2021/01/11

Signs

Signs 2002

By popular demand, we delve once more into the back catalog of wunderkind-turned-byword-turned-mercenary director M. Night Shyamalan. 

This blog's reviews of Sham's Eastrail 177 Trilogy chronicled the rise of an earnest auteur, his fall to hubris, his delayed redemption, and his subsequent relapse. But twenty years ago, Shyamalan was riding high on a string of hits with Christian undertones. 

The Village presented those themes so subtly that many viewers missed them. Sham's reasons for soft-pedaling the Village's Christian message almost certainly arose from reactions to its predecessor, 2002's alien invasion thriller Signs.

M. Night Shyamalan film review ahead. That inevitably means spoilers. If you somehow missed this nineteen-year-old megahit, continue at your own risk.

As a screenwriter, Shyamalan is forthcoming about his liberal use of tropes. Most fans point to Unbreakable as the most trope-heavy Sham flick, but that distinction really goes to Signs. True, the main characters in Unbreakable are superhero archetypes. In Signs, every character is an archetype.

To prove my point, I'll write this review without using a single character's name, and you won't be confused.

Ready? Here goes.

A Lapsed Pastor still grieving over his Lost Lenore manages a farm and the rearing of his two children--Waif Prophet boy and Oracular Urchin girl--with help from his Strong Silent Misfit brother. Their already upturned lives are further rocked when crop circles turn up in the cornfield.

Lapsed Pastor suspects Punk Kids at work. But escalating weirdness, culminating in videotaped proof, reveals the anomalies as reconnaissance performed in advance of an alien invasion.

With their world falling apart in a figurative and literal sense, the Pastor and the Misfit try to put the potentially apocalyptic events in context. Lapsed Pastor makes a speech wherein he divides people into two categories based on how they explain tragedy: Providence or dumb luck.

When the chips are down, Lapsed Pastor admits he hates God for taking his Lenore. All seems lost, but a whole arsenal of Chekhov's guns strategically placed throughout the film--including Lost Lenore's dying words and water glasses set up by Oracular Urchin--goes off, saving the day.

Tragedy turns out not to be senseless after all. God was working through secondary causes to bring good from evil the whole time.

Okay, unlike Shyamalan's misunderstood masterpiece The Village, Signs deserves some of the grief it gets from critics. As a parable tackling the perennial dilemma of theodicy, it's hamfisted and glaringly on the nose.

What's more, Shyamalan rigs the game in his favor by giving multiple characters prophetic gifts on a one-off or ongoing basis. You show Providence by having a character suffer a broken leg which makes him miss his trip on the Titanic; not by putting a reminder to swing a baseball bat in six months on his dying wife's lips.

The problem with Signs' Chekhov's guns is that they serve no purpose other than their highly contrived role in the final act. In the original example, the gun isn't hung on the wall just so the story's specific murder victim can be shot. It needs a plausible reason to be there, like the owner being an avid hunter.

Those comments don't break any new ground. Lots of critics made the same observations and panned Signs as a result. Writing off the whole movie due to one clumsy plot device isn't fair, though. Critics eat up plenty of other films with even more overt messaging. I suspect much of their disdain for Signs springs from the fact that its message is explicitly Christian. At least one prominent review I remember from back in the day made no bones about the critic's anti-Christian bias.

An honest take on Signs will acknowledge the all-around solid performances, pitch-perfect tone, expertly crafted mood, and flawlessly executed horror sequences. Sham has mentioned The Birds and Night of the Living Dead as influences on Signs, and he evokes the steadily heightening tension of both admirably.

These years later, Signs remains Shyamalan's most explicitly Christian film. The backlash against it probably led to its successor being his most covertly Christian film. It's worth watching, if only as an antidote to the oppressive Death Cult ethos trumpeted by most Hollywood pictures these days.

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14 comments:

  1. It's funny because this is his most successful movie after the Sixth Sense and I think that made a lot of people mad. Sure there are clumsy bits, but as a whole it is too wholesome to detest and what it does well is nothing to sneeze at.

    I actually think this is probably the movie to see first if one has never watched a movie by him before. It's very accessible.

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    1. You know it's the Christian elements critics reacted against, because many of them are the same people who complain that these days nobody makes movies with heart, and this movie has tons of it.

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  2. I'm not that troubled by the Chekhov's guns, as they only become that in hindsight. The film is well done enough that you don't notice them until they are used. Granted, when they are it's a bit heavy handed, but the groundwork is done for them.

    The only real issue I have is with the illogic of the initial premise. A species that has a severe (to say the least) allergy to water would be ill advised to try to invade a planet with oceans of the stuff. Sounds like someone missed something important on the initial scouting report. Nevertheless, the movie successfully suspends your disbelief enough to just go with it. Even on repeat viewings, you ask questions.

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    1. The chekhov part I am cool with but yes the water fatality is so bad I can't stand the movie after that. Rain and humidity would require the species to constantly wear space suit.

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    2. Athletic and WhitesplosiveJanuary 12, 2021 at 3:01 PM

      It's pretty bad when you really think about it, but you could rationalize it as a reaction particularly with liquid water, particularly on the surface of their skin which makes a little bit more sense (I'll also note that he had to be bludgeoned with a baseball bat for a few minutes before going down). But as Brian said, things like Star Trek and Star Wars get away with a lot bigger whoppers than that (like that Luke, Ryker and friends basically NEVER need to wear a spacesuit, or any kind of armor or PPE period).

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  3. Nineteen years later, my wife and I still remark that a glass of water needs to be dumped out and replaced "because it has amoebas in it."

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    1. I was sure you meant the part when the dog *stops* barking. Brilliant audio work.

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  5. I thought Signs perfectly captured the moment of epiphany when we recognize the work of Providence: the accumulation of small things that suddenly resolve into a pattern, and often a message, and one recognizes the work of Divine Intelligence. If people complain that it was heavy-handed, I can attest that God has often had to be a bit on-the-nose with me, too. Sin dulls our senses.

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  6. I wonder if Shyamalan is himself a fellow Christian

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  7. Athletic and WhiesplosiveJanuary 12, 2021 at 3:28 PM

    I've got to say I love this film. It was years later before I saw it, and not having kept track of the critics' opinions I'd assumed after watching that it was seen as a masterpiece, it's definitely my favorite Shyamalan movie by far (maybe I'm just a philistine but I found the sixth sense a bit boring and saw the twist coming a mile away).

