WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: Left widowed and bereft of faith by a tragic car accident, farmer and former Reverend Graham Hess is troubled by alien visitors leaving crop circles in his fields. Though he initially dismisses the intrusions as pranks, evidence begins to mount that the world is being subjected to a hostile force. Do Graham and his family have what it takes to repel the invasion?
The appearance of crop circles on Graham Hess’s (Mel Gibson) Pennsylvania farm is one more trouble he could do without: his wife Colleen (Patricia Kalember) having been killed the previous year, his daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin) thinks there’s something wrong with the water and his asthmatic son Morgan (Rory Culkin) has to save her from their strangely-disturbed dog. When a dark figure appears on the roof of the house, Graham and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) believe it to be a local troublemaker; but the intruder evades them, and it soon becomes clear that other locations around the world have also been invaded, seemingly by an unfriendly alien force that is threatening to touch down in various locations around the world. After a close encounter, Graham tries to move the family away; however, they overrule him and choose to stay put at home, even though they’re all but defenceless against the invaders. While Merrill, Bo and the increasingly ill Morgan pray for a miracle, the fallen Father – having turned away from God since Colleen’s death – just hopes luck is on their side.
I’m sure I’ve written before (probably about Bond movies or the Carry Ons) about the awkwardness of watching films out of chronological order, and this is particularly relevant to an appreciation of M Night Shyamalan’s Signs. Had I seen The Sixth Sense, then Unbreakable, and then Signs, I would undoubtedly come at the film with a different slant on the movie than the one I took, namely seeing The Village and (more pertinently) Lady in the Water before this effort. This is important because Signs sits right on the edge of a credibility divide: the director’s first two films established M Night as a new master of suspense, while the two movies after Signs were greeted with, respectively, disappointment and derision. Depending on how you approach the movie, you may be more or less prepared to forgive it its trespasses, such as the use of distinctly passé crop circles as its inspiration.
Still, a few things are unarguable. Shyamalan creates atmosphere superbly, using (amongst other things) darkness, the thick, high corn and disturbing sound effects to keep the viewer on edge. For the most part, seeing the alien invasion from the viewpoint of a single family group makes for an intimate tale and a refreshing change, Graham’s woes complicating the relationship with his children; and if the kids are a cynical way of engaging our emotions, it’s nonetheless effective – Breslin is not just cute, she also acts really well, and the touch-and-go crisis provoked by Morgan’s asthma attack is just one more thing keeping you on the edge of your seat. Rory, of the never-ending assembly line of young acting Culkins, is precocious but believable whilst Phoenix is also fine, even if his character and sporting credentials are clunkily established (during a plot-heavy trip to the Army office). Mel Gibson (before his period of troubled publicity) plays the world-weary ex-preacher with authority, presence and just the right amount of heaviness, tears never far from his eyes; I should also mention Cherry Jones, who is sympathetic as the local (and low-key) law enforcement. Importantly, a few details like the silly foil hats also show that the director/writer/producer etc. is not totally without a sense of humour.
On the other hand, if we’re throwing bouquets Shyamalan’s way, he must be prepared for the brickbats. On-screen, he’s an incongruous sight as Reddy, a mystery man who doesn’t create much mystery; off it, he has a few questions to answer regarding suspect dialogue and plotting, not least the way Morgan’s fanciful book on extra-terrestrials helpfully advances the plot. Shyamalan doesn’t do himself any favours by consciously leaning so heavily on War of the Worlds, especially for the denouement featuring the aliens’ hurried retreat (spooked by unexplained ‘primitive methods’ from the Middle East).
There’s another point too, concerning the odd structure of the story – halfway through the film, Graham has his big speech about his wife’s last words and his struggle with faith. Later on, we see Colleen speaking these words, as if they assume massive significance – and provide the director’s trademark ‘twist’ – the second time around. However, I fail to see the big moment of revelation. I assume the interpretation is this: there being no coincidences in the world, everything that happens is a sign. Colleen had to die to give the advice ‘swing away’ to Graham, so he could pass it onto Merrill so he would smash not only the alien but also the water which Bo, the miraculous smiling child, has cleverly left around (Bo’s clairvoyance is flagged up elsewhere too). Morgan’s asthma is also a sign, preparing him for the final test. All of which is enough to restore Graham’s lost faith. Which is fine, but in the (remarkable in itself) absence of guns, surely anyone confronted by an alien would ‘swing away’ with whatever they have to hand, baseball bat or no, talented or otherwise? Moreover, you have to worry about the forward planning abilities of an alien race which is defeated by pantry doors, baseball bats and water.
Despite approaching it from the wrong end of Shyamalan’s career, I like Signs. It’s full of itself, but this is coloured by my views on the laughable Lady in the Water; and its mix of science fiction and mysticism is somewhat uneasy, but the interesting takes on causality, and belief versus existential chance, is a talking point if nothing else. History is still to decide whether the director has God-given talent or merely got very lucky for a while. If it’s the former, he will come good again; if the latter, he certainly discovered that lucky streaks don’t last.