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Non-Review Review: Signs

You know what? Even though history and experience has retroactively soured the movie, with M. Night Shyamalan’s career entering freefall and Mel Gibson’s personal problems clouding his career, I kinda like Signs. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that the movie represents Shymalan’s last good film. That said, it’s a well-constructed and engaging little thriller that is, unfortunately, hugely flawed. Some of these flaws are so fundamental that they’re hard to ignore, but I think that this movie was the last time that Shyamalan demonstrated a real organic talent and skill for film making.

Shine a light on it...

In my own opinion, Unbreakable is the finest film in Shyamalan’s back catalogue, and it’s also the only really great film the director has produced. Don’t get me wrong, his breakout hit The Sixth Sense is a solid little thriller, but I think it is undermined by its twist, to the point where it weakens significantly on repeat viewings. Once the surprise wears off, the flaws in the film’s internal logic begin to show and the shines comes off just a little bit. It’s the same sort of problems that riddle Signs, except I think the movie suffers because audiences (and critics) have become more aware of them, and less tolerant, as the director’s career progressed. I think if The Sixth Sense had been released after a few of Shyamalan’s other films, the response would have been a lot more muted. But I’ll discuss The Sixth Sense at another time.

Signs is a small little alien invasion movie, set almost exclusively on a small family-run farm, dealing with the spiritual and philosophical implications of the arrival of alien lifeforms on our planet. Shyamalan actually works the concept quite well, because he’s adept at handling suspense – and the movie is built around it. It’s the heightened sense that nobody really knows what is coming, as the movie shifts from mysterious crop circles through to phantom intruders and on to video footage from around the globe. The threat and the discomfort rises constantly, and carefully. Shyamalan is putting a pressure cooker on, and the temperature climbs.

Children of the corn...

Along the way, the movie follows a lapsed reverend and his struggles with his own faith, horribly dented by a freak accident in his past. In many ways, the movie isn’t so much about the invaders from another world (which is what makes it somewhat easier, but still quite difficult, to overlook the rather fundamental logical flaws in their plan), but rather is about a single individual’s struggle with their own internal belief system. I’ll concede that Shyamalan isn’t exactly subtle in how he handles this aspect of the story – there are more than a few moments of dialogue and flashback when the film strays into heavy-handed territory – but it’s still a nice little theme to see explored a bit. It seems rather earnest in how it deals with these ideas, but is never obnoxious or ridiculous.

And, in fairness to Shyamalan, I think this movie might stand as the best illustration of his skill as a director. I honestly think that his work here can be fairly described as “Hitchcockian”, without descending to hyperbole. His manner of framing shots, as well as the way he handles several “jump” moments, illustrate that he knows his craft. In fact, I suspect that he might be a stronger director than a writer. Still, his recent efforts don’t really support that argument.

Bedtime reading...

I especially like the way the director shoots “around” the invaders, even though lesser directors would take advantage of CGI to show them in all their glory. Instead, knowing that sometimes “less is more”, instead frequently films the creatures in obscured or distorted reflections, and opts for some wonderfully creative shots rather a bland documentarian style. Consider, for example, the way that the director puts together a confrontation with a straggler – many other films would take great pleasure in showing off their special effects in headache-inducing detail, but you get the sense Shyamalan could have easily done it without using any CGI at all.

Of course, the whole film is significantly undermined by the alien invasion itself. Before we get down to the most obvious problem, there’s the way that Shyamalan deals with the fact that his aliens are acting somewhat counter-intuitively. Hess’ young son buys a book on possible alien invasions which just so happens to explain, in great detail, why an abstract and hypothetical invasion would actually look exactly like the one Shyamalan documents. In fairness, the movie does acknowledge that it’s just a little bit of a cheat (“how could anybody know that?” Hess asks, and the audience nods), but it’s made especially insane by the fact that the book’s logic is completely nuts.

There's signs of great talent here...

For example, the book suggests that an alien invasion would take the form of ground hand-to-hand combat, which this film does, because it’s about a small farm – which is difficult to involve in a plot if you’re going to feature orbital bombardment. However, rather than leaving this as some grand mystery that the aliens possibly have their own reasons for, the movie suggests that, through the book, the aliens are wandering around naked without ray guns because they’re afraid of nuclear weapons. This is in-frickin’-sane, if only because the alien ships appear to be invisible to our radar so there’s nothing to nuke anyway and – even if they engaged in air-to-air combat – there’s no way that the U.S. uses nukes over heavily populated cities.

Still, that is just a minor story-telling crutch, and one that could be easily glossed over. The bigger problem is the deus ex machina ending. Of course, alien invasions need a convenient ending, because there’s no way humans ever win in a fair fight. So War of the Worlds makes the aliens allergic to our smaller lifeforms, and Independence Day makes the alien mothership compatible with a Mac. Those aren’t necessarily great story-telling moments, but they aren’t wince-inducingly illogical. One can understand how aliens living on Mars might not be able to spot micro-organisms from orbit, or realise their effect until it’s too late.

It would be great if the logic wasn't so wishy-washy...

I’m not going to spoil the movie’s ending (though you probably know it already), but the simple fact is that – given it’s immediately effective on the aliens and incredibly obvious (even from deep space or on first contact ith our atmosphere) – this is the stupidest invasion in the history of alien invasions. It’s like a bunch of people with severe peanut allergies deciding to lay siege to a peanut factory, if you’ll forgive the clunkiest analogy in the history of mankind. I know that the movie isn’t really about the alien invasion, seen as it’s a meditation on faith and belief, but it’s very hard to look past this. If only because I’m wondering what the commanding officers of this invasion put in their report. And, while you could arguably write that off as a War of the Worlds reference (one character actually notes, “it’s like War of the Worlds”), that doesn’t explain why aliens seem to have difficulties with doors. Hell, I have pets that can handle doors.

It’s a shame, because the rest of the film is quite good. I like Gibson as an actor, I think he gives good performances, and I think he’s effective here as the family patriarch. Shyamalan, at least in his early days, had a knack for supporting casts. The two kid actors here, Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin are both very good, and have both gone on to well-deserved greater fame. I don’t know what Joaquin Phoenix did to deserve a starring role in The Village, but it certainly wasn’t this. He’s actually very good here.

Sorry, I needed to vent...

By the way, and completely unrelated to anything except perhaps an admittedly cheap shot, but I did laugh hilariously at an early scene when Hess’ brother suggests that they scare off a bunch of local kids by running around the house and acting crazy. Gibson’s only response to his brother (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is, “Define act crazy.” It’s just a moment that is brilliantly fun in hindsight.

Signs is a grand little movie. It’s well-made and packed with solid performances. It’s just that, like a lot of Shyamalan’s output, it doesn’t really hang together all that well when you think about it.

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2 Responses

  1. I also enjoyed Signs, and too think of it as M. Night’s last good film. Devil could have redeemed him but it fell a bit short.

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