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****There is a sense in which it might be fair to say that this review will ‘spoil’ this movie for you, as I will be discussing the movie in its entirety, and thus giving away the ending. Unlike Shyamalan’s other major releases, ‘Signs’ does not rely on any sort of serious surprise at the end. I generally don’t like to give away an ending, but in this case I don’t think it actually spoils anything to know what happens. That may make sense by the end of what I write. On the other hand, at the end you may not agree and you may feel that the movie has been spoiled. Read on at your own peril.****
****It’s also really long.****
When I reviewed ‘Unbreakable’, I made the boldish statement that the rise or future decline of American cinema may rest on Shyamalan (and/or others like him). Though ‘Signs’ is not nearly as ‘good’ a movie as ‘The Sixth Sense’, or ‘Unbreakable’, I still stand behind that statement. Whether you love ‘Signs’ or hate it, at least Shyamalan is doing something, and something worth doing. Is Shyamalan the greatest thing the world has ever known? No. Does he get oddly high praise in certain areas of the press that he doesn’t entirely deserve? Yes. Nevertheless, he’s young (thus has lots of time to perfect what he’s doing), talented (thus has something upon which to improve), and is clearly going somewhere.
The saying goes, in philosophical circles, that you can philosophize (or do philosophy, however you want to look at rather an odd sounding verb) for (or pro, I suppose) Kant, or you can philosophize against Kant, but you can’t philosophize without Kant. This is not only considered somewhat witty by philosophers (yes, we/they are strange), it is also very true. You don’t have to agree with Kant, but you can’t ignore Kant. What he brought to philosophy has to be addressed. The same is of course true of others, but perhaps not so widely, and perhaps not in such a ‘vital’ way.
I suspect that at some point (far in the future) this sort of saying may be true of Shyamalan, as it is, of course, true of several others now. There are many directors who, if one proposes to make future films, have put down ‘things’ that must be picked up. One may choose to accept/agree/adopt these ‘things’, these methods or styles of making movies, or not, but one cannot hope to make future, worthwhile films without at least confronting them.
As I also said in my review of ‘Unbreakable’, there is a very real sense in which what Shyamalan is ‘doing’, or what the true film is, is the thing that happens in your mind when the movie ends. This is perhaps less clear in ‘Signs’, but it is still true. In his other two movies, the big surprise ending starts the reel over again in your mind as you try to go through what happened in the movie(in theory anyway). In ‘Signs’, there isn’t a big surprise ending, there is merely a sort of realization, or coming to fruition that starts things off. This, in itself, is one of the reasons I have so much hope for the future of Shyamalan. That is, because the thing you’re watching isn’t the ‘thing’ at all. The thing Shyamalan is trying to create is what you think when the movie ends, and this is in a very ‘live’, ‘real’ sense, not merely in the sense that certainly you will think something at the end of any movie.
Positive. Negative. Love it. Hate it. Indifferent towards it. Whatever your feelings about Shyamalan’s films, they try to make you think in a very serious, calculating way. That alone is worth the price of admission to any movie, and if he manages to really perfect his storylines, he may become one of the greats.
The main thing you are likely to hear about ‘Signs’ in any cursory explanation of the film, is that ‘Signs’ is a movie about aliens. There is a sense in which this is true, but it is an almost accidental sense. There are aliens in the movie, but in the most ‘real’ sense they are only what ‘happened to be’ in the movie. The same movie could be made without aliens.
‘Signs’ is about a reverend who ‘cheats’ at his religion, not once, but twice.
Mel Gibson is that reverend, Father Graham Hess. We are quickly introduced to Hess and his life, in typical Shyamalan ‘look at this. look at this. look at this. boom you know the man’ fashion. From the cross that isn’t there, the picture of Gibson dressed as a reverend with his wife and kids, and his waking up alone, we’ve got Hess. He is and isn’t a reverend. He has and hasn’t a wife. And, being that this is all we’ve had handed to us so far, we’re inclined to think they go together, and they do.
