Friday, October 7, 2011


Note the details to the alien skin throughout Signs as it appears to map or capture images from its surroundings like a chamelon.

"So what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you. Are you the kind that sees signs, sees miracles or do you believe that people just get lucky?" -Graham Hess [Mel Gibson]-

Like the mysteries surrounding crop circles or formations, an immediately identifiable symbol for the film Signs [2002], the career of M. Night Shyamalan has become something of a mystery too.

This is the kind of shot that fills the viewer with the greatest fear. Many have explained away crop circles as nothing more than the creation of human ingenuity, despite the lack of eyewitness accounts, while still others remain skeptical suspecting ufological roots. The latter is clearly the belief in Shyamalan's eerily entertaining 2002 film. Shyamalan takes the crop concept and spins a quietly thrilling yarn around a whole mythology for Signs and the idea of an impending alien invasion in a style reminiscent of classic episodes of The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits.

Not unlike the mysteries of the crop circle, it seems the evolution of Shyamalan's career has become nearly as baffling. Perhaps we could glean something about the disintegration of Shyamalan's career from the title of the film itself, because the quality of the film certainly doesn't suggest the kind of glitz and flash of Hollywood special effects pictures that accompany pictures like Skyline or Battle: Los Angeles to name just a few.

In the grand scope of science fiction filmmaking, Signs is a small or at least modest film focused on the idea of faith lost or the reclamation of faith amidst an alien incursion. There are big ideas and there's generally strong execution to a film with an impressive cast headed by Mel Gibson.

Signs feels like the last film Shyamalan assembled that received reasonably strong reviews. There's no question it has its problems, but on the whole Signs is a solid, understated entry in the science fiction tradition thanks to a wonderfully restrained performance by Gibson. You could call it something of a man crush, but the man is an amazing talent. His work in front-of and behind-the-camera, despite his personal troubles, remains mesmerizing and fascinating to behold and experience.

There are simple moments, as the reality of an alien takeover sets in, this may indeed be the last supper. The suggestion is not lost as there is an unrelenting spiritual component to Signs.

This may be one of the quietest of alien invasions, but Signs is all the more powerful for it and that approach is reflected in the mood, tone and general creepiness of what we can't see. The use of baby monitors picking up a frequency that captures alien chatter is particularly affecting. It's that kind of simple detail and Shyamalan's willingness to stay in the quiet moment that really pulls us into the story. Having said that, the score by James Newton Howard is implemented in all of the most perfectly chosen moments to heighten the suspense. It's an even more sphisticated thriller because of Newton's score and Shyamalan's use of sound effects. It takes the picture to another level.

Where Battle: Los Angeles, Independence Day and others go for the grand, balls-to-the-wall approach of alien arrivals, Signs slows things down. Of course, it acts as a backdrop to a film that grapples with a family on the fragile edge of emotional stability. It grabs you by the throat by balancing familial unease and uncertainty with the disturbing events that surround them. It's true action-driven films often leave us breathless, but Shyamalan approaches his film with that old-fashioned science fiction approach that leaves us holding our collective breath.

More fear. How many alien invasion films give us three-dimensional characters where you actually care about what happens to them in a cornfield at night with a flashlight? Shyamalan does right by his characters mostly, fleshing them out and giving them personalities and stories and elements to their lives that inform who they are in Signs.

Speaking of spiritual, Signs' central figure is Reverend Graham Hess, a man of shaken faith. How did Reverend Graham Hess, his brother Merrill, played delightfuly by Joaquin Phoenix, and Graham's two kids, Morgan and Bo (played by Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin respectively), come to reside under the same roof? This is slowly revealed and what came of the father's wife is positively heartbreaking. Signs is undeniably a character-centric picture placed squarely in the midst of the impending invasion a la War Of The Worlds, but the focus is on themes of faith and world view and what becomes of a small family and how they handle events as they unfold. Steven Spielberg's War Of The Worlds took a similar approach typically amping up the action and special effects to good effect. But the films that focus on character are more logically successful as experienced in these two PG-13 outings.

