Sunday, January 10, 2016

Off Script: Signs

Film: Signs
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

As hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when people believed in the various talents of M. Night Shyamalan. While his first couple of films were no great thing, his third film, The Sixth Sense was a significant breakthrough. His second major film, Unbreakable, didn’t get the same critical acclaim, but still gets a lot of love in the movie nerd circles for being a unique take on the super hero genre. Signs was his third major film, and it gets a lot of love from a lot of people as well. For me, though, this is where Shyamalan started to lose his edge.

Even if you haven’t seen Signs, you probably know the basic plot. Farmer Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) and his family find a crop circle in their corn field, which is located a few dozen miles outside of Philadelphia. A few strange events occur in the area—people showing up in the local town, causing problems, and then disappearing and animals acting strangely. In fact, one of Hess’s dogs seems to go crazy and has to be killed by Morgan (Rory Culkin), Graham’s asthmatic son. Graham also lives with his young daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin) and his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a failed minor league baseball player. It’s important to know off the top that Graham’s wife was killed when the local vet (Shyamalan himself) fell asleep while driving and struck her. It’s also important to note that this event caused Graham Hess to give up his position in the local pulpit, not that this stops anyone from calling him “Father.”

As the film continues, it becomes more and more evident that the crop circle in the Hess cornfield isn’t a local prank. If it is a prank, it’s extremely well-coordinated, since crop circles have started appearing all over the world, all within a few dozen miles of major cities around the world. Not too long after this, lights appear in the sky over Mexico City, and then more and more cities afterwards. And then footage of the aliens themselves arrive.

The final act of the film consists the aliens attacking the planet. What we see is limited to the Hess farm—we don’t see the battles in New York or Tokyo, but only these four people trying to stay alive. All of these things are what Signs does really well. Shyamalan still had a talent for using his camera well here, for showing us just enough to scare us without showing us everything, at least for the bulk of the film’s running time.

What I object to more than anything is the film’s basic theology, and make no mistake--Signs is very much a film that has a theological position. That theological position is that everything happens for a reason. Every terrible thing that happens to us in life is there for a specific purpose. There are no coincidences at all, and this is because everything is somehow programmed. It’s a disturbingly fundamentalist view of life. If you haven’t yet seen Signs, you can consider the rest of this review as a spoiler. It’s impossible to really go through my objections without going through the final confrontation with the aliens.

Here are the things you need to know or to be reminded of if it’s been awhile since you’ve seen Signs. First, Graham’s wife’s last words were to tell him to see and to tell Merrill to swing away. Second, Bo has a habit of leaving half-full glasses of water around the house. Third, Morgan’s asthma is severe enough that it completely blocks his breathing and is life threatening. Fourth, when Graham goes to visit the vet, the vet tells him that he thinks the aliens don’t like water. Fifth, Merrill holds a distance record for home runs, and the bat is hanging in the family living room. Sixth, water actually is evidently an acid for the alien anatomy. Seventh and finally, the aliens can spray a poison gas that kills at close range.

So, knowing all of that, we get a perfect storm of “there are no coincidences” at the end of the film. Morgan’s lungs close up just before an alien sprays him. Graham sees Merrill’s bat and tells Merrill to start swinging. He does, and it happens that many of Bo’s half-full glasses of water spill on the alien, demonstrating its weakness. All of this happens so that Merrill can go full De Niro in The Untouchables on the alien and so that Morgan won’t die.

What’s the problem? Because the implications are staggering. Shyamalan’s God engineered the death of Graham’s wife, ruined Merrill’s baseball career, and gave Morgan a life-threatening condition so that all of these events could transpire. It’s narcissistic in the extreme. Evidently nothing was done for the thousands of others who were unceremoniously killed by the aliens and their poison or dragged back to the mothership for experiments or to be eaten, all so Graham Hess could regain his faith and end the film by putting his collar back on. It’s almost offensively stupid. This doesn’t even go into the idea that the aliens, who find water to be a corrosive and fatal substance, have decided to invade a planet that is about two-thirds water.

Am I overthinking this? Some might say I am, but I don’t think so, since this does seem to be in line with the beliefs of a great many people. Their god, like Shyamalan’s, is an eternal puppet master, wreaking havoc around the world so that one of his chosen could be put back on the right path. It’s a “screw everyone else; God loves me” mentality that is a step away from straight solipsism, and not a full step.

It’s a shame, too, because the set up of the film and the premise really are good, and in general the performances are pretty solid all the way through. So, ultimately, the first two-thirds fit in to the good section of Shyamalan’s directing career while the third act appears to be the beginning of his slide into films like The Lady in the Water and The Last Airbender. As a final note, I should mention that while Signs does have some horror elements, I've tagged it that way here only because it's on one of my horror movie lists.

Why to watch Signs: A great premise.
Why not to watch: Ugly theological implications.


  1. Complete agreement, here, with your theological interpretation. My brother David also scoffed at the scene in which Mel Gibson is at the dinner table, eating and crying. Somewhat like you, David had to wonder what these aliens were thinking, invading a world with water in its atmosphere. I found the whole thing silly.

    Facetious theory: once ol' Uncle M. Night stopped using Bruce Willis, things went south.

    1. Facetious or not, it seems to be true.

      I really want to like Signs, but I can't. The theology seems so juvenile to me that it brings the whole thing down.

  2. You are not overthinking this. The people who defend the much stupidness in this movie are not thinking at all.

    My niece and nephew loved it when it came out on DVD. They watched it all the time and went through a roll of tinfoil using it to make hats and hiding under the kitchen table.

    1. A lot of people really do love this movie, and they tend to be the ones who tell me I'm overthinking.

      Well, I think you need to go through the implications of what you're putting on the screen. If Shyamalan's god is powerful enough to engineer everything to get him to put the collar back on, then he was powerful enough to save his wife years earlier.

  3. My biggest problem with the film was when it went from being scary to being stupid. They barely show the aliens, and the family is holed up in the cellar, and things are really scary. Then they go somewhere else, see the aliens, wound one, and the damn thing TRACKS THEM DOWN TO WREAK HIS REVENGE. That just lost me right there.

    I didn't put anywhere near the thought you did into the theology; I mostly shrugged it all off as "gee, isn't that convenient" in a sarcastic tone.

    Unbreakable is actually my favorite of his films because I didn't see the twist coming in it. The Sixth Sense was heavily advertised as having a twist, so I was thinking about what it might be and figured it out. Unbreakable was made before there was a known pattern that he would have some kind of twist, so I wasn't looking for one at all. By the time I saw The Village I figured it out about 5-10 minutes in.

    1. The first time I saw this, I must've blinked at the wrong moment, because I didn't realize that the alien in the house was the same one with the chopped off fingers. But this time through, it did indeed earn an eyeroll.

      Seems like you agree with my basic thought--great set-up with a crap resolution.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with this review. This is one of the dumbest films I have ever seen for the reasons you give plus at least one more of my own. All of the other aliens are off attacking the major cities, so are these just a couple of slackers hanging around this damn farm? And I haven't even mentioned that the idea of water being acidic to an entire species is ridiculous to begin with because that's pretty much the one thing that has to be present for their to be life. I'm willing to let that slide because it is a movie, but then yeah, why come here?

    1. I didn't even get into the fact that the aliens are, indeed, seeming to focus quite a bit on a podunk town in Pennsylvania. One has to wonder about the alien plans. "We'll hit London, Paris, Moscow, Shanghai, Bumblefuck..."

    2. They sent some underachieving recruits to Bumblefuck, Pa., to get Mel Gibson's autograph.

    3. Honestly, that's as good a motivation as any I've come up with.