Elijah Price as characters than it was going to be about the epic showdown between the Overseer and the Beast. In that regard, the “subverting of expectations” was making sense to me. But once Glass veers off and takes a wrong turn, it just keeps making them.

At the end of Unbreakable, David Dunn is warned that villains come in different varieties, specifically “soldiers” and “masterminds.” Mr. Glass was revealed to be a mastermind, and when Split revealed that it was in the same world as Unbreakable, Kevin Wendell Crumb’s Beast gave us the answer as to who would play the role of soldier. All Glass really needed to be was the story of these three characters coming together. David Dunn taking on the Beast, the latter under the influence of Mr. Glass. And for a while, that’s what Glass seems to be building towards. But then it decides that isn’t good enough, and instead spends more time with Ellie Stapler trying to convince the established characters that they aren’t comic book characters before shoehorning in an utterly souring plot twist. Glass just overthinks what it needs itself to be, and ultimately stumbles because of it.

Of the three primary characters, only Kevin and his various personalities gets any real time to shine. We even get to see a few more of Kevin’s twenty-four personalities, which gives McAvoy plenty to do. If only Glass were as interested in the Unbreakable side of the spectrum. Once the film gets to the mental institute, David Dunn doesn’t so much feel like the hero of the story so much as a player who happens to be in it. We never really get a sense of motivation from Dunn. And Mr. Glass himself – the namesake of the movie – gets surprisingly little screen time. Of course Samuel L. Jackson steals the show when he’s allowed, but he rarely seems allowed. That’s a true shame, because Unbreakable made Mr. Glass into hands down the best character in any M. Night Shaymalan film.

“Each superhuman has a close affiliate: David has his son, Glass has his mother, Kevin has…his kidnap victim…”

Glass also ends up finding its own ways to cripple the characters that Unbreakable and Split built. Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), the sole survivor of the Beast’s crimes, suddenly seems to hold pity for the kidnapper/murderer/cannibal, which seems to undermine her character growth from Split (I get that Kevin is an ill man, but he literally became a comic book monster, so… kind of hard to feel too sorrowful for the guy). Her sympathy for Kevin can – at the worst of times – almost come off as romantic, which pretty much obliterates her character arc entirely. Combine that with David Dunn’s lack of presence, and Mr. Glass’s limited screen time, and the movie ends up feeling squandered in many different directions.

“Is it too much to ask for a little more Mr. Glass in a movie named after him?”

Once again, I have to admit that there are moments of Glass that are good (one of my particular favorites sees Mr. Glass consoling Kevin’s perpetually nine-year old personality, Hedwig, by reassuring him that he too is ‘special,’ despite not boasting the superhuman abilities of the Beast. It’s one of the few moments that reminds us why Mr. Glass is such an interesting, charismatic character). The film is at its best when it feels like a continuation of Unbreakable and Split. But the more it delves into its own story, the more it seems to go off-the-rails and lose any consistency in themes or tone. It’s as though Shaymalan took his best film (Unbreakable) and his comeback (Split), and put them together while simultaneously forgetting to include the strengths of both films. The director’s infamous weaknesses come into play (“what a twist!”), which makes it feel as though Shaymalan refuses to learn from his past mistakes. That these weaknesses have found their way into the joining together of Unbreakable and Split ends up turning what should have been something special in Glass into a bastardization of both parties involved.

Glass should have been an easy win for Shaymalan. And while it’s far from the director’s worst work (we are talking about the man who helmed The Last Airbender here), it is, unquestionably, his most disappointing film. By the end of it, I can’t imagine any fans of Unbreakable and Split walking away satisfied.

 

3

Split Review

*This review contains spoilers in regards to the “twist” at the end of the film…but that twist should be common knowledge by this point anyway. There are no spoilers in regards to key plot details*

Split was seen as something of a return to form for director M. Night Shyamalan. The once-promising director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable seemed to lose his touch with critics and audiences (and general storytelling coherence) with his post-Unbreakable career. Whether it was relying too heavily on forced twists in obvious attempts to recreate the buzz of The Sixth Sense, or just helming outright cinematic disasters like The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan became more of a parody of himself than he was adding to the legacy he started with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Critics found 2015’s to be a step in the right direction for Shyamalan, before Split arrived a year later and was considered the director’s  comeback. Although it doesn’t reach the same heights of Unbreakable, Split is unquestionably Shyamalan’s best film since (that may not sound like much, but it’s intended as a compliment).

