Deciphering M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs 15 Years On

I’m a miracle man. Those lights are a miracle

So much has happened since the release of Signs 15 years ago, particularly in relation to its writer director M. Night Shyamalan. In that time, the man – behind such now classic films as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable – tanked and subsequently revitalised his career. The reasons why the director critically fell from grace are interesting, especially in relation to Signs. Creatively, he owes a huge debt to Rod Serling – the showrunner behind sci-fi series The Twilight Zone. Like that show, Shyamalan structured his stories around twists – something evident in the denouments to The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and to some extent Signs. However, quickly they began to be perceived as cheap and stale. Signs was released while the “twist” was still fresh. Yet, by the time the particularly twisty The Village (a movie I personally admire) dropped in theatres, it felt like a gimmick to many – alienating audiences and critics. Shyamalan retaliated against his detractors poorly with Lady in the Water, a film featuring an irritating film critic being killed brutally and the director himself acting in the role of hero. After a string of failures, it’s only recently the director recovered with the well-received The Visit and Split.

Yet, Shymalan’s early movies show someone who’s more than just the “twist guy”, a filmmaker as indebted to Steven Spielberg as he is Serling. Signs is perhaps the best example of this as it demonstrates how the director is equally interested in character and themes as opposed to solely shocking revelations. In the same way as The Sixth Sense is a movie about mental illness and child abuse and Unbreakable is about destiny and the dichotomy between good and evil – Signs is a faith allegory.

In an example of Shymalan’s clear precise storytelling, the movie opens with the faded outline on a wall of where a cross once was. The house belongs to Mel Gibson’s Fr. Graham Hess, a preacher suffering a crisis of faith after the death of his wife in a brutal, seemingly pointless car accident. With the help of this brother, ex-baseball player Merrill (a wonderfully loose Joaquin Phoenix), he tries to raise his children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), on a farm in mid-West America. When strange crops circles begin to appear in corn-fields, the family begin to unravel due to spreading fears that an alien invasion is looming.



It takes great skill to craft a film centred on the notion of faith that is in no way preachy or biased (for anyone who wants to see the opposite, see the work of Kirk Cameron and the entire Christian “faith-based movement”). Signs accomplishes this because it’s not focused on a particular religious belief. It’s instead about the feeling that there’s a benevolent, omniscient force guiding us through life.

Signs was released on this date 15 years ago. - HeadStuff.org
Signs was released on this date 15 years ago. Source

Shyamalan skillfully in the first three quarters of the movie establishes subtle incidents or ailments affecting the characters which should prove the absence of God – Graham’s wife’s death, Morgan’s crippling asthma. Yet, as Signs moves into its final act, our protagonist realises that there is a logic to this suffering. Graham’s wife’s last words were “swing away Merrill”, a reference to her brother-in-law’s baseball career. Gibson’s character thinks this statement was pointless, a result of severe trauma and delirium. However, when he and Merrill come face to face with an invading extra-terrestrial, it’s these words which ultimately save them – with Graham shouting “swing away Merrill” – an instruction to his brother to grab his prize bat from the wall and beat the alien.

Similarly, Morgan’s asthma protects him from the aliens’ poison gas. The child’s lungs closed due to an attack brought on by the stress of the situation, thus preventing him from ingesting the toxic chemicals. Ultimately, Signs derives its title not from the crop circles but the idea that the little signs and coincidences of everyday life could be the work of a divine presence. Whether one is the type of person that sees these things as just “pure luck” or the type that interprets them as “evidence that there is someone up there”, it’s difficult not to get chills during these spiritually loaded moments.

Mel Gibson and Rory Culkin in Signs. - HeadStuff.org
Mel Gibson and Rory Culkin in Signs. Source

As mentioned above, Shyamalan is hugely indebted to Serling and Spielberg and Signs is the movie where these influences gel the best. Like a Twilight Zone episode, the film mainly takes place in one location. This works because it’s easier to relate to this regular family attempting to process various TV and radio reports of an impending alien invasion than if the film was to jump between special agents and scientists attempting to deal with the issue. Spending the entire time with Graham, Merrill, Morgan and Bo puts the viewer in their position, adding a tangibility. What would we do in such a scenario?

Yet, Spielberg’s influence is all over Signs. Shyamalan refers to this as his “most popcorn film” and the movie is drawing upon much of the iconography of the first summer blockbusters made by Spielberg. The naturalistic performances and dialogue between Morgan and Bo evoke memories of the children at the heart of E.T.  Like Close Encounters, Signs is about an ordinary man attempting to process that aliens are real. Plus, similarly to Jaws, the monsters in Shyamalan’s movie are hidden for the majority of the running time – appearing on-screen for only 90 seconds but having an impact that lasts far longer. In regards to the latter, the first time the viewer sees an alien – a clip of a home-video where a creature appears in the background of a child’s birthday party – is one of the all-time greatest cinematic scares.

I couldn’t finish without praising the tone of the movie Signs which manages to juxtapose the heavy and the light, the terrifying and the hilarious. As David Costill of Cut Print Film noted (the site recently did an excellent podcast breaking down the film), there are individual scenes which highlight these contrasts. A key moment sees Merrill – fearing the outcome of the invasion – look to his brother for reassurance. Graham – not believing in what he’s saying but wanting to help his sibling – delivers a passionate preacher sermon about the power of faith.

 

“People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. Just a happy turn of chance. I’m sure the people in group number two are looking at those fourteen lights in a very suspicious way. For them, the situation is a fifty-fifty. Could be bad, could be good. But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they’re on their own. And that fills them with fear … But there’s a whole lot of people in group number one. When they see those fourteen lights, they’re looking at a miracle. And deep down, they feel that whatever’s going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope. See what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?”.

 

It’s a meaty speech, brimming with much of the thematic elements of the film as a whole. Yet, just as the scene is about to get too serious for a popcorn alien movie, Merrill replies – delivering a hilarious personal anecdote about why he believes in God:

 

“One time, I was at this party… and I was sitting on the couch with Amanda McKinney. She was just sitting there, looking beautiful. So, I lean in to kiss her, and I realize I have gum in my mouth. So, I turn to spit it out and put it in a paper cup. I turn back, and Amanda McKinney throws up all over herself. I knew the moment it happened, it was a miracle. I could have been kissing her when she threw up. It would have scarred me for life. I may never have recovered.”

Watching Signs on its 15th anniversary will make one appreciate how talented Shyamalan is when he is on form. Few mainstream filmmakers can blend cinematic thrills, ideological discussions, comedy and horror with such ease. The Visit and Split show promise of the director returning to this previous form.  One can only hope that he will make a movie of the calibre of Signs again.

 

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