The Birthday Series – Signs (2002)
My how the mighty have fallen. In 1999 M. Night Shyamalan burst out of nowhere to take the world by storm with his uber-twist thriller ‘The Sixth Sense’. He followed it up with the brilliant ‘Unbreakable’ and the mega box office hit ‘Signs’. Then things began to spectacularly fall apart in a colossal failure of ego, terrible writing, ego, stupid premises, ego, desperate adaptations, and ego. Did I mention ego?
Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) lives on a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his two children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), and his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). Formerly a priest, Graham lost his faith when his wife died in an accident six months earlier. One day there begins a series of strange occurrences. He discovers crop circles in his cornfield, one of many that have turned up all over the world. The dogs turn violent. There’s something or someone lurking about the house in the night. There are lights in the sky above Mexico City. We are being visited by an alien race. Is it ‘ET’ or ‘Independence Day’?
‘Signs’ has me a bit conflicted. I find the viewing experience to be terrific. Shyamalan has a brilliant control of tone, and the films pacing is perfect. I allow the film to unfold, accepting the story and becoming involved with the characters. M. Night never allows the story to get away from him. The alien invasion is the catalyst for a family drama. It essentially boils down to a story about a mans faith. In a nutshell, the point of the film is that “the lord works in mysterious ways”. And at the same time it’s an expertly constructed thriller. The soundtrack is bare, which accentuates every noise. Every rustle of leaves in the cornfield, every dog bark, and every footstep is elevated. There are a number of effective ‘jump’ moments, and until the end the glimpses of the alien beings are wonderfully handled, as in the footage the Hess family watch on TV of the unwelcome visitor at a childs birthday party.
The performances are very good all round. Gibson gives his usual solid performance as a man who has had his whole life dramatically changed by a single, traumatic event. Phoenix makes the most of an underwritten role, giving the film a few moments of much needed levity, and the two kids never become annoying, which helps involve us in their moments of peril.
But here is where I explain my inner conflict. Once the film ends, once the dust settles and I start to think about ‘Signs’, I like this film less. The screenplay, written my Shyamalan, is one giant meticulously constructed jigsaw puzzle. Every plot point is laboured over. It’s all so blatantly manufactured for the services of the film it begins to feel fake. When thinking back on all the “signs”, such as Bo’s habit of leaving half full glasses of water around the house, Morgans asthma, Merrills history with baseball and Grahams wifes last words, the nature of the screenplay begins to irritate. Mainly my irritation stems from the fact that I was duped by a filmmaker on top of his game. The fact that I don’t question any of these things when watching the film is actually a credit to Shyamalans ability as a director.
I’ll digress from the specific topic of ‘Signs’ (in order to pad out this review), and take on one aspect of Shyamalans writing that I have noticed. When thinking back on his films, from ‘The Sixth Sense’ to ‘The Lady in the Water’, every lead character is pretty much the same. What they all have in common is they’re immeasurably depressed, and the reason for that is (nearly) always their wife. She’s either dead (Signs, The Lady in the Water), or she’s estranged (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable). I say nearly because I can’t really remember what the deal was with Joaquin Phoenix’s character in ‘The Village’ because I’ve totally forgotten most of the film. All I remember is that he was depressed for some reason. When looking back at his films and realising this, it’s no wonder that he has sunk as low as he has. He’s proven himself to be a one trick pony, taking a basic template and applying increasingly absurd premises onto them. It also didn’t help that he cast himself as “The Man Who’s Writing Will Change The World”.
Getting back to the film at hand, for all it’s faults, ‘Signs’ is an effective thriller. It’s solid in all departments, provides characters we like, and a story we get involved in, and successfully has us glued to our seats for the duration. It’s best to not think about it afterwards though.
Gracias amigos! Hasta luego.
For Droids a jolly good fellow!