Signs (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. M. Night Shyamalan
viewed: 02/21/03

When this film was released theatrically, Newsweek magazine ran a cover story touting M. Night Shyamalan as the “new Spielberg” or something. From what I read, this would clearly be his ambition, to make box office-friendly genre films very slickly and imbue them with auteur-like meanings and character. His first feature film that I saw, 1999’s The Sixth Sense, clearly made it seem as though he had the right stuff for making a run at his goal. But both Unbreakable (2000) and now Signs show his formulae and bag of tricks as increasingly worn and transparent.

Signs wasn’t marketed well, in my mind. The crop circles thing is not inherently spooky to me, but rather something that has been pretty much clearly evidenced as hoaxes and are almost downright silly. Really, Signs is an alien invasion film, focused on the effect such a thing has on a single, isolated family in a small town. From that angle, it’s a pretty good pitch, though in execution it lands wide of the mark.

In Signs, Shyamalan becomes more heavyhanded with his subtext, positing the protagonist as an ex-minister who has forsaken his faith after his wife’s death. Faith and redemption are his themes, which, I would guess any child could see. In this sense, maybe he is truly evolving to a more Spielbergian style, employing blatant dewy-eyed emotion, though I would be willing to guess that he hasn’t such a cynical attitude about his idol.

There are some seriously stupid plot holes that really yank all credibility away from this film. This will sound insipid, but here goes (don’t read for spoiler stuff). For the aliens, who invade the skies over the entire Earth and have seemingly come to take over, water is like acid. Simple plain ordinary water. For a planet that is like two-thirds underwater and one in which rain frequently falls on those parts not already underwater, this seems like a pretty dangerous endeavor. But more strikingly, these aliens, who have managed to fly in from who-know-where and trample corn stalks, cannot open a locked door even though they can break in a window.

I kept thinking of Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! (1996), in which the aliens were defeated by the yodeling of Slim Whitman. This is just the sort of 1950’s camp scenarios that Burton’s film was lampooning. The solution to the alien problem is much more simple than anyone would have thought!

At times, Shyamalan frames shots well and occasionally pulls off certain scenes quite cleverly and aesthetically. But in this film, I could almost imagine his storyboards as I was watching the film, see him thinking this out rather than experiencing this. This could be called “When Formulae Go Bad”.

My step-mother thought that this was one of the worst films that she had ever seen and frequently laughed out loud at dramatic moments. I wouldn’t go as far as placing it in any pantheon of badness, but I could easily see the humor in the emoted performances of Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. I could almost see this film become a camp-classic.

Another reading that this film should inherently receive, being released almost a year after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, is one that asks the question of what the aliens represent. This film has a truly all-American setting, with even a baseball player and baseball bat as key hero and weapon, respectively. Aliens have often been an almost literal representation, in a sense, that they represent “others” who are “alien” to the primary way of life represented.

The state of alert and boarding of windows in the film clearly echoed with the contemporary “real” fear and preparations recommended by the Homeland Security Chief, Tom Ridge, last week. In the case of Signs, one might posit that the duct tape does work, since the aliens (with their poison gas, no less) couldn’t break into the family’s stronghold. How political of a commentary is this film? I would hazard a guess, with its anticipated happy ending and rather simple resolution, that if it is making a political statement, it is one that suggests that everything will be okay. But, to quote the bard, George Michael, “We gotta have faith.” Preferably non-denominational?

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