Reviewed by Kim Newman
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.
Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the present. Ex-minister Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), who has lost his faith following the death of his wife Colleen (Patricia Kalember), lives on a farm with his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), son Morgan (Rory Culkin), who's asthmatic, and daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin), who keeps leaving half-drunk glasses of water around the house. When crop circles turn up in the Hess' fields and a superswift humanoid figure is glimpsed on the property, Graham wants to blame local pranksters. It turns out the same phenomenon is happening worldwide, connected with lights in the skies over principal cities and the predations of vicious aliens.
Graham visits vet Ray Reddy (M. Night Shyamalan), the driver whose car killed Colleen. Ray tries to apologise and heads off for a lake on the grounds that crop circles never manifest near water, revealing that he has trapped one of the humanoid intruders in his pantry. Graham investigates and cuts off the intruder's fingers. From the television, the family learn of worldwide alien attacks, and retreat to the farm's cellar, where they are besieged by aliens. Surviving through the night, the family emerge to learn that the aliens have been defeated, though the wounded creature Graham encountered earlier is in the house and attacks Morgan by exhaling a deadly gas from its wrist. Morgan has an asthmatic reaction and so doesn't get the gas in his lungs. Meanwhile Merrill's souvenir baseball bat and Bo's glasses of water turn out - as revealed by Colleen's hitherto mysterious dying words - to be precisely the weapons that can destroy the alien. Such a providential outcome restores Graham's faith.
The rural opening of Signs, which can't help but feel like an X Files pre-credit teaser, seems to be a break with the urban world of M. Night Shyamalan's previous paranormal dramas, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. However, a caption promptly insists that Bucks County is only "45 minutes from Philadelphia", the city which the writer-director has turned into his own distinctively haunted territory. Though Mel Gibson replaces Bruce Willis as the family man troubled by a sundered marriage and the paranormal (here, invading aliens), this third go-round for the M.N.S. formula hits the now obligatory beats: soul-revealing conversations in kitchens, adults taught life lessons by insightful children, night-time prowling in shadowy houses with the odd sudden scare, grown men riven by emotions that can't be expressed verbally, apparently off-topic speeches that turn out to be plot hinges, a blue-grey colour palette rarely relieved by splashes of colour (Tak Fujimoto returns from The Sixth Sense), and an evocative and unsettling James Newton Howard score. A break with tradition is that this film's finale seems not to have the sort of kicker twist that were talking points for the earlier films - though, as before, the resolution includes a flashback that forces the hero to reassess his whole understanding of the universe.
Just as Unbreakable was the artiest superhero movie ever made, Signs stakes out territory viewed as a fringe embarrassment even within science fiction and proceeds to make it the backdrop for a terrific suspense movie, overlaid with a faintly embarrassing tale of faith lost and perhaps regained. One could argue that Gibson can't get away with wearing a dog collar, and that the arc experienced by his character, minister-turned-farmer Graham Hess, is too similar to those of the protagonists who feature in fundamentalist Christian horror or sci-fi movies such as The Omega Code and Left Behind. However, Gibson delivers his bitter rants against God ("I hate you!") with genuine feeling (his character might have worked better if he were just a religious man as opposed to an honest-to-God preacher).
There's an interesting suggestion that providence has been as malign in disposing of Graham's wife Colleen as it is merciful in gifting the Hess household with the precise physical and psychological attributes that enable them to defeat the snarling, oily-black ET before it can 'harvest' young Morgan. The clever title seems to refer to evidence of extra-terrestrial incursion such as crop circles, but actually means those coincidences which suggest the guiding hand of a deity in the universe. A problem is this essentially means that some astonishingly lazy plotting can be written off as evidence of the divine, while the climax boils down to a silly rewriting of the last lines of The War of the Worlds to the effect that the aliens are defeated by the littlest things that God in his mercy created on Earth - half-drunk glasses of water.
Given that The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable were sort of reverse-spoofs, taking seriously the material of many light comedies, the approach here swings back towards send-up. A key early speech about military tactics is delivered by a crassly caricatured military man, and a sequence where Graham confronts the possibility of his family's deaths by making them their favourite meals and having a hysterical reaction when they aren't hungry is either a riff on the potato-shaping scene in Close Encounters or weirdly misjudged comic relief. Signs gets as many laughs as gasps, and it's a moot point as to how many are intentional.
If the substructure of this piece is shaky, Shyamalan still continues to hone his skills as a suspense/horror film-maker. The farmhouse besieged by aliens is a situation that could derive from Night Skies (the John Sayles script abandoned by Steven Spielberg in favour of the more amiable E.T.), but Shyamalan also incorporates the influences of The Birds and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Typical of the way Shyamalan borrows but adapts is his reuse of Romero's device of the news-dispensing TV set, which is often turned off here on the principle that some people don't want to know how bad things really are in the outside world.
- M. Night Shyamalan
- M. Night Shyamalan
- Frank Marshall
- Sam Mercer
- M. Night Shyamalan
- Director of Photography
- Tak Fujimoto
- Barbara Tulliver
- Production Designer
- Larry Fulton
- James Newton Howard