Published on October 21st, 2015 | by Clint Davis
Summary: The last good film M. Night Shyamalan made is written by-the-numbers but shows his skill for creating atmospheric creeps. The film's ending is way too neatly constructed but 'Signs' is a beautiful movie at times.
PG-13 | 107 min.
Director & Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin
Distribution: Touchstone Pictures
Remember the days when a new M. Night Shyamalan film was a worldwide cinematic event? Hardcore cinephiles lined up with blockbuster seekers of all ages to see what new story — and inevitable twist — the young director would throw at them.
I started to seriously get into film and its power as a storytelling device when I was about 10 years old, about the time that Shyamalan’s classic The Sixth Sense hit theaters. Everything about it worked and as a 12-year-old boy, I dug his follow-up Unbreakable even more. In 2002, the director put out what I firmly believe is his last great film to date….hell, his last good one.
Signs takes place in rural Pennsylvania, where Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a former reverend, lives with his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and his two children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). Graham walked away from his church six months previous, when his wife was killed by a driver who fell asleep at the wheel. When we meet him, Graham finds what appear to be massive crop circles in the corn field behind his house. Of course, being a sane man, he’s convinced they are an elaborate prank done by some rowdy neighborhood kids, but when more evidence of an alien invasion pops up in cities around the globe, the Hess’s slowly become convinced they have visitors from another world.
Similar to Shyamalan’s other films, the idea of fate is a major theme of Signs. Each character has a gift they were born with, even if it’s in the guise of a curse — that will ultimately help save them in the end. Pre-destiny is something the characters of this film spend a lot of time discussing until, in typical Shyamalan fashion, everything fits together neatly at the conclusion. However, the dominant theme of this movie is faith. Graham Hess acts as a low-rent version of Job, as he’s a good man that God seems to be testing in the harshest ways possible. Unlike his Biblical counterpart though, Graham ditches his faith at the first heartbreaking loss he’s dealt and spends the entire film getting more angry and closed-off until the aforementioned neat conclusion.
This movie is the most elegant of Shyamalan’s career, aided largely by James Newton Howard’s somber, low-maintenence score nestled over peaceful shots of midwestern farmland. The director does a great job of creating an uneasy atmosphere from the outset of Signs. Although we’re seeing images of a family living together in a nice home far removed from the dangers of city life, something still feels eerie. If I had to describe the style of Signs, I would say it’s very understated — when we do see the aliens, crafted from obvious CG, it’s only for brief moments or lurking in the background. I applaud the filmmakers for not making this a sci-fi special effects bonanza, it seems more like what Steven Spielberg did with Jaws by only showing the shark for seconds at a time out of fear that it looked too fake.
The script of this picture is much like the writer/director’s other work in that it presents its ideas on a silver platter. There isn’t much subtlety to what Shyamalan is trying to say about the human condition in Signs, the writer pretty much beats you over the head with it from the time you find out Graham is an EX-reverend (as he reminds the film’s various characters many times throughout the story). Also, concerning the conclusion of Signs, Homer Simpson would say, “Everything’s tied up in a neat little package!” Some people may like how clean Shyamalan leaves the endings to his movies but to me, it’s insulting to his audience and in the case of Signs, offers little justice to the characters who aren’t in the Hess family. Why do they get secret, God-given talents to beat the invaders while, as Merrill says in the film, “a lot of people” die? Why are they so special?
Signs has a strong cast at its core, with some characters being more-developed than others. As Graham, Gibson gives one of his most honest performances, but also one of his most dull. This is also the final movie where Gibson was given top-billing until 2010’s Edge of Darkness, so we’re seeing the actor at his most exhausted and on the verge of going completely apeshit (“sugar tits”?!). Phoenix is a bit more optimistic as the failed minor league baseball player Merrill — albeit he still does a bit of brooding but compared to Gibson he’s happy-go-lucky. As far as the children go, Breslin is adorable and pretty much the ideal young daughter for any single parent and her character represents the total innocence of childhood, she gladly follows her older brother’s every word. Speaking of which, Culkin’s Morgan is unquestionably the weakest link in the story. He’s unpleasant, dead serious and devoid of personality but I’m blaming Shyamalan’s script for that. Morgan says some downright hateful things to his father throughout the film and although he’s supposed to be angsty, it’s just annoying after a certain point.
One of Hollywood’s great mysteries will always be what happened to M. Night Shyamalan after Signs. He kept his formulaic pattern of creepy thrillers with twist endings going until his 2006 fairytale Lady in the Water and then completely threw his credibility down the toilet with 2008’s The Happening, which I humbly consider the worst movie ever made. I hope he can one day make another great picture that has diverse audiences lined up to see it but until that day, we’ll always have that brief stretch from 1999-2002 where he ruled the filmmaking world.
Oh, and one other thing, it’s not considered a director’s cameo if you give yourself the fifth biggest part in the freaking movie. Sheesh.