April 2024

Signs (2002)

DIRECTOR: M. Night Shyamalan

CAST: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin, Cherry Jones


For his latest venture, The Sixth Sense helmer and thinly-veiled Hitchcock wannabe M. Night Shyamalan has crafted a sparse, low-key thriller using an alien/home invasion scenario as a vehicle for a thinly-veiled parable about faith and predestination.

We center on the Hess clan, consisting of patriarch and former reverend Graham (Mel Gibson), a troubled man who bitterly renounced his faith after his wife’s death in a car accident, his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), and Graham’s two young children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and his little sister Bo (Abigail Breslin). It’s not long before there’s signs (heh) that something weird is happening. Graham finds crop circles in his field, a phenomenon which gets harder to brush off as pranksters when it starts replicating itself all over the world. Soon, other ominous signs are dropping. The family dog pees on the floor, barks at the cornfield, and tries to attack the children. There’s strange sounds on a baby monitor. The news reports escalate from crop circles to lights in the sky to alien sightings. Soon, the Hesses are barricading themselves in their home and just trying to last the night.

The biggest thing that Shyamalan does effectively in Signs is playing on the power of suggestion. Signs generates tension and a low-key sense of creeping encroaching dread from mundane things—the cornfield rustling in the wind (or is it?), chirping crickets falling eerily silent (along with a barking dog), shadows moving past windows, creaking and things going bump in the night. Dogs bark at nothing. Bo fills the house with half-drank water glasses. Morgan picks up inexplicable sounds on a baby monitor. Bo has bad feelings and ominous dreams. A book shows an illustration of ray guns from a flying saucer burning a house that bears a suspicious resemblance to the Hess farm. Something is revealed in the reflection of a television screen. There’s a sense of something “off” creeping in from all corners. The aliens are left offscreen for the most part aside from an occasional fleeting glimpse—a leg in a cornfield, a hand under a door, a glimpse of a shadowy figure—and even those are few and far between, leaving them to be represented by clicking noises, and their footsteps and banging around as they ransack the house while the characters listen from the barricaded cellar. Apart from a brief foray into town early on, the rest of the movie takes place within the insular setting of the Hess farm, and as the movie goes on, it constricts even further, into the house, and then into the cellar. Leaving the “big picture” of what’s happening to the rest of the world beyond these four walls—after going out of its way to do a little world-building with news reports of crop circles, alien spaceships, and alien sightings—might be frustrating to those expecting something more in the vein of War of the Worlds, but that’s not Shyamalan’s intention or his filmmaking style. There’s a suspenseful sequence with the Hess clan riding out the night in the cellar while the aliens try to find a way in, complete with that reliable disaster movie plot complication of an asthmatic child trapped somewhere away from his medicine. Shyamalan shows a clear filmmaking understanding of how to handle these sorts of things, generating low-key horror and wringing creepiness out of seeming mundanity. There’s something a little Hitchcockian—one could imagine Shyamalan directing a scene like the one in The Birds, where a flock of crows gradually builds up behind an oblivious Tippi Hedren—a similarity Shyamalan self-consciously accentuates by following Hitchcock’s tradition of giving himself cameos (though Hitchcock didn’t give himself lines or make his cameos nearly as conspicuous), here in a small but plot-important role as a veterinarian with a tragic connection to the Hess family. The movie’s also not devoid of a little intentional humor, including some quirky conversations, and an amusing visual gag when Graham walks in on the rest of his family literally wearing tin foil hats.

Alas, Signs also has flaws, the most glaring of which is that Shyamalan feels the need to inject religious overtones in obnoxiously heavy-handed fashion, to a preachy extent. Not only does Gibson’s Graham undergo a cliched and entirely predictable character arc of losing and then finding his faith again, but he also gets a monologue halfway through that spells out the difference between believers and nonbelievers in a manner so simplistic and ham-handed that it’s borderline insulting. In fact, the alien invasion/home invasion narrative framework is really just a vehicle to convey themes of faith, predestination, and things being “meant to be”, all tied together in the climax. The climax itself, like most Shyamalan films, is low-key. The aliens are offscreen for the most part, and the cheap CGI quality when one is finally onscreen for more than a glimpse makes it obvious that that also had to do with a low effects budget and not just an intentional filmmaking choice. A recurring problem with various Shyamalan films is that he knows how to reel us in with a slowly engrossing set-up, then doesn’t always know how to finish. The climax in Signs doesn’t descend into as much nonsense as it could have, but when all is said and done, it also doesn’t amount to much.

The acting is largely merely adequate. Mel Gibson is playing a subdued, closed-off character; Graham Hess is not action hero material, nor does he let Gibson show his manic/intense side, apart from an uncomfortable family dinner scene that turns into a meltdown. It’s not a bad performance, but for such a typically charismatic and energetic leading man, Gibson feels muted, like he’s been cast in a glum, passive role written for Kevin Costner. So too does Joaquin Phoenix, who’s had the expected weirdness sapped out of him and ends up bland. Just as Gibson seems muted as a glum Kevin Costner-esque farmer, so too is Phoenix not the most natural fit for an all-American baseball playing jock type. Of the two kids, Abigail Breslin is cute and maintains an air of wide-eyed seriousness, while Rory Culkin has a tendency to say his lines in a vaguely spacey monotone. Apart from a handful of early scenes with Cherry Jones as the friendly neighborhood policewoman, and a small role for Shyamalan himself, this is virtually a four-person show (and completely so once we hit the midway point).

Signs shows Shyamalan’s directorial skill—the whole home invasion part of the movie could be studied as a filmmaking class unto itself—but his script bogs itself down with religious parables that are irritatingly on-the-nose, especially with the facilely simplistic ham-handed ways in which he hands down his wannabe profundities about faith and fate. The result is a film that’s intriguing in the moment, but feels a bit less than the sum of its parts.

* * 1/2