Signs (2002) Director: M. Night Shyamalan
“…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? …Is it possible that there are no coincidences?“
Signs is a quiet yet powerful film about a former pastor and his family who survive an alien invasion on Earth. Unlike other science fiction films, Signs is a more introspective and reflective picture, relying on fewer special effects and with a slower pace. It is not about an alien invasion per se. It is a character-driven story that wrestles with themes of faith and human purpose in the cosmos. The beauty of the film is that each character’s particular flaws and quirks are revealed to have a a broader purpose. The notion that signs are everywhere including in human failings gives new existential meaning to a grieving family. Signs was the follow-up film to Shyamalan’s breakout successes The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000).
The film opens the same way it closes: showing cornfields on a farm viewed through a window (only at the end is the glass shattered). We are introduced to Graham Hess (played by Mel Gibson), a former preacher who has lost his faith in God since his wife died in a traffic accident (she was killed by Ray Reddy when he fell asleep at the wheel -Shyamalan plays Reddy as his cameo in the film). Her obscure dying words were “swing away, Merrill…” -a seemingly innocuous reference at the time. Graham lives on a rural farm in Pennsylvania (the film was shot on site in Pennsylvania) with his two children: an asthmatic but excessively intelligent boy named Morgan (played by Rory Culkin) and a daughter who leaves her water glasses sitting around the house named Bo (Abigail Breslin). Graham’s younger brother Merrill (played by Joaquin Phoenix) lives on the farm to help take care of the children. He is a former minor-league baseball player known for his many swinging strikeouts.
Crop circles start appearing in the fields but the crop circles are attributed to local ruffians, but soon it becomes apparent that a global alien invasion is imminent (a la War of the Worlds). Merrill visits Ray Reddy’s house where he has trapped an alien in his basement. Rumors surface that the aliens don’t like water. Some people leave to go to a lake, but the Hess family boards up their house and stays home. That evening, the aliens invade and the Hess family survives through the night while Morgan has an asthma attack. In the morning they encounter an alien. Morgan is protected against the alien’s toxic gas because of his asthma attack, meanwhile Merrill remembers the dying words of Graham’s wife (“swing away, Merrill…”) He starts swinging his bat at the alien who is weakened by the many water cups left sitting around the house by Graham’s daughter Bo. The water burns the alien’s skin while Merrill attacks the alien.
With the heavy presence of water on Earth, the aliens appear to leave. At the end, Graham rediscovers his religious faith, having learned that all things happen for a reason: there are ‘signs’ of deeper significance all around us.
The cinematography in Signs is impeccable, as are smatterings of small moments of humor. Some of the background characters we meet in town are intriguing, as well. James Newton Howard wrote the score for the film -an excellent score. The film was timely, it was released not long after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.