Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin
This is it, everyone. This just might be the most controversial review I have written to date. Believe it or not, there was once a time where M. Night Shyamalan made people feel excited rather than disdain. After providing cinema with one of its all-time greatest twists in 1999’s The Sixth Sense and giving the superhero genre a fresh and creative spin in 2000’s Unbreakable, Shyamalan released what I believe to be the best movie he’s ever made: Signs.
SPOILER WARNING: Plot details will be revealed throughout this lengthy review, as I will attempt to analyze and discuss the themes of the film, and why I think it’s so great.
Signs is written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan and stars Mel Gibson as Graham Hess, a former priest who lives in the Pennsylvanian countryside with his brother Merrill, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and his two young children, played by Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin. One morning, the family discovers crop circles that mysteriously appear in their corn fields overnight. Following this and other strange occurrences throughout their small town, they soon learn that events like these are happening across the world, and that they are in the midst of an extraterrestrial invasion.
The film opens with one of my favorite opening credits sequences of all time. It’s simple in its presentation, yet highly effective in setting the tone for the film to follow. With a blue background surrounded in a vignette, the title and credits jump into the frame as James Newton Howard’s brilliant score frantically plays. It’s Hitchcockian presentation lets the viewers know that this isn’t a film about a huge spectacle, instead focusing on the suspense and drama of its plot.
The film then truly begins in such an excellent way, revealing so much about our main character, played by Mel Gibson, through the visuals of just a few shots on its own. We see that he is very protective and concerned for the well-being of his children, and that they are the focus of his life – he wakes up with a jolt, sensing something is wrong with them, picking up their toys that are scattered throughout their house. We also see the imprint of a crucifix that used to be hung prominently on the wall as Graham passes by portraits of his wife, his two kids, and himself, dressed in a priest’s outfit. I love this opening sequence because it chooses not to spoonfeed every bit of information to the audience, instead trusting them to pay attention and take in the visuals. Clearly something has happened to Graham and his wife that caused him to lose his faith in God – he wakes up alone in bed, and is seen garbed in a priest’s clothes in the pictures, yet the missing cross suggests that life is behind him.
Another aspect that I love about this film is that the plot begins right away. It doesn’t waste any time meandering around. The viewers are thrown right into the suspense from frame one, and as soon as Graham enters his corn field in search of his children, it’s clear that the alien invasion has already begun, as he discovers crop circles have been made in it without him knowing. This scene impresses me because these crop circles weren’t created through the use of CGI. They’re real. Shyamalan hired people to go out into a crop field and create these symbols by hand. It’s this attention to detail that immerses me even farther into the film every time I watch it. It’s one of the many details that add to the realism and grounded nature of the film.
It’s in this scene that we learn crucial details about Graham’s family: Morgan, his son, still believes in God. Bo, his daughter, seems to have visions in her sleep, as she believes she is still in a dream when she is found in the corn field. His brother, Merrill, shares a close relationship with him, as he moved in to the second farm house on their property.
This is a huge credit to the writing by Shyamalan and the performances from the four main actors. The script fleshes out all of these characters, allowing them to feel real and their relationships seem natural, yet unique. Graham and Morgan, which is his first child, share a strained dynamic, as Graham lost his faith, but Morgan still retains it. This creates some excellent family drama throughout the entire film. Merrill is someone who always wanted glory in life but lost it all, as he was once a minor league baseball star who attempted to go pro, but ended up failing. He sacrificed that career by choosing to support his brother. Bo is young and naiive, but plays a very important role in the film, which I’ll touch on later.
The script is filled with so many subtleties that nowadays, you wouldn’t believe that it was written entirely by Shyamalan. So many scenes choose to show character’s emotions, details, and growth through visuals rather than dialogue. For instance, look at the way that Graham reacts when he sees Ray Reddy, the man who accidentally hit his wife in his car, while he and his family are at a pizzeria. It shows that he is having the hardest time dealing with the trauma, taking a huge, awkward bite.
The dialogue is also nothing short of fantastic. It doesn’t beat you over the head with the heavy nature of its situation. The wording is chosen carefully and presented in ways that make for some unsettling exposition and conversations. Every time I hear Cherry Jones’ Officer Caroline Paski explain to Gibson that other animals have been behaving strangely around town, as if they sense a predator, gives me the chills. Or when Graham and Merrill are sitting on the couch at night after seeing the alien ships light up the sky on the news, and they have the exchange about fate and coincidence, it’s just another example of Shyamalan’s brilliant writing.
