Top 10’s – FAVORITE FILMS
#8 – SIGNS – M. Night Shyamalan, 2002
There’s nothing new about alien invasion. Our society fairly obsessed with the extra-solar, the paranormal, and all things out of this world. But, just as he did in his two previous efforts, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, director/writer M. Night Shyamalan takes this usual Hollywood subject matter and finds a way to once again make it extraordinary.
M. Night’s Signs, stars Mel Gibson as Graham, a former Reverend questioning his faith and beliefs after the recent death of his wife in a fatal accident. With him, is his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) who has come to stay while Graham learns to cope with the realities of raising two small children on his own. But Signs doesn’t waste a moment on setup, jumping right into the meat of the thing, preferring instead to interweave character development into the fabric of the story itself, rather than taking some artificial “get to know the preacher” break. Graham’s crops have been damaged, trampled down to construct perfect geometric shapes which only take form when seen from the sky. Crop signs, which as everyone knows are a hoax. Dismissing them as such, Graham moves on, but things only get worse, leaving him questioning his beliefs still further and eventually fighting for his family’s life.
Signs is a deeply personal and intentionally “small” film. Which is why it is near and dear to my heart. There is something about small film “feel.” Call it intimacy if you like. Set in a small town, in a small farmhouse, wherein lives a small, slightly damaged family, Director M. Night clears out distractions of momentous world events; choosing instead to focus on how those gigantic events outside effect this tiny, faith challenged family within this movie’s small world. We’ve seen massive alien invasions before, M. Night doesn’t go there. We’re watching how one family, alone in the universe, copes when the entire world is falling apart. When danger is on their doorstep, when Armageddon is just around the corner, what will one small family do? How did they cope, the night the aliens came and all the world outside was going mad?
Questions of faith, belief, and hope are all raised and explored in Signs. The beauty of Signs, and indeed everything M. Night does, is his abject determination to make his stories about MORE than just some cliche Hollywood plot device. Yes, Signs is about aliens, and yes it’s intense, scary, and all the other great things you’d expect to get only from a true master director like Alfred Hitchcock. But it’s also about faith. It’s about family. It’s about personal connections with people and how those ties allow us to cope with loss. It’s about finding meaning and hope in life whatever we might face. Because of that ability to entwine deep rooted meaning right in along with the action, terror, and excitement of his films. In my opinion with Signs, M. Night Shyamalan has created one of the great masterpieces of modern suspense-thrillers… again.
Signs is War of the Worlds for real. It’s your world if the unthinkable, unbelievable, Hollywood stories you’ve watched on TV for so many years actually happened. What would you do? Where would you go? What what it take for you to believe and how would it ultimately affect the way you personally see the world? Reality is M. Night’s gift, and he brings it tied up with a mind blowing, sci-fi/thriller bow.
This is a film to simply let yourself get caught up in. Go in knowing nothing and let M. Night, Gibson, Pheonix, and the rest take you into their world right along with them. Nothing is wasted. Just look at the way each moment, each device is used. The way he uses the TV, the baby monitor, all of it to develop these organically real moments for this family, these PEOPLE. The sharp nervous laughter, the emotional edge this film is constructed on… all of it pulling you deeper to make you really identify with the the reality of an unreality. Just look at the way he directs this family, the way M. Night lets them interact… the way he gets so much out of child actors time and time again.
The magic behind this film is present and intact. The idea feels familiar, even the music is intentionally crafted to hearken back to memories of late nights at home watching “The Twighlight Zone.” But Night and crew use all of that to twist you and pull you and take you places you’ve never really been before.
When this film ended, and the credits rolled for the first time, I just sat. Sat and stared. Watched the names roll by and the audience file out. I just knew I witnessed something special and I needed to see it again. More than any other filmmaker at that time, M. Night Shyamalan connected with his audience and his characters in a totally unique way to transport us so effortlessly into the world of “what ifs. ” See it and believe. See it and question: What if you were there?
My life changed when I first watched Signs. I have no problem making that statement. It was and still is everything I could ever want in a film. Trailers and commercials expose this crop circled movie as a supernatural thriller, but M. Night Shyamalan himself is careful to note that the center of the movie is really on one’s faith rather than crop circles, aliens, or anything related to such. ‘Signs’ is a mixture of things: humor, emotion, frightening elements, and a factor found in some of the scariest of movies–silence. With pure intelligence, It is no way a stretch to call this movie Shyamalan’s Hitchcock film. The isolated location, the small cast, the tight script. This all points to where Shyamalan works best. I mentioned the word faith earlier and make no mistake about it, Signs is a film about faith, not aliens and not crops.
We all are aware of faith. Whether we acknowledge it or not has no regards on it’s existence. Mel Gibson’s character is dropped exactly in the thick of that situation. We are meant to ride the journey with him. We grow with him, we root for him and at some points, we despise him. But most importantly, we never lose him. Signs effectively evokes you to laugh, cry and be frightened. As does an exercise in faith, ask Graham Hess.