Signs (2002)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a film with aliens in it, but they prove secondary to the story being told. Remove overt images of these extraterrestrials and notice how the drama remains highly potent. This is because M. Night Shyamalan’s masterful sci-fi horror-thriller “Signs” is actually about something. This is not the kind of movie in which otherworldly creatures visit our planet and humanity must wage war against them. Not one military tank or jet is shown, we hear not one rousing speech, not even a bullet is shot. The goal is to tell a personal story of a reverend who lost his faith six months ago following his wife’s death due to a tragic, senseless accident.

Shyamalan’s talent as a filmmaker and confidence as a storyteller is on full display here. He is fully aware that most viewers would likely be invested in the plot—at least initially—precisely because it involves extraterrestrials and so the work is equipped with curious scenes involving crop circles, baby monitors picking up bizarre trilling, and news broadcasts of what’s going on out in the world. But to tell an effective story, and for the viewers to be invested throughout, Shyamalan is also aware that it must be grounded in reality. Despite the fact that former reverend Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) was a man of religion, the material takes the time to discern between religion and faith often in subtle ways. And so by rooting the story in one man’s faith, or lack thereof, the subject commands universal appeal. Ultimately, it is a human story, specifically a story of loss, not an alien story or a religious story.

It terrorizes the viewers not with cheap jump scares but with increasing unease. When tension is no longer tolerable and something is finally is shown, it is precisely what we expect. A few examples: Graham and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) chasing off intruders around their farmhouse in the middle of the night, Graham going off on his own amongst the corn field with nothing but a flashlight, and Graham’s day time close encounter in front of a pantry door. Confirming our fears is itself the horror. It does not aim to blindside us, or trick us, or confuse us. It simply shows what we already suspect or know. Filmmakers who possess thorough understanding of what makes suspense-thrillers work employ this technique with confidence, like Alfred Hitchcock and Wes Craven. Get a beat even slightly wrong and the work is reduced to a sham. Pay attention to the excellent sound design—how it is used… and not used.

Even flashbacks are executed ever so carefully. It is the night when Father Graham was summoned to the scene of the accident so he could have a chance to speak to his wife (Patricia Kalember) for the last time. Although the flashback is broken into three segments, it is also a source of dramatic suspense. We already know that the wife would die given the central plot. But we do not know the following: the exact circumstances of Colleen’s death, who was responsible, and the final words between man and wife. Put these three segments together and the total length is a mere three to five minutes. However, there is such a wealth of information, one can argue it is actually necessary to divide this scene so viewers are given time to process. The pieces are provided during the right points in the story—one of them, daringly, shows up during the climax.

The movie is also terrifically funny at times. The approach is to allow a breath of humor amidst the mysterious goings-on so that we grow comfortable with the Hess family (Gibson, Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin). Through their sarcasm, dry wit, and self-deprecation, we come to understand how they think, how they perceive the world around them, how they solve problems. Conversely, we come to understand what hurts them most. And so when the observant and precise screenplay sets up confrontations among them, we feel the hurt they feel.

3 replies »

  1. One of my all-time favorites; one of the very few films I dare say the script is immaculate. the only complaint I could muster up, which isn’t a big deal to me but I have heard from others, is how easily the aliens die when exposed to water. The scene where Merrill watches the news footage of the alien surfacing at the kid’s birthday party is one of the most well-executed moments in horror cinema. Brilliant directing. And I loved the ending, where Graham walks out of his room back in his priest suit; the image drives the point of the story home. Such great story-telling.

    • I would go further to say that the script IS immaculate. I’ve seen this film more than 10 times and I could find nothing in it. It is, without question, my favorite Shyamalan film AND his best film when looking at it from an objective point of you.

      Like yourself, the water bit did not bother me at all. Because, to me, and I stated in the review, the story is not about aliens or defeating them. It’s about this family. And I love that you pointed out that final scene. Yes, it is done so beautifully, especially the change of seasons and how the increasingly apparent score just gets to your core. The story is complete at that point. It is a wonderful ending to a wonderful movie.

      “The Sixth Sense” who? (Although I love that movie as well. Maybe I’ll get around to reviewing it soon.)

      • Man, I didn’t care for The Sixth Sense; especially since the person I was watching it with says in the middle of the movie “he’s dead. no one interacts with him.” lol. Yes, Signs is M Night’s best film, and I agree the script is immaculate. One of the very few films I can say that about…

        Surprisingly, you know what other script I said was immaculate? You may laugh, but “Predator”. If you go back and watch it sometime you will notice that the pacing is perfect; it has an intriguing premise, and all of the character’s motives are plausible and consistent throughout; it avoids the pitfall most action films fall into with that facepalm moment where someone does something idiotic and makes you question the writing; and that showdown at the end between Arnold and the Alien is a classic.

        So, maybe I’m saying in order to have an immaculate script, you need an alien? lol.

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