View Full Version : Reaction to "Signs": the religious theme overwhelms the sci-fi thriller

Chris Knipp
08-06-2002, 07:23 PM
When he was still in his late twenties, M. Night Shyamalan seemed to appear full blown as an important Hollywood director when “The Sixth Sense,” (1999) starring Bruce Willis and the amazing Haley Joel Osment, was a big box office hit. Actually when “Sixth Sense” appeared, Shyamalan had already directed two forgotten movies, the first when he was 22. He’s written the screenplays for all five of his own movies, including the less profitable “Unbreakable,” and also for “Stuart Little,” which appeared the same year as “The Sixth Sense.” Now with another major production, “Signs,” just out, “Newsweek” has run a cover calling him “The next Spielberg.” Maybe he is, since Spielberg has produced flops too, both artistically and financially.

In some ways Shyamalan is, I agree, a wonderful director. I love the fact that he can work in a popular vein and still appeal to sophisticated viewers. He manages to operate in conventional ways and still create fresh effects. He’s great with actors. He writes his own stuff. He has chutzpah; he has control. But while an admirer would say he plays the audience like a violin, a detractor would say he’s just manipulative. The only thing that’s really clear is that he’s a director to watch. I wouldn’t be likely to miss one of his movies, and I was out on the first day of release to see “Signs.” I had a good time, as did the large, predominantly young Friday night audience I shared the experience with. I wasn’t deeply moved, and I wasn’t even scared. But I was entertained: I had fun. In the end, I was still in doubt, though, about how great a future lies ahead for M. Night Shyamalan. Another Spielberg? That could be all too true, in view of the mixed box office and artistic success of Spielberg’s most recent efforts.

In a way, “Signs” is an improvement over Shyamalan’s two previous movies in that it drops their hokey spirituality and mysticism in favor of a simple quest for faith, seen in terms of Mel Gibson’s rediscovering his commitment as an Episcopal minister after six months of taking off the collar when his wife dies in an accident. After a bout with aliens that leaves him, his two small children, and his younger brother still alive and well, he decides that the world is not random, after all. As part of getting down to basics, Shyamalan makes no attempt to be original in his plot, and throughout the movie he borrows from a lot of directors and films including Speilberg, Hitchcock, “The Night of the Living Dead,” “Field of Dreams,” “The Birds,” and a host of others. The debt to Hitchcock is signaled at the outset with the self-consciously Fifties looking credits with accompanying “Psycho” knockoff music by James Newton Howard. Shyamalan welds all these influences and sources together openly and shamelessly to create a kind of “American Gothic” of a sci-fi alien movie with an overriding religious agenda.

Here we have everyman, living in everyhouse, with everybrother and everychild – two everychildren, actually, played with generic charm by Rory Culkin (as Morgan) and Abigail Breslin (as Bo). Shyamalan brought out Bruce Willis’ tender, sensitive side: one could almost say he created a whole new Bruce Willis. He does something similar with Mel Gibson as “Father” Graham Hess, this man full of doubt and anguish. Gibson is a little grimmer and a little more humorless than one might wish, but what can you expect? The man has lost his wife in a horrible accident, he’s lost his faith, and he thinks he’s about to lose his remaining family to nasty creatures from outer space that cut huge patterns in his cornfield and appear poised to take over the earth for their own devious purposes -- to “harvest” the human race, voices on TV and radio say. This is a lot to handle, even for Mel Gibson. He does a good job. Joaquin Phoenix seems an inspired choice as Merrill, Graham’s neer-do-well baseball hero younger brother. Phoenix, who can make a loser warm and sympathetic, brings a little ordinariness into the scene: Mel Gibson alone would be too iconic, and the kids too generic. We have to be grateful for Phoenix’s presence here, and indeed for that of Shyamalan himself as the culprit who caused Graham’s wife’s death.

In the early scenes Shyamalan strives for simplicity. Actors are constantly photographed head-on. This somehow makes the dialogue more effective, and it’s often funny. The director doesn’t take himself so dreadfully seriously this time – well, not all the time. The picture of the two kids and Joaquin Phoenix sitting on a couch with conical foil hats is charmingly silly. Shyamalan is having fun with the gimcracky tradition of Fifties sci-fi movies here. The veteran cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, who filmed “Badlands” and some of Jonathan Demme’s best movies, provides consistently striking and beautifully lit images.

The trouble with the later part of the movie is that manipulation really does take over and obviates the need, it would seem, for plot. Why do Graham and Merrill board up all the windows? Who’s told them that the aliens are headed for their house, or for Bucks County, Pennsylvania? When it was all over I felt cheated, remembering all the chills and thrills “Night of the Living Dead” takes you through in the same kind of situation. Instead of all the creepy ghouls and the humans horribly turned into ghouls, all we get is a tall skinny guy in a wet suit squirting some gas in a boy’s face. The point is that Romero’s ghouls are an engine that moves on its own and multiplies and regenerates itself, whereas Shyamalan’s aliens aren’t clearly established as anything. In his concentration on what happens to the lapsed priest and his little family in the iconic Pennsylvania farm house, the director fails to establish a sense of true menace from outside. The menace also ends all too easily. “They were turned back.” “They went away.” What about the boy Morgan’s information from a book that they’ll come back, madder than ever? Shyamalan doesn’t care, because his true agenda is to depict a restoration of faith. He’s juggling too many different colored balls in the air, and some of them get dropped.