This is pretty appropriate, because (here comes the twist spoiler) Split takes place in the same fictional universe as Unbreakable. Wisely, the film never advertised itself as a sequel, and for the most part, it’s a standalone film. It’s only after the story is done that we get a cameo by Bruce Willis returning as David Dunn that it’s confirmed that the psychological horror film Split is a companion piece to the 2000 super hero flick. It seems like an odd connection, but it makes more sense than it sounds.

The setup of the film is simple enough: three teenage girls; Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) are kidnapped as they’re leaving a party, and are held captive in an underground building. Their captor is Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a man suffering from a severe case of dissociative identity disorder (DID), with Kevin possessing twenty-three different personalities in his body.

It is those multiple personalities within Kevin that help elevate Split from being just another horror movie. Some of Kevin’s personalities, such as the “nine-year old” Hedwig, are friendly to the girls. Others, such as “Patricia” and “Dennis” are more sinister. Kevin’s (current) dominant personality, Barry, is just an average guy working at a zoo. But he’s quickly losing control of Kevin’s body to Patricia and Dennis.

This is where things become a little more “comic book-y,” as Patricia and Dennis both worship a soon-to-be-unleashed twenty-fourth personality, The Beast, who possesses superhuman strength and agility. The Patricia and Dennis personalities are behind the kidnappings, as they plan on ‘sacrificing’ Claire and Marcia – whom Kevin’s wicked personalities deem “unsure” due to their sheltered lives – to the Beast once it awakens (Casie, the heroine of the movie, wasn’t an intended target, but was at the wrong place at the wrong time).

It sounds a bit silly when I type it. But similar to how Unbreakable made a grounded superhero by exaggerating reality, so too does Split with its eventual super villain. It exaggerates DID and concepts like mind over body into the realms of fantasy. Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), believes that different personalities of people with DID can exhibit different body chemistries from one another, but believes the foreshadowed “Beast” to be a figment of Kevin’s imagination, as opposed to another personality, given its promise of outright superhuman ability.

As you might expect, the film is about Casey, Claire and Marcia trying to escape captivity, often by means of finding an Allie in Kevin’s less malicious personalities, with the constant threat that Dennis and Patricia might take over. It’s a fun take on horror tropes that keeps things interesting, and allows for McAvoy to display a good range of acting ability. The film also takes a number of detours into Casey’s troubled childhood, with her harsh past coming into play with her survivability.

Split is a unique movie in that it has since become regarded as the first super villain origin story movie. That’s actually a pretty accurate description, and it cleverly masks this super villain origin story under the guise of a horror film. And Split ultimately works on the levels of both horror and an origin story.

Admittedly, the film does lack any real surprises (though I suppose that’s a godsend compared to the wonky twists Shaymalan is known for), and the horror elements lose some of their psychological edge when the super powers come into play. But overall, Split is a solid effort. It takes a tried-and-true horror setup (escaping a captor), adds a nice spin on the equation through its villain’s multiple personalities, and does a good job at character growth for both Kevin and Casey. And it’s all held together by McAvoy’s versatile (often creepy, sometimes humorous) performance.

 

6

Unbreakable Review

*Minor, non-specific spoilers included in this review*

 

Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 feature, has quite the interesting history. As Shyamalan’s directorial follow-up to The Sixth Sense, audiences and critics had a lukewarm reception to Unbreakable. The Sixth Sense made a huge impact at the time, especially with its big twist at the end (which, in retrospect, seems kind of obvious). Audiences expected another psychological thriller in the same vein as The Sixth Sense, but Unbreakable was a subtle super hero film masquerading as a drama (the super hero aspect was underplayed in marketing, as Disney – who distributed the film under their Touchstone banner – felt the genre wasn’t “lucrative” enough. My, how times change).

Over the years, however, Unbreakable not only gained a cult following, but is now often regarded as M. Night Shyamalan’s best film. Shyamalan himself even regards it as his personal favorite film he’s directed. All this praise is with good reason: Unbreakable is M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie.

Now, given the director’s shaky resume following Unbreakable (to put it lightly), that may sound like a backhanded compliment. But I say this is Shyamalan’s best film with complete sincerity, as Unbreakable was not only a great movie in 2000, but is a rare example of a film that has become deeper and more relevant with age. It would still be two years until Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man turned the super hero film into the go-to genre for blockbusters. And yet, Unbreakable felt like a deconstruction and rethinking of that very genre before it really kicked off.