Before we are allowed to go into anymore detail, Hess discovers that he’s got a crop circle formation in his cornfield, and we’re off to the alien/hoax races.
In the course of working out the possibilities of this crop circle phenomenon, which we soon learn is something happening all over the globe, we get some further exposure to Hess and his family.
Hess removed himself from reverendhood (or whatever) six months ago, following the death of his wife. She was killed by a man, living in their town, when he fell asleep at the wheel ‘just at the right moment’. Hess is now, as is not uncommon, quite mad at God. He is also, as becomes the crucial element of the story, unable to believe that ‘everything happens for a reason’, which is, as he explains, one of the chief theories/ideas that goes along with God. If God, then everything happens for a reason. And, If everything happens for a reason, how could it be that, not God.
And so, right at the beginning, we are let in on Hess’ first ‘cheat’. Given that he is partial to this line of reasoning, it is hard to escape the notion that he never really believed in God (in a way) in the first place. This is a curiosity of religion, and one worthy of being explored. How do we rationally combine any serious belief in God with extreme depression/loss when someone close to us dies? Now certainly, there is an acceptable level of sadness and/or just general emotion, but when it goes to the extent that it does in the case with Hess (and it often does), there needs to be some explanation. After all, God exists, he’s good (goodish anyway), everything happens for a reason, etc., etc.
The answer in Hess’ case is pretty clearly that he doesn’t believe that everything happens for a reason, and we’re given pretty good grounds to believe that ‘everything happens for a reason’ is just the sort of thing he has been dishing out to those who looked to him for spiritual guidance. Faced with not being able to take what he’s been dishing out, and perhaps the idea that if he doesn’t believe it when it counts, he never really believed it, Hess left God and Church. Both, as far as he was concerned, could sod off.
We now move to further information about Hess’ family. He has two children, Bo (Abigail Breslin) and Morgan (some Culkin or other... really the Culkins had one child actor and ran with the idea to an extent that ought to interest CPS). Bo exists, so far as the film is concerned, in order that she may have a strange affinity for water such that her glass of water must always be absolutely pure, and really she only has that peculiarity so that she may, with some manner of reasonable explanation, leave half-full/half-empty glasses of water all over the house. Morgan exists only so that he may be rather clever, thus desiring a book on aliens, and so that he may have asthma.
Our final Hess is Graham’s brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix – SpaceCamp’, ‘Parenthood’, ‘Gladiator’, ‘Quills’. The interesting thing about Joaquin is that in his earlier roles such as ‘SpaceCamp’ and ‘Parenthood’ you will find him listed under another name. Growing up with siblings River, Rain, Liberty, and Summer, and having the ‘left-field’ by comparison name of Joaquin, he actually changed his name to Leaf.)
We learn, at various points, of Merrill, that he came to live with Graham after the accident, and that he was a minor league baseball player, holding records in both home runs and strike outs (a fact rather unduly scorned in the movie as virtually all home run leaders have high strike out percentages).
And thus, we have our stage. This is a picture that is painted for us in a style not unlike Shyamalan’s norm. Characters move with very specific purposes, objects are very notably pointed to that they might be easily recalled later, and basically, everything happens for a reason. There is also, much running about of aliens.
Merely as an aside, there also exists in the film the character known as Officer Caroline Paski played by Cherry Jones (‘The Horse Whisperer’, ‘Erin Brockovich’, ‘The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’). This character is perhaps the most annoying character I have seen in recent memory. Hers is a character cut-and-pasted directly from the book of stock characters in that she is the epitome of the yokel cop who is good-natured, somewhat worldly-wise, and just as bright as it takes to be a cop in Podunk, Nowhere. Basically, she is a sounding board for Graham, and of course, not at all the sort of person you want covering your back when aliens start invading. The existence of this sort of character at all, I feel, is a serious misstep. She is utterly distracting in her unbelievable ‘Andy Taylor local sheriff at your service’ small-towny yutz, fatherly advice-giving goofiness, and her role as ‘person for Graham to talk to’ could have easily been managed without her.
