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“See what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?”
Directors: M. Night Shyamalan
Writers: M. Night Shyamalan
Stars: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin
Release Date: August 2, 2002 (United States)
Run time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Former Episcopal priest Graham Hess lives on a rural farm in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, with his asthmatic preteen son, Morgan, and young daughter, Bo. Graham’s younger brother Merrill, a failed minor league baseball player, has been helping the family since Graham’s wife Colleen died in a traffic accident six months earlier. Graham abandoned the church in the aftermath of the incident.
When large crop circles appear in the Hess’ cornfield, they are initially attributed to vandals. However, other crop circles begin to appear globally, and lights from invisible objects hover over many of Earth’s cities. One night, Graham and Merrill chase a figure into the field, and Graham glimpses another among the corn stalks, followed by strange clicking noises broadcast through Bo’s old baby monitor. To the family’s continued terror, news footage emerges of what appears to be an alien.
After receiving a phone call from Ray Reddy, the man responsible for his wife’s death, Graham travels to Reddy’s home and finds him sitting in his car outside of the house. Reddy expresses remorse for Colleen’s death and warns Graham that a creature is locked inside his pantry. Believing that the aliens avoid water, he leaves for a lakeside. Graham enters the house and uses a kitchen knife to peer under the pantry door. A clawed hand emerges and swipes at Graham; he cuts off the fingers in a panic.
As the worldwide alien invasion begins, the family barricades themselves inside their house. When the aliens break-in, the family takes shelter in the basement. Morgan has an asthma attack but survives the night. The family emerges the next morning after the radio reports that the aliens have abruptly abandoned Earth as if something scared them off.
The alien previously trapped inside Reddy’s pantry enters the house and takes Morgan hostage. Recalling Colleen’s dying words, Graham tells Merrill to “swing away” using his baseball bat. The alien sprays Morgan with toxic gas from its wrist. Graham recovers his stricken son as Merrill bashes the creature and smashes glasses of water at it, eventually killing it. Outside, Graham administers Morgan’s medication, realizing that his son’s constricted lungs prevented him from inhaling the toxins; an act that Graham attributes to the intervention from a higher power.
Months later, the Hess family has recovered from the ordeal and Graham returns to the church.
Recently, the United States began shooting down UFOs near its northern border. That news brought this movie to my mind. Then, with Signs in my thoughts and memes already, I stumbled across a really bizarre (esoteric-laden, pop culture-referring, frequently side-tracking, but still fascinating) Twitter thread linking UFOs with Phoenix mythology. The thread even brings up River Phoenix (the older brother of Joaquin.) Is it a coincidence that a Phoenix stars in this extra-terrestrial thriller? Perhaps not. In any event, it was time for a re-watch.
I really enjoyed my re-watch of Signs. Does the plot make perfect sense? No. Does that really matter to the enjoyment of the movie? Not really. Signs is an experience. From the beginning to the end, the movie slowly and subtly ramps up a sense of tension and dread while simultaneously creating a relatable sense of place. In a story where the bad guys are hard to see, the movie asks the audience to keep its eyes glued to the screen and to keep watch for a villain who might be hiding just off in the shadows, or even in plain sight. I also found myself straining to hear background noises (or to hear those noises grow abruptly quiet.) The movie brilliantly creates tension, not through action or special effects, but instead through inference and absence. “I don’t hear my children.” As this is happening, we get to know a family, learn their history, and the details of their recent tragedy. All four members of the Hess Household are very different but also quite likeable.
When the film reaches its climax, we find an unexpected salvation in all of the family history and little character oddities sprinkled into the story. Everything that happened in the movie, good, strange, and tragic, had happened for a reason. Ultimately M. Night Shyamalan’s movie is not *really* about crop circles or an alien invasion. It’s about struggling with faith and then finding it again.
Shyamalan has a very deliberate pacing to the story-telling in this film, with nearly every scene feeling self-contained the way that a chapter in a book might feel self-contained. “Here’s the scene where we introduce the crop circles, here’s the scene where Graham and Merril talk about the two types of people, here’s the scene in the town, here’s the scene where the baby monitor picks up weird noises, etc.” I found as the movie progressed that this approach felt more immersive and assisted in ramping up tension. Maybe it’s just that I read a lot of books and telling the story this way felt comfortable.
The music in the film adds to the otherworldly ambiance through its use of melodic triplets. The video below provides a great feel for what I mean. Who knew something you could waltz to might feel alien?
All four members of the main cast gave outstanding performances. Mel Gibson was captivating as a heartbroken former reverend, still grappling with the loss of his faith and morning the loss of his wife, while trying to figure out how to care for his two children. Joaquin Phoenix was the primary comic relief and delivered most of the best laugh lines (there were a lot more laugh lines than I remembered,) but he was also the heart of the family and an effective bridge between the children and Mel Gibson’s Graham. Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin were amazing. Culkin’s performance in particular was great, giving the movie a boy who is both intellectually curious, fiercely independent, and emotionally wounded by his recent family trauma.
I should address the film’s shortcomings. Does it make sense that extraterrestrials could be so easily defeated by locked doors and glasses of water? No. I would argue though that this misses the point. First, the victory is very open-ended. As the dialogue even implies, the movie might have just ended in an interlude between conflicts. Secondly, though, the aliens themselves are beside the point. Signs is not about the aliens. The director could have made almost the same movie without even showing them on screen. Defeating them is secondary to the story. The film is about a loss of faith and its restoration. Merril hitting an E.T. in the living room with a baseball bat was cathartic, especially as it dawns on everyone that Bo has been leaving weaponizable water glasses all over the house, but we barely see the fight. We miss its aftermath entirely. The point of the movie was that whatever happens to these people next, Mel Gibson’s Graham has found his faith again.
For all we know, a week after the conclusion scene of this movie, the E.T.s return and abduct every person on earth. If that is indeed what happens, though, they will be taking a version of Graham Hess who is a reverend again. The events of the movie have moved him back into the group of people who believe in signs.
Graham Hess : People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. Just a happy turn of chance. I’m sure the people in group number two are looking at those fourteen lights in a very suspicious way. For them, the situation is a fifty-fifty. Could be bad, could be good. But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they’re on their own. And that fills them with fear. Yeah, there are those people. But there’s a whole lot of people in group number one. When they see those fourteen lights, they’re looking at a miracle. And deep down, they feel that whatever’s going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope. See what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?