Signs can lead you the wrong direction
* Definite spoilers contained herein *
At some point while watching this movie, I got the feeling that something was wrong - not just in the sense the filmmakers are trying to convey, but that something didn't quite add up. Even after the movie was over, I couldn't quite pinpoint it. I was left with the impression of a very well constructed film, its every element tied together by the end, one way or another.
This is the third high profile film from Writer/Director M. Night Shyamalan, and one with both high expectations, plus a likely need on the part of Shyamalan to prove himself capable to stretching out in new directions - but likely also tempered by the studio's desire to bank on what has already proved successful with this insightful talent.
We start off with mysterious crop circles appearing in the fields of Pennsylvania farmer Graham Hess (played by Mel Gibson). The incident is at first considered a prank - young rural males are liable to get bored and try to stir up trouble. But when Graham and his brother Merrill try to catch the perpetrators, they are likewise mysteriously quick and agile, and they never get a good look at them, or any idea how they are making these circles. At the same time, the Hess family dogs start growling at things they can't see, and become unusually violent, which is echoed in other mysterious violent animal reports from around the county. When more mysterious circles are mentioned in news reports, they start getting nervous. And when mysterious flying objects start floating over major world cities, they start preparing for the worst.
And this brings me to the first problem I have with the film. We have all this buildup of mystery surrounding the alien invasion, with each new bit of information confirming just a little bit more what's going on. The suspense certainly builds, which is obviously what is considered important here, but the mystery, which is getting the highlight of the plot, just gets less and less mysterious, until finally this alien invasion is happening, and it's such a by-the-way piece of information there is no impact. We've really already known for a while. There is some interesting exploration of the rubbernecking, voyeuristic tendencies people get when major news events happen, it's almost wasted effort, because we're only getting details then - it's no longer plot by the time it happens. But at least we can be thankful to finally know this movie is not about crop circles.
So, from there we move into the rural family defending its home movie. They know the aliens are coming, and thanks to a run-in in the pantry at a neighbor's house, they know that these guys are not exceptionally good at breaking through braced doors, so they proceed to board up the house and await the dreadful, but inevitable culmination of the movie.
Now, there's something else you need to know. There's been a bit of a side plot, and maybe even "plot" is too strong a word for it - a thread, or trickle of information we've been getting fed about Graham Hess through the film. He used to be a reverend. He also used to have a wife. There seems to be a connection between the two. He's been raising his two kids under the new belief that the universe is without meaning, that nothing happens for any more reason than just that it happened.
The kids are somewhat along for the ride, plotwise, but help break up the tension of the film by providing more room for exploration of character, and simple comic relief. There are two definite traits about them we know are going to be important by the end of the film - we are reminded of them just a few too many times. Young Morgan has asthma, and little Bo has some sort of need to drink only the freshest water, and therefore leaves mostly full glasses around the house. You can't have watched more than a few movies to see that these are the sorts of things that have to factor in by the end in a suspense film like this.
The performances are pretty good all around, which isn't surprising - for this budget, a casting director can be sure to hire people who can react to being uncertain and scared, even with the children. Mel Gibson has a heavier load, emotionally, as we'll see later. He communicates what the script tells him to, but it would have been interesting if he went beyond that, to explore some of the difficulties behind the character. The script does go there, as you'll see by the end of this review, but we are left wanting. Perhaps I'm just being hopeful here - my idea of stretching out the character a little might just come across as overacting, given the suspenseful nature of the plot. I'd love to have seen something more from Gibson, though - but I get ahead of myself. Back to the story...
So, in fact, the aliens do attack. There turns out to be a flaw in the Hess' planned defenses, and we end up doing Blair Witch Redux in the cellar for a bit. Our plucky family hangs on into the next day, finds the invasion has apparently been repelled - with many casualties reported by whoever got a radio transmitter working - and they nervously take over the house again.
The movie is not over. This is your typical false ending in a suspense film, and don't you know the threat hasn't really been that personal yet. No, there's one more alien, the one from the neighbor's pantry, no less. The alien snatches a child and provokes a standoff that results in Graham Hess getting his faith back.
Okay, maybe I'm doing the movie a slight disservice by explaining it that way. The movie does not turn quite that abruptly. We flashback to the dying circumstances of Graham's wife - pinned against a tree by the truck that happens to be keeping her alive by being there. Her last words, seemingly non sequitors of a dying brain are revealed to be prophetic wisdom, arming the Hess family with the information to kill the alien, and making Graham believe once again that the great Screenwriter in the sky will have it all make sense in the end.
Can you sense my disillusion?
Essentially, what we end up with is a movie about one man's redemption with his deity. The movie doesn't quite support that. Sometimes we have movies that, underneath, are really about something other than what's on the surface. They run with a balancing act on both stories throughout. Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense is a well-executed example of this concept, though it is pretty blatant in its structure. We also have movies that are about the personal, but set against a backdrop of very high stakes - look at Casablanca as a prime example of this. These other approaches offer what Signs doesn't - an opportunity to develop the main idea throughout. Shyamalan is too busy, at first with the mystery, and then with the suspense, to give the story of redemption a full treatment. We don't see Graham wrestling with his world view at all, just a few indications of the fallout.
With that out of the way, there's some minor points to make. The alien invasion is very shallowly done - there is no depth to the alien behavior, no attempt to create something much different from the cartoony, anthrocentric view of the alien form you might find in the National Enquirer. On the surface, if I believe the filmmakers are imaginative, as we know Shyamalan is, then I would think it really means the aliens are unimportant. Their details are not embellished because their details don't matter. If we had five-headed squid aliens, then people would start questioning the number of heads vs number of tentacles and so on. The film is constantly pointing at the aliens, saying "Be afraid. Be very afraid." but there's nothing really there but a construction that exists solely to turn around one person's opinion.
I also feel a bit of a mismatch on scale. It's addressed as well as it can be without changing the details. The filmmakers stick very well to the farm and the town and assuredly never leave the county, with the only other perspectives coming in over television and radio. It's trying hard to be a small-scale film, relating to just the lives of this small set of people. Yet we are constantly called on to think about what's happening in the larger world. If the real story is small and personal, the rest of the film should fit in with that.
Maybe I'm missing something. It's just that, when I look at the sum of its parts, Signs doesn't seem to be leading anywhere.
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