Along with the highly effective drama, there’s also a surprising amount of humor that genuinely makes me laugh, especially the scene where Graham and Merrill attempt to scare the mysterious intruders from their yard by blindly running around the outside of the house, screaming angrily. The serious and funny moments are so well balanced in the film.
James Newton Howard provides one of his best original scores, period. I love the choice of not using loud, booming music or a score that would signify doom whenever the aliens were around. Instead, the score reflects the confusion, mystery, and awe that your average, unsuspecting person would feel if this situation were to actually happen.
And yes, Shyamalan, the director himself, plays Reddy, the man who caused the emotional trauma for the family. Normally, I’d see it as a huge boost for his ego, and it most likely is, but at the same time, it doesn’t bother me. Shyamalan is genuinely great in his role. What’s even better is, that’s not even the best performance in the film.
I honestly believe that this is Gibson’s best performance. There is so much emotion, realism, and subtlety to his performance that I hardly see Gibson, and instead see a character brought to life – one with real struggles. Joaquin Phoenix is just as great in his role, which stands among his recent run of genius performances in films such as The Master and Her, and I’ll tell you why. Phoenix is known for losing himself in these eccentric roles, yet here, he’s able to be completely convincing as a grounded character, instead of choosing to take a more outlandish acting style.
Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin, who were very young at the time, give two of the best child performances I’ve ever seen. Culkin’s character is mature for his age, and he shows that so well onscreen. Breslin, who was only five at the time of filming, is surprisingly natural.
Shyamalan shines at directing. This man was absolutely masterful behind the camera in his hayday, and I still believe that talent is somewhere in him still. The way he chooses to portray the aliens and their presence is downright ingenious. The first time we see an alien isn’t a grand, sweeping shot with a silly, CGI creature in the middle of it all. It’s at night, covered in shadows, standing on the rooftop of the Hess’ home. What’s even better is, the score stays somewhat subdued and doesn’t go over the top in order to tell the audience that they should feel scared. The shot itself only lasts for a couple of seconds before cutting back to Gibson’s startled reaction. This gives the sense that these aliens are smart and tactical in their invasion, choosing to stay safe and hide out, observing their subjects from a distance. Although you might not always see them onscreen, you are constantly aware of their presence.
This, once again, adds to the grounded reality in which this film exists, and that only continues to be highlighted through the film’s portrayal of the aliens. While I admire other alien invasion films for their creative character design for extraterrestrial beings, I can never become fully immersed in the film’s world because oftentimes these designs are so over-the-top. The aliens in Signs are humanoid in their appearance, and I love that choice. That’s always been my favorite idea for alien lifeforms – the traditional, grey or green humanoid body type. It’s much more frightening than something more overblown.
Shyamalan’s direction also elevates the presentation of the creatures. Throughout the whole film, he keeps it within the experience of just the one family. Not only does this allow you to become attached to this family, but it suggests that this is what it might actually feel like if Earth was invaded by an alien species. Keeping it from the perspective of one small family in a small town is far more realistic than showing worldwide destruction.
This containment of the film’s focus makes for some of the most startling and scary scenes I’ve ever seen put to film. The scene where Graham grows a bit too curious and decides to investigate his corn field one night, only to see and hear an alien wandering around him is directed so well and builds suspense beautifully. There’s no overbearing accompanying score, instead, the sound is all natural. The silence creates the tension, and the light from the flashlight shows us just enough to keep us in Graham’s shoes, as if we’re right there with him. Perhaps the most famous scene, in which Merrill sees the news footage of an alien in Brazil, is just as brilliant. Not only is Phoenix’s reaction perfect, but the handheld manner in which the footage was presented makes it seem all the more real, and if you watch closely, it’s very telling of the aliens themselves. You can see that the alien is frightened to be there. It seems lost and alone. These creatures aren’t bursting into doors shooting innocent people with laser guns. They’re desperate. They’re at their last resort. This is also highlighted after the final invasion of the Hess home, when Graham and Merrill listen to radio commentators speculate about the reasoning behind the invasion. It’s said that the aliens left in a hurry, leaving their wounded behind. This important piece of information helps debunk so many common complaints that people have about the film, which I’ll also discuss soon.
The decision not to show the aliens all that much throughout the film only creates more suspense. You aren’t given any over-glorified wide angles of these creatures at all. You’re left in suspense, only seeing them sporadically until the big finale. When the Hess family is boarding up their house to prepare for the aliens’ immanent arrival, it’s made clear that they are literally approaching the house. Yet instead of showing the corn moving in the field or aliens in their front yard as Shyamalan originally had planned, all you actually see is Graham’s petrified reaction as he slowly backs away from the windows. Signs knows that in true horror, less is more.
