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Signs
directed by M. Night Shyamalan
written by M. Night Shyamalan

Signs
 
Principal Cast
Mel Gibson -- Graham Hess
Joaquin Phoenix -- Merrill Hess
Rory Culkin -- Morgan Hess
Abigail Breslin -- Bo Hess
Cherry Jones -- Officer Paski
M. Night Shyamalan -- Ray Reddy
Patricia Kalember -- Colleen Hess
Ted Sutton -- SFC Cunningham
Merritt Wever -- Tracey Abernathy
Lanny Flaherty -- Mr. Nathan
Marion McCorry -- Mrs. Nathan
Michael Showalter -- Lionel Prichard
Clifford David -- Columbia University Professor
Rhonda Overby -- Sarah Hughes
Greg Wood -- TV Anchor
Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Newbert

"Whoever considers the final cause of the world will discern a multitude of uses that enter as parts into that result."
-- Emerson, "Nature"
This is a movie with an "A" storyline and a "B" storyline, two dramatic questions: what would your faith require for proof of the divine, and what will you do the night the aliens arrive? M. Night Shyamalan's writing and direction weave them together masterfully.

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I'll grant that either one of those would be an intriguing starting place for any other SF film, but Shyamalan is far more ambitious than the average filmmaker in this genre. He's been called the next Spielberg, and he's even encouraged it himself, to a small degree, but it does him a disservice. Spielberg's movies often look to family relationships as a source of all that need be profound in human lives. Shyamalan looks farther, and puts the family in an almost metaphysical bond with the universe at large. While both directors show a combination of artfulness and intelligence, Shyamalan wants to blow your mind.

Shyamalan has a fondness for making realistic versions of genre tales that have been borderline tacky when we've encountered them before. The Sixth Sense was a simple ghost story in its outline, and it owes something to the memoirs of psychics trying to cadge a few dollars off the weak and gullible; Unbreakable was a comic book adventure with the burnish of realism (and is absolutely brilliant in my view -- something better than mere entertainment). M. Night Shyamalan dares to explore these themes seriously, and it's equally daring to ask audiences to share the sober acceptance of the possibility without smirking. Now that was a small leap in The Sixth Sense; Unbreakable and Signs go farther out. In the case of Signs, way out.

Graham Hess is a lapsed minister in rural Pennsylvania. His wife has died and he's raising his two young kids on the family farm with the help of his younger brother, a former minor league baseball star. Overnight, crop circles have appeared in Hess' cornfield. At night, a shadowy figure leaps from the house roof into the darkness. And on television, strange lights appear in the skies above major world cities. And more of those crop circles have simultaneously appeared everywhere on Earth. What is happening? Why do birds seem to fly into things that aren't to be seen? Are we under attack? And then the horrific video from a child's birthday party removes all doubt...

This film's tones strike a perfect melody. The combination of humor and tension, the tortuous, incremental approach to escalating the plot, the claustrophobic, microscoped perspective on a global catastrophe, and the almost palpable sense of the surreal -- it all works. This film is a perfect example of the "pure cinema" that Hitchcock practiced, and a heart-felt drama besides.

Tak Fujimoto's camera work is impressive. The opening shot of the family's backyard doesn't look like it was shot through a window, until the camera pulls back and the natural imperfections of the glass wobble your vision -- then the camera rests, and the landscape looks sane again. As an accessible and direct metaphor for the themes of the story, this shot lays the carpet for our entrance; our faith that things are as they appear, then that the literal (and cynical) acceptance of fact, cannot be trusted. So many of the film's shots are visual emblems of mystery: a deep and rustling cornfield; those creepy crop circles; bordered views through a window to the outside -- either a literal window or the television screen; the shadows from under a pantry door; the way beams from flashlights only carve parts of the darkness; the grainy footage of that child's birthday party (amazing scene!): all are validations of how hard it is to see the complete picture. We can imagine a bigger view, but to accept it as truth we have to take it on faith. And thereby one of Shyamalan's main themes is emphasized by the images we see. This is one of the underlying themes of most contemporary SF, that the world is stranger than you know, but here it is allied with a faith in what could be called God's plan. If a war of the worlds has truly begun, will our faith save us?

M. Night Shyamalan's direction is adept and careful, and his talent for working with children is impressive. Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin are endearing, intelligent and dramatic without being hokey, and even lovable without being saccharine. Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix are excellent, providing the grounding of character that a story like this needs. No mugging, no hamming. I found it intensely moving when Graham (Mel Gibson) makes his family their favorite meals, knowing in effect it could be their last together, and his silent fear turns to anger when they don't enjoy themselves. The emotions were honest and never in danger of going over the top.

In the middle of the film, Gibson gives a keynote speech about coincidence, and the suggestion that luck is the miracle you never notice. It allows for a grace that orders our lives without being preachy. It also suggests that the gods can be cruel or kind in their own fashion, with human interpretation being a matter of our comparatively small perspective. It helps explain why a story about the end of the world takes place on a small farm, and is another example of how what goes on beyond our borders is a mystery to us.

The ending, where the Hess family decides to stay and defend themselves inside the farmhouse, risks losing the audience with interpretive issues regarding the meaning of what happens, but no one stops sweating when the aliens try to force their way in.

There are a lot of films yet to go this year. But part of me will still be in the basement of the house, in the dark, listening to the aliens arrive.

Copyright © 2003 David Newbert

David Newbert worked for public and university libraries for several years before joining the college book trade. He lives in New Mexico, where the aliens landed.


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