Unbreakable tells the story of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a security guard and everyman seeking a purpose in life as his marriage begins to fall apart. On his way home from a job interview, his train (the “Eastrail 177”) crashes. Miraculously, David is not only the sole survivor of the train crash, but walks away from the disaster completely unscathed.

At the memorial service for those that perished in the accident, David receives a message to meet with the owner of Limited Edition, a comic book art gallery, who is fascinated with David’s situation.

The owner of Limited Edition is one Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a super genius born with Type I Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a condition which makes the bones extremely fragile and easy to break, earning Price the monicker of “Mr. Glass” during his childhood. Price – a lifelong fan of comic books – has long held a theory that there may be some truth to the superhuman nature of comic book heroes, and that if someone with his extreme frailty exists, then there may exist his extreme oppose, a person who is more or less unbreakable. That is to say, a super hero.

David Dunn, naturally, believes Price to be a kook. But Dunn’s young son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), believes there’s something to Price’s theory. The rest of the film is more or less an origin story, with Dunn coming to the realization that there may have been something more to his miraculous survival than sheer luck. And as David and his son try exploring and coming to terms with his superhuman abilities, they are under constant watch by Price, who begins an uneasy friendship with Dunn.

What really stands out about Unbreakable is that it’s a very grounded super hero film. Dunn may possess traits of invulnerability and superhuman strength, but it’s never presented as particularly farfetched. For example, Dunn begins learning of the depths of his strength when his son adds about two-hundred extra pounds to his daily weightlifting, far more weight than Dunn previously thought he could lift. It may not be ‘realistic‘ per se, but it’s an exaggeration of reality. David Dunn is not about to leap tall buildings or shoot lasers out of his eyes.

There’s nothing wrong with heroes with more fantastic powers, of course. But in this day and age when it seems every blockbuster features numerous characters who can destroy cities with their every grudge match, it’s really interesting to look back on a movie that – in 2000 – tried to subvert that. This was five years before Batman Begins grounded Batman, a super hero who already doesn’t have super powers. But Unbreakable tells the story of a man who possesses superhuman abilities, yet convincingly presents it as real. David Dunn never ends up donning a super suit, though he does end up with raincoat that reflects the capes and cowls of many heroes. Even when David Dunn confronts his heroic nature to stop an evildoer, it doesn’t culminate in an epic battle with a super villain, but saving a family from a (depressingly real) home invasion.

Elijah Price, knowing a thing or two about comic book heroes, often dissects the genre, its heroes and its villains when trying to help David find his place in this mythos. In retrospect, Unbreakable almost seems to be a commentary on the super hero genre, while simultaneously embracing and rethinking it. I enjoy the MCU as much as anyone, but Unbreakable seemed to predict the over saturation of the genre it loves and expresses a means to keep it fresh and unique years before the genre needed help in those departments.

It’s not just genre subversion that makes Unbreakable a captivating entertainment. It also works on a more human level, with David Dunn and Elijah Price being two brilliantly realized characters. Just as much of the film is focused on Dunn trying to work things out with his wife Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) for the sake of his son as there is to Dunn’s discoveries of his superhuman nature. And by description (a man who believes comic book superheroes are real), Elijah Price may sound crazy, but the film does a great job at understanding his mindset, and his yearning to discover his opposite.

Unbreakable works as both a character-driven drama and as an alternative super hero flick. It takes its time to tell an origin story that may only serve as the first act in any other super hero movie, and it’s all the better for it. If Unbreakable features one grave flaw, however, it’s the ending.

No, I’m not talking about the film’s twist (which, unlike many of Shyamalan’s plot twists, feels neither forced nor a crutch for the entire film to hold onto). That twist actually helps shake up the film from a character standpoint. But even Unbreakable’s most diehard fans will tell you that what comes immediately after said twist is disappointing. And that’s because, after the twist, the movie just abruptly ends…with on-screen text. It’s weird, because you can’t imagine there would have been all that much movie left anyway, but it would have helped the movie come to a far more satisfying close if we actually got to see these ending events unfold, instead of simply being told “here’s what happened.” It’s a popcorn fart of an ending to an otherwise captivating movie.

Ending aside, Unbreakable remains a standout feature in the super hero genre. And uniquely, it has only become a greater standout over the course of time, and the countless super hero films that have been released since. Unbreakable is a low-key character drama and innovative dissection of the super hero genre that has, like a fine wine, only gotten better with age.

 

7