At the core of this film, however, isn’t a simple story about aliens trying to take over the world. It’s a story about a dysfunctional family, grief, loss, reconciliation, purpose, destiny, and lost and renewed faith. An excellent prop used to highlight this is the baby monitor, through which Morgan uses to hear the aliens talk to each other. When he holds it alone, the signal is filled with static, yet when he climbs on top of the car, Bo follows him out of her childlike curiousity, and Graham and Merrill grab onto them in order to stop them from slipping. It might seem like a simple gesture at first, but examining the scene, it shows that they are all joined together, and the signal on the baby monitor becomes crystal clear. This also happens during their group hug at their last family dinner before the aliens break into their home. The aliens aren’t the centerpiece of the story; they’re simply a backdrop used to bring a broken home back together again.
For many, the film falls apart after the twist is revealed during the finale. As it turns out, the aliens are allergic to water. Why would aliens come to a planet that is made up almost entirely of something that kills them? This is actually explained very subtly throughout the film. Ray Reddy says that the aliens have been avoiding large bodies of water ever since their arrival. Even then, they left in a desperate rush, leaving many of their wounded behind in a hurry. It’s possible that these beings come from a distant planet in which water is a little-known substance to them. It’s made apparent that they are invading Earth because they are in dire need of resources for their planet, which Morgan explains after reading about the possible outcomes of a hostile invasion. They didn’t come for water; they came for us. They needed to harvest us as a last resort, even if that means risking their lives in the process. These aliens have a surprising amount of depth, rather than being ruthless, one-note, cliched invaders that other films so regularly portray them as.
The ending also reveals that, despite the hopelessness that shrouds the Hess family from the beginning, everyone has a purpose, even if it took them a while to find it. Bo’s aversion to drinking water served a huge purpose in saving Morgan from the alien that held him hostage. Morgan’s asthma prevented the alien’s toxic gases from entering his lungs and killing him. Merrill’s inclination to swing at every pitch thrown to him during his minor league career, and his eventual retirement, allowed him to defeat the alien when the time came. And above all, Graham realizes that he retained his faith all along, and that he believed that there was always someone, or something, looking out for him, he just needed to be pushed to the limits to see it. The writing in this film is so perfect, having every detail and character trait matter so that everything can come together in one dramatic and emotionally intense finale.
Still, even though this film is packed with so much emotional drama, that doesn’t take away from the fact that this is one of the most suspenseful and scary films that I have ever experienced in my entire life. Through Shyamalan’s story, dialogue, and direction, this film is presented in such a realistic manner, that it feels as though this is how an invasion would actually occur, and how people would react if this is how they suddenly found out that they were never alone in the universe.
The Verdict: To me, Signs is an unsung masterpiece. It’s a film about an alien invasion that is unrivaled by any others in its genre. It’s grounded in reality, making the situations seem all the more frightening, as if this could really happen. Shyamalan’s script and direction are both nothing short of perfection. He builds tension and suspense masterfully throughout the entire film. James Newton Howard’s score is unique and fits the film’s atmosphere an tone to a T. It’s unfortunate that what followed from Shyamalan were a string of films that split audiences, to films that were a far cry from his original works in horror and suspense. Still, that doesn’t take away from any of the brilliance prominently featured in Signs. I hope this review has shed some light on the film’s controversies, and that you can watch it with fresh eyes on your next go with it. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time, and it of course gets a…
I apologize for the length of this review, as it’s by far my longest one yet. But there’s just so much that I love about this film. Extraterrestrial life is something that I’ve found fascinating since I was young, and there’s simply nothing quite like top notch thrills and suspense in a movie.
Truth be told, Signs was the first film that got me thinking about the artistry that goes into filmmaking. Before, I really only saw movies as a great method of entertainment, but after, I saw movies as a true art form. I saw this film shortly after the DVD was released in 2003, and I was only about nine years old. I distinctly remember watching it on repeat, no matter how much it scared me. I remember watching the deleted scenes, the commentary, and the early homemade short film about aliens that Shyamalan made that was included as a bonus feature. I owe a lot to this film, and I’m sure I’ll be watching it for years and years to come.
With Shyamalan’s next film, The Visit, set to be released early next month, I’m holding out hope that he’ll manage to recapture at least some of his former glory.
A huge thank you to anyone who stuck it out and read this whole thing. What did you think of Signs? No matter where you stand, please feel free to let me know in the comments.