08-09-2002, 02:21 PM
I would bet that you were young and impresionable (as I was) when I first saw "Night of the Living Dead". It scared me as a child, but when I recently viewed it on DVD, the zombies simply lack any menace. The malevolent intelligence of the aliens in "Signs" makes them much more threatening. In fact, what isn't shown gets our imagination flowing. What kinds of ships do they have, what kinds of weapons and technology? This is ignored because we are seeing the "invasion" from the point of view of a family unit. We aren't the expert scientist (War of the Worlds) or the President in charge of the battle (Independence Day). The appearance of the alien in the living room gave me the same "goose-bump" effect as the appearance of the creature in Howard Hawkes "The Thing from another World".

If I were the two adult males and had heard on the news that the aliens were going to engage in hand to hand comabt, I would have certainly boarded up the windows and doors. In fact I might have rolled some tractors or farm equipment up against the doors a la "Dawn of the Dead".

I agree that the movie was somewhat manipulative, but Van Gogh certainly manipulated nature in his "Cornfield with Crows" Thanks God!, otherwise it would just be painting on the wall at Elmer's Pancake House.

08-09-2002, 11:25 PM
I just have to say that Signs is truly a great example of some terrible writing. The acting is great and there are some interesting scenes in the movie, but the end result left me wanting to write a letter to M. Night himself demanding my money back!! Aliens come to earth to take it over and don't even bring anything that could break down a door?? This movie had me laughing for all the wrong reasons.

08-10-2002, 02:08 PM
As usual with this director, this was a powerful drama within the framework of a supernatural thriller. The aliens weren't explained beyond some snippets of news coverage that was just guesswork by the reporters. The lack of explanation is much better than too much exposition which invariably slows the movie and takes OUR imagination out of the equation. We were never sure if the aliens wanted to invade or just raid the human population for food etc. It was assumed that the aliens were using hand-to-hand combat rather than technology to avoid the nuclear capabilities of the humans. But rather than a thesis on alien tactics (which is slightly hilarious because this assumes we know what aliens would do if they showed up) this movie was about how this small family unit dealt with the eerie and menacing prospect of having to defend their homes from unpredictable invaders.

Chris Knipp
08-10-2002, 03:04 PM
I agree with you, but I still stick to my point that the movie is hurt by the lack of development of the aliens because the writer-director let the religious theme take over to the point where he completely dropped the sci-fi ball . In a sci-fi horror movie, you have to make up stuff. M. Night could have kept the aliens completely invisible and unknown, and that might have worked. But having shown first the lights of their spaceships and then a glimpse of one plus some claws under doors, he had to develop them more than he did.

08-11-2002, 11:52 AM
The end left me feeling like the whole point of the the film was that God sent aliens to earth just so Mel Gibson would start believing in him/her again. Why? And isn't Mel Gibson's God, according to his Christian religion, also the creator of the aliens? So in the end, God killed his wife and gave his son asthma, just so they could survive an alien attack that God created in the first place. So pointless. I did enjoy the film though, all the way up to the rediculous final scene of Mel returning to the church.

Chris Knipp
08-11-2002, 12:30 PM
You're right, but God didn't plant those aliens, M. NIght Shyamalan did. It seems so crazy and that's why I think if M. Night wants to deal with God issues, he should stick to real life, which is crazy enough. Free will vs. determinism is a chicken/egg issue that is ultimately insoluble, very much an issue in this movie, though, for sure, but the ultimate responsiblity belongs to the director. Shyamalan is the god of "Signs."

08-20-2002, 02:48 PM
The aliens were an outside threat, it doesn't matter if the threat is zombies, space aliens, angry bikers or a rusty old truck that is the menace. There is nothing like a crisis to bring out someone's real character. The group dynamic is also of importance.

This wasn't "Close Encounters" where the concept of non-terrestrial intelligence was treated as some scientific breakthrough. The aliens were simply an ominous outside threat. It was something new that had to be dealt with. Gibson even said there are certain people who look at the events as a miracle and others who look at them with 50/50 chance of being good or bad.

I think it's courageous to require MORE of the viewer rather than settle for the same old humdrum alien invasion sci-fi drek.

Lady Jaiven
08-26-2002, 04:23 PM
This is my view of the movie...

It is about a man who lost his faith in God, and even in the midst of that, God still took care of him, He saved his child.. The man's wife had died, causing him to lose faith in God, caused him to stop preaching God's word. The man didn't even want to ask God for help, and God made circumstances and saved his son. If you are looking for a hardcore sci fi movie, this isn't it. It starts off as such, but I feel like it was a really good movie. One of the best I've seen. I felt the message was a refreshing break from what you usually see in movies...

This is my review that I wrote at another site...

Not what I expected, but an awesome movie :)

I saw Signs tonight and it was far from what I expected. I expected a movie w/lots of suspense and action, something scary, but what it ended up being a movie which, to me, gave a great spiritual lesson. The movie did have aliens and its scary parts, but the whole message throughout was the awesome part in my opinion. It taught about faith in God and believing. It details a mans spiritual journey from being a priest to a man who didn't want to believe and then.... well, you have to see the movie. There were a few times I was scared out of my wits, but all in all, it's a good movie... Had it's comedic parts also... I highly recommend this.