Fashionable people these days don't like to put themselves into the position of judging good from evil. It's not that we don't think they exist; but talking about evil, while it doesn't any longer mean you believe in the Devil, is tough without talking about good, and that leads to discussions about God. And no one talks seriously about God in polite society.

In our pop culture, therefore, the distinction between good and evil has been relegated to the past, and to fantasy: Nazi Germany is the only symbol of real-live evil left for moviemakers (or, for that matter, for the rest of us; whenever we need to call someone evil, like Milosevic or Hussein, we call them Hitlers). The second place where good and evil is still taken seriously is the world of comic books. Comic books still speak in the old tongue of moral imperatives. In everyday comic titles such as "Batman," "Superman," and "Justice League of America," there are naked depictions of good and evil. There are demi-gods who fight against demons, heroes who battle villains.

Our need for this moral universe helps explain the popularity of TV shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and the summer's box-office triumph "X-Men." Now M. Knight Shyamalan, who gave us the overrated "The Sixth Sense" last year, has woven the modern desire for superheroes into a sparkling film, "Unbreakable."

"Unbreakable" begins with simple white text on a black screen, as Shyamalan sets the table with some facts about the obsessiveness of comic collectors. The audience then meets Elijah Price (played by Samuel L. Jackson), a man who suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, a disorder which leaves him a brittle, fragile human being whose sheltered life has not stopped him from suffering 54 broken bones. Afraid of the world, Price has immersed himself in comic books since a young age, and he now lives as a wealthy comic-book art dealer. The camera then turns to David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a security guard who is a passenger on a train that derails. Everyone on the train is killed, save David, who escapes unharmed.

The news of David's miraculous escape leads Elijah to seek him out. Elijah has a pet theory: If the cosmos can create a being as frail and sickly as himself, he supposes, then it stands to reason that there should exist his opposite, a man who is unbreakable. A superhero.

Sensible, working-class David isn't very receptive to Elijah's idea, but part of him wants to believe that he is special, that he might be Good. As Elijah entreats David to use his powers, he says, "We are living in mediocre times. People are starting to lose hope."

To give away more would be to spoil the fun. Suffice it to say that Shyamalan avoids the pitfalls of inconsistency that marred "The Sixth Sense" and that "Unbreakable" stands as a stubbornly elegant piece of filmmaking. With the washed out blues and grays of his palette, the odd and gratifying camera angles and the long, long, sinewy takes--"Unbreakable" may have fewer cuts than any movie released in the last five years--Shyamalan joins young directors Paul Anderson and Steven Soderbergh to form the most talented troika since Coppola, Scorsese, and Spielberg. The analogies to those '70s giants are startling: The methodical Steve Soderbergh is the workaholic we saw in Coppola, the ambitious and mind-bogglingly gifted Anderson resembles Martin Scorsese, and, by making good on the promise of "The Sixth Sense," the zealously commercial Shyamalan has put in a bid to be his generation's Steven Spielberg.

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