The idea of life on other planets has always intrigued and fascinated some people. Me, I’ve never been one to believe in extraterrestrials. If they’re out there, let them stay out there, and if they don’t exist, then okay. I don’t really care one way or the other, but when it comes down to it, I’d rather leave well-enough alone. Still, extraterrestrials make good fodder for stories, and one of my favorites is M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, which, if anyone hasn’t seen it, is a Hitchcock-esque mixture of alien invasion, possible annihilation, crises of faith, and liberal, well-timed dashes of humor.
The Hess family live in rural Pennsylvania. Graham (Mel Gibson) is a former reverend who left the ministry after his wife was killed in an accident. Graham struggles to reconcile his identity as a minister with his newly resentful view of God. He can never quite forget, either–there are marks on the bedroom wall where a cross used to hang, plus everyone he knows still sees him as a minister. Graham’s children, Morgan and Bo (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin) are sad and sober, missing their mother. Graham’s brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) has left a successful career in minor league baseball and moved into a little apartment over the garage to help out.
One morning, Graham wakes up early to find Morgan and Bo out in the cornfield next to their house. Morgan says the birds woke them up, but when they walk a little farther into the cornfield, they come on a strange clearing that turns out to be a crop circle. Graham calls in Caroline, a sherriff’s deputy, who tells him some strange things have been going on in town, and that animals have been acting panicky, as if they sense a predator.
This is only the beginning of the abnormal happenings. One of the Hess’s dogs, Houdini, suddenly attacks Bo, and Morgan has to kill him with a grilling fork. Then Bo wakes up Graham one night telling him there’s a monster outside her room and asking for a glass of water. Graham takes Bo back into her room and is about to tuck her in when he glances out the window and sees a shadowy being on the barn roof.
Graham wakes Merrill, and they both think it’s a bunch of pranksters who have been bothering them, so Merrill figures they’ll run around the house yelling and scare the jeepers out of them. I know this scene is supposed to be slightly menacing, but there’s no way to get the heart rate up when Mel Gibson is sprinting around bellowing, “I am insane with anger!” Nope. Not gonna happen. The scene is hilarious. Oh, and the mysterious creature is still on the roof. Before they can really do anything, though, the whatever-it-is seems to disappear into the cornfield.
They call Caroline back in, but while she’s trying to get details out of them, reports come on TV about strange crop circles in various countries. Caroline advises the Hess family to go into town and get the kids thinking about normal, everyday things. Leave the radio off, keep everything light, and just forget about all of the weirdness. She also tells Morgan he can use Bo’s old baby monitor as a walkie-talkie when he gets curious about the one she wears.
Going on an outing is a good idea in theory, but the whole town is on edge, wondering what’s going on, and they all want to talk about it. Morgan buys a book on extraterrestrials at the bookstore, where one of the shopkeepers says the whole alien thing is just a ploy to sell soda. Merrill picks up an Army pamphlet at the recruiting center, and the officer on duty speculates about reconnaisance and whether or not the creatures are hostile. Meanwhile, Graham gets stuck hearing a teenager’s confession when he goes to pick up Morgan’s asthma medication at the drugstore. She’s afraid that it’s the end of the world and wants to clear her conscience. Later, the family is sitting in the pizzeria having a bite when a guy walks by them, flinches, and drives away in his car (Spoiler alert: It’s M. Night Shyamalan), but no one says much about why this is important.
The break from the weird is officially over when they pull into the yard, and the baby monitor starts buzzing and popping. Merrill says it’s just a bunch of nerds who can’t get girlfriends playing pranks, and then the monitor starts sounding like bubbles having choir practice. Graham is shocked, but still doesn’t really believe it until he takes a walk in the cornfield that night and sees a peculiar green ankle.
Now stuff’s getting real. Graham still tries to pretend this is no big deal, but even he’s wavering. However, he’s not the tinfoil hat type, unlike some we can mention. Now there’s nothing else to do but let the aliens come a-calling. Or not? And what’s the green guys’ big weakness?
Producer Kathleen Kennedy said the film has Hitchcockian overtones, and she’s absolutely right–Hitchcock excelled at mixing humor with jolting plot points. Shyamalan is clearly well-acquainted with his brand of storytelling, including the director cameo. Signs is like Rear Window in that there’s a lot of bait-and-switch, and also like Rear Window, it’s best to let the story unfold, minus too many spoilers. The thing to remember is that each of the characters has something that they’re trying to come to terms with, and each in their own way has to face it instead of running away or pretending it doesn’t exist.
In addition to the Hitchcock elements, the film pays homage to silent film. There’s a scene in the basement when an alien grabs Morgan, and we don’t see Graham and Merrill fighting with the monster, but are left to imagine it as we see the flashlight getting kicked around. Also, when the family is about to emerge from the basement, we see the camera pointed up at the basement door, but instead of going upstairs, we watch the doorway and wait with the rest of the family while the men make sure things are safe. These types of story techniques were very common in silent movies. Signs reminds me a little bit of the Lillian Gish film, The Wind, when Gish’s character, Letty kills Wirt. All that’s seen of the killing is the table shuddering and the place settings on it bouncing.
Signs is a gem of a movie. I got to see it in the theater, and it was my first experience watching any of Shyamalan’s films. The writing and the humor are very well-done, as is the character development. There are a lot of details in this movie that seem random, but by the end of the film they all make sense. And it’s all good. Admittedly, Shyamalan has had something of a career slump since this movie (The Village was probably his last really successful film for a while), but Signs has the makings of a classic.
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This film is available on Amazon.