Now that we have our stage, we can move on to dealing with some serious alien encounters, fearful night wanderings, and general spookiness. It turns out (and we knew from the beginning really, because we saw one), that aliens really are invading. At this middleish point, the movie becomes something which resembles (in theory) a movie like ‘The Others’ or even ‘Panic Room’ (for recent titles). It’s mainly about knowing that they are out there, and just watching us deal with it. Something like your typical ‘thriller-horror’ vehicle, with the emphasis not so much on confrontation/s with the scary thing de jour as it is on the confrontation with the need/inevitability of the confrontation with the scary thing.
There is, I want to make sure to note, an interesting contrast which is shown to us, very vividly, between Graham the man/human, and Graham the reverend. This is given to us in two scenes, the scene in which Graham confronts the alien in the pantry, and the scene when the aliens are trying to get into Graham’s house.
When Graham confronts the alien in the pantry, which is pretty clearly metaphorical, he doesn’t arm himself in any way to prepare for the possible confrontation. He walks in, Graham the reverend, and simply approaches the door to investigate, where anyone, I should think, would find something with which to arm themselves. It is only when the knife will serve an alternate function, acting as a reflective surface so that he can see under the door, that he picks up the knife. Even with the knife in hand, he holds it just as he would anything else he might be using to serve that function. When the alien 'attacks', Graham the man, or sheer instinct, kicks in, and he lashes out with the knife, cutting off the fingers of the alien.
In the scene where Graham and family are boarding up the house to keep the aliens out, and are basically in as much fear as they could be, Graham, though recently in possession of boards, a hammer, and any number of suitable blunt objects, stands empty-handed awaiting the outcome of his preparation. He is willing to go to any extreme to keep the aliens out, but the thought that they might be rather easy to massacre simply doesn’t occur to him.
As I said, the stage is set for us through the use of the alien adventure. As we see/don’t see the aliens, and learn that they are invading, the characters are given occasion to expose themselves (to the necessary degree and, for good or ill, no further). It is a somewhat scary movie, if we are such that can be scared of alien movies (and not all of us are), with its share of ‘jumps’ and haunting misdirections which don’t actually ‘do’ anything except make us think we are about to be scared, which is scary in its own way (I never jump, and I jumped when the dog barked at the little girl).
And, after they invade and subsequently begin to retreat, the alien who now has (or doesn’t really...who knows?) a bone to pick with Graham shows up, threatens his son, and we get the grand finale. Through flashbacks we have been shown that Graham’s wife had time to have a final conversation with him. Most importantly, her last words to him, when she told him to tell Merrill to ‘swing away’. From a discussion with Merrill, we learn that Graham believes this seemingly irrelevant statement to be the result of the random firing of synapses caused by her physical state of being somewhat dead and not-dead at the same time (this state also not being without its metaphor).
When the moment arrives, and the alien stands holding/threatening Morgan, the instruction ‘swing away’ becomes an important one. Faced with the standoff, the knowledge that Graham may tell Merrill to ‘swing away’ and attack the alien without fear of Morgan’s safety is the most important thing in the world. An instruction, which if not followed, possibly leads to the true harm to Morgan, and given Graham’s reverendly ways, to not attack the alien would likely be his choice.
Events quickly unfold. Graham tells Merrill to swing away. Merrill prepares to swing away. The alien ‘shoots’ Morgan with his poison gas discharge. Merrill swings away.
