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Signs

Released 2002. Director: M. Night Shyamalan

I'D LIKE TO START BY QUOTING FROM THE BIBLE. ROMANS CHAPTER 8 VERSE 28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” I’m no Bible scholar; my interpretation of the text implies that for believers, everything that happens to them ultimately works out well for them.

Sounds very assuring but I have one question. What about the bad things that happen around the person? Do they form part of the big plan? What if those things involve awful, painful, horrible incidents, such as the untimely death of a loved one? If you tell me the answer is in the affirmative, this belief seems particularly cruel and sadistic. Surely a god of infinite power can “work for the good” of his believers without having to kill someone and cause some major damage along the way?

I could go on, but that’s not the point here. The point is this: that M. Night Shyamalan has borrowed a contentious religious viewpoint as a hook for a movie of percolating suspense and quiet conviction.

Signs was released in 2002, following Shyamalan’s critically acclaimed The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000). Whatever one might say about the quality of his movies after these early successes, Signs is often overlooked unfairly.

Shyamalan’s direction here is measured and his pacing is immaculate. Once again using his craftsmanship in creating a protracted and creepy atmosphere, Shyamalan gently lands us in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by endless cornfields in all directions while a cataclysmic event of cosmic proportions takes place in more ways than one. It’s an alien invasion, and also (perhaps more so) a crisis of faith.

Mel Gibson is as subdued as he’s ever been as Graham Hess, who used to be a priest but now only tends to his crops after his wife is killed in a horrific road accident. Graham represents those who have denounced religious faith with a questioning, even spiteful heart. He has turned his back on his boss and his flock, but the movie tells us, in Graham’s own words, that there’s no such thing as a coincidence and nothing in the world happens without a purpose. Which, as it turns out, includes his wife’s death and his young son’s asthma, among other things.

While some might question Shyamalan’s use of the crop circle phenomenon as the basis for his mystery, you’re more likely to end up taken in by how he manages to turn what has mostly been proven as an elaborate hoax into a believable paranormal occurrence.

The crop signs, the lights in the sky, shadows in the night, they become effective elements of apprehension and intrigue. However, these are all props that Shyamalan litters around the story to sustain our attention. The real story he’s telling is about a man’s redemption of his convictions, of finding meaning even in the darkest period of personal history.

Just like he has done twice before this, Shyamalan takes a popular concept and spins it long enough to distract us while the kernel of his idea lies await of our discovery. In The Sixth Sense, he uses ghosts to teach us about letting go. In Unbreakable, he uses superheroes to draw a tale of justice and vengeance. In Signs, he uses invaders from outer space.

Skilfully, he conceals more than reveals, only allowing snippets of new detail to surface when he chooses to. He uses low angle view to heighten the growing claustrophobia, makes us jump with a couple of sliced fingers, shocks us with a reflection on a blank TV screen, but he never overplays his bag of little tricks.

Shyamalan also continues his tradition of casting himself in his own movies. This time he has a slightly bigger role as the man who causes the death of Graham’s wife, which leads to the priest’s loss of faith. But in retrospect his action indirectly saves Graham’s family from the aliens, thereby raising a curious question of whether it makes this “killer” an instrument of God (as it might arise in the mind of Graham the priest).

It’s easy to see why people complained at the time of having been misled into expecting a blockbuster in the likes of Independence Day (1998). True, this movie is about the end of the world when armies of extra-terrestrials are taking over planet Earth, but Shyamalan’s concern is confined to a very microscopic view of the hostile takeover.

All the actions and mysteries never venture far from the house surrounded by rows and rows of corn. Outside information is cleverly conveyed using TV news. There are no explosions, space battles or jingoistic propaganda but eerie stillness and rustling of leaves. It is more horror movie than science fiction, more like The Birds (1963) even though it borrows generously from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

The one most commendable achievement here is the successful suspension of cynicism, especially when dealing with a significant religious undertone. He’s also adept at inserting small doses of humour amidst the pervading ominous mood, lest we take things too seriously.

Graham’s personal struggles are set against a larger canvas of a distant War of the Worlds. Shyamalan manages to resolve the two aspects together without relying too much on a “twist” that audiences were expecting from him, but more out of clever storytelling. The only question that still nags me after nearly 20 years is why have the aliens come to conquer a planet with over 70% of its surface covered by water when that’s the very thing that kills them.


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