Here, the Hess family is the perfect representation of us - real people. These are damaged folk with understandably real psychological problems stemming from traumatic events, yet positive catharsis, a rare thing in contemporary cinema, is possible.

Like the equally strong and authentic Fire In The Sky [1993], there's a small town feel to the picture, with wide, sparse spreads of Pennsylvania land. Crop circles, aliens flitting about corn fields, global sightings [a freeze frame reminiscent of the classic Bigfoot image] across the globe achieve much more with atmosphere and fear of the unknown than with cheesy special effects. We don't need to see anything, but it's always nice in small doses. Signs is able to create the feel of impending doom without grand effects or blowing things up in your face for two hours. What a treat.

Even the terrific finale as the family boards up the family home against the oncoming assault is a symbol of the psychological assault on the American family as represented by the Hess quartet. The ending is an impressive piece in the film, but it is in keeping with the film that came before it. It is still small in tone and mood. Shyamalan never feels the need to make it bigger than the rest of his picture. Thus the spirit and continuity of the film as far as pacing and mood is consistent and powerful.

There are certainly missteps. There are a few poor edits and perhaps a few logic issues. Some events and responses seem a little forced, contrived and uncomfortable in spots, but generally things are played with a good degree of honesty, simplicity and believability. The simple Twilight Zone is perfect for Shyamalan's storytelling approach.

Signs may not have been the episode-ending gotchya of The Sixth Sense, but for me, it was easily a better film than Unbreakable and arguably as strong and subdued as The Sixth Sense classic for which he's known.

SPOILER ALERT: The film may not have a final WOW moment, but it still generates a surprise. The classic final moment of the alien's reflection in the television screen at the film's end is perhaps one of the great freak outs in science fiction. It also works within the context of the story without simply being another 'The Terminator just won't die' moment. SPOILER ALERT END.

There are some great scares in this film in keeping with the quiet best of science fiction and horror. It's a delight to witness the power in a scene as simple and effective as this one.

And even more fear. We don't actually see aliens appear much at all. In fact, I did my best to capture the physical highlights. The roof moment is barely noticeable without a freeze frame. The film is conveyed almost entirely through mood and style and I commend Shyamalan for that approach. It's a brave one. Having said that, this is not simply an example of style over substance, but the wonderful result of both.
Since Signs, the director has either self-destructed as a filmmaker to some degree over his last series of films or the media has it in for him. I don't think I can remember a more signficant or greater fall from directorial grace than I can with Shyamalan. They are not kind. Truthfully, I cannot comment with any degree of accurate reflection as The Village [2004] is all I've seen and I wasn't as much an advocate of that film. A friend of mine swears by its genius. The Village is arguably the film that began his downfall. The financial returns following that film would offer proof of its impact on his work going forward. Shyamalan certainly has his detractors, but a good many see genius even in his misses.

Lady In The Water [2006], The Happening [2008] and of course the silly The Last Airbender [2010] all remain films I have not explored. Was The Last Airbender that bad? Admittedly, it did not look good, but I wasn't a fan of the animated series either. I'm intrigued by the previous two pictures still.

Signs was made for just 72 million dollars. It grossed 408 million. It was a financial and artistic success, which is why it's so staggering that Shyamalan would falter following Signs. All signs pointed to a fairly profitable and artistically successful future. I recall going to see Signs as something of an event. Mel Gibson, aliens, the man who made The Sixth Sense all rolled into one spelled success. This could be something and for the mopst part it was. I might say that it wasn't what I expected, but it's turned out to be more with repeat viewings.

Roger Ebert called Shyamalan a "born filmmaker" who "ditched a payoff" because "payoffs have grown boring." Signs had its fair share of critics too. Todd McCarthy of Variety called it "meager." Rex Reed dubbed it "dull and recycled." Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer said the film "lacked emotional conviction." I think Sarris has something here. Some of the emotionally-charged moments aren't convincing and reactions sometimes don't feel quite right. The death of the family dog comes to mind. So he's not entirely wrong. Peter Canavese (Groucho Reviews) called it the "anti-Independence Day, a cousin of Close Encounters," and this is a good thing. Christopher Smith of the Bangor Daily News was brutal apparently spotting "crap circles." Derek Adams [Time Out] saws sparks of Spielberg and Hitchcock as I noted earlier in the similarity to Spielberg's War Of The Worlds take with family at the core of the story. James Verniere [Boston Herald] got cute calling it "Close Encounters Of Th Corny Kind." Sometimes you just can't catch a break. So you see for every positive there seemed to be a counter to the argument, but reaction was generally more positive. I see, not dead people, but a film interested in the value of living. Signs is a representation of the miracle as much as it is a symbol of alien visitors through crop circles.