Though Graham only expresses the ‘everything happens for a reason’ as far as stating that Morgan has asthma so that he could be having a severe asthma problem at the time, thus ‘closing’ his lungs so that he wouldn’t inhale the poison gas, we easily follow along with him. His wife did die for a reason. Not only to give the needed instruction, but given that we know that Merrill only moved in with Graham after her death, also to facilitate his being there at all. His daughter has her water ‘quirk’ so that plenty of water will be close to hand, as it turns out water hurts the aliens. We can also follow further that Graham’s reaction obviously had its reason (and his wife's death had a secondary reason), as Merrill likely would not have needed to move in if Graham had handled his wife’s death better. Perhaps, there is even a reason Merrill had enough of a baseball career to be good with a bat, but not so much that he would be busy in the big leagues.
Perhaps we even have a further reason for Graham’s reaction/disillusionment in that it stood to distance him from Morgan, eventually culminating in Morgan’s declaration that he hated his father. This, so that Graham can understand, afterwards, both sides of the story when he reflects on having said that he hated God (which he never does in the movie, it is left to us to know/think that he does).
For our denouement, we see Graham going about his morning routine in his Father Graham Hess garb.
And here Graham is a ‘cheat’ again, though in a very different way. He now feels able to resume his reverend role, because his ‘faith’ that everything happens for a reason is restored. But, he cheats again because he doesn’t actually believe (have faith), he knows. It is only because he is in the supremely unique circumstance of seeing the idea come to fruition that he can ‘believe’. But, believing is believing, and knowing is knowing, and, as they say, never the twain shall meet. And the irony is that in the world of this movie, in which things definitely do happen for a reason, this man whose job it is to convince people of the idea is such that he cannot believe it, and in fact can only act on it, live according to it, once the evidence is in. The seller of belief and ideal, is the buyer only of cold fact and data.
And once again we come back to everything happening for a reason, as we can easily be led to the idea that perhaps the greater good is served by he who cannot believe serving his purpose of ‘working on’ those who can be made to believe.
After all that, it may seem that I would highly recommend this movie. The fact is that I can only recommend this with severe limitations. Unlike Shyamalan’s first two major releases (at least for me), it is very difficult to get through to the end in a way that can really be described as ‘being entertained’. Once the movie ends, it turns out it was worth it, but it is trying, almost painful, to get there. In the first two, you sort of rode along, knowing full well that Shyamalan was really just telling you things. You didn’t mind, because you were riding along. In ‘Signs’, there isn’t really much riding along, there is only the telling you things, and it is much more difficult to put up with.
While Shyamalan does manage to deliver information to us in ‘interesting’, even somewhat appealing ways, we know he’s doing it, and he doesn’t really have much to distract us from knowing. We know, very early on, that the aliens are so much baggage, and that the story is really Graham almost in a vacuum, so it is hard to put any real effort toward the ‘entertainment’. It’s as if (I don’t want to spoil any other movies for you, but...) the scene in ‘The Sixth Sense’ where we first see Bruce Willis after the shooting had a caption that read ‘He’s dead’.
Though in a theoretical way I like ‘Signs’, I can only give it three stars. Maybe call it 3.5, but I’m not willing to go up to 4. It tries something relevant, interesting, and certainly welcome, but the truth is that it simply fails in most ways. It is almost as if the movie can’t get out of its own way, or perhaps Shyamalan simply didn’t work enough on putting together an entertaining and interesting vehicle for delivering his message.
Still (to steal a quote and subvert it to my cause), if the choice is between the perfection of the death that is the stale, mass-appeal, bubble gum movie (XXX, Blue Crush, and Austin Powers 3, among those in theaters as I speak), and the flawed, even painfully so, life that is a movie with ‘real’, cognitive elements and a true purpose... I choose life.
I would rather endlessly watch someone try to do something great and fail miserably, then watch someone try to do something utterly useless and meet with success better than they hoped for. This is not to say that there is no room for movies which are more of the ‘fluff’ caliber. Having recently enjoyed ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, I can, with example in mind, say without fear of reproaching myself that there is a need/use/purpose for such movies. But, if they were my only options, I would choose to watch ‘Signs’ everyday, as opposed to watching ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ more than once a year.
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