It's a film too whereby Shyamalan does some truly splendid things with fear and apprehension, but maybe not always delivering it convincingly. There's a sense of over-manipulation to the dialogue and a given moment, but I'm willing to forgive those awkward instances to delight in the bigger picture and enjoy the craft of its principles inside of a faith-based, sci-fi thriller.

Signs is a strong film and seeing it several times I enjoy nuances, close-ups, facial expressions and other notable aspects of the film that still appear to reveal themselves to me. While it may not unfold as naturally as Robert Lieberman's Fire In The Sky, with its sometimes overly contrived script, it's still a fascinating film and one to admire as much as enjoy. The strikingly subtle film truly magnifies the intensity of the mood Shyamalan was shooting for and pictures like this don't get much better. It's fair to say Signs is a noteworthy entry in your alien abduction sub-genre and for the Mel Gibson film library [does the man deliver a lemon?]. The gentle power of the film suggests there were no signficant signs of Shymalan's demise based on the material here. No doubt the media will continue its critical shellacking of the director and "swing away" just the same. That's what they do. As it stands, like those crop formations, Signs is a deliciously portentous science fiction film in the tradition of the classics.
Signs: B+


le0pard13 said...

Excellent review and examination of this film, SFF. Alas, I very much agree this was M. Night's last really solid film (though there are parts of THE VILLAGE that work... kinda, sorta... okay, his fall really started there). The cast, story, and mood of SIGNS really does make this one work very well. Like his previous films, I can come back to it again and again, and enjoy the experience. I'm probably more fond of UNBREAKABLE more than you, but that, THE SIXTH SENSE, and this film were a tremendous trio. So much so, it really makes me wonder where the man's talent went with the films that came afterwards. I mean, I literally have no words to the mess that is THE HAPPENING. I'm actually to the point that I'm leery hearing his name attached to a project. Oh, well. At least we have those three. Thanks for this.

SFF said...

Thank you Michael.

I know exactly what you mean abut The Village. I enjoy many aspects of that film. I do like it. I just never loved it. Part of it was that I knew where it was going about midway through the film.

Unbreakable was good. Maybe I will need to see it again someday.

It is quite a nice trio, even quartet of films [if you include The Village]. Any thoughts on Lady In The Water. I like Ron Howard's daughter, Bryce, so that film would interest me.

But, it never did well at the cinemas or with the critics.

Now, I respect your opinion and here you are not speaking highly of The Happening. Funny that the tagline to Signs is "It's HAppening."

So you didn't care for The Happening?

Anyway, Signs, is a fine picture.

le0pard13 said...

Thanks for the response, SFF. Yes, SIGNS is a fine picture. Especially, with Mel being very un-Mel-Lethal Weapon-like. He managed to do a lot by mild expression, given the amount of close-ups done in the movie.

Now, just my opinion, and I'm sure others can/will differ with it (which is okay), but THE HAPPENING doesn't work -- for me, anyways. I tried for the longest to analyze why I thought it didn't, only to be frustrated in my attempt to re-watch the film critically. Luckily, someone with a good deal of movie script experience distilled exactly the 'why' of it. I'll refer you, and your readers, to the article below. If you haven't seen the film, there are spoilers within the piece. You might want to see the movie first, however, before reading (YMMV):

Fixing "The Problem": The Happening

Thanks, SFF.

SFF said...

I'll definitely check that link out.

My only question regarding Signs would be: why did the aliens finally decide to attack? Were they simply observing from afar for a period? Perhaps so.

Thanks again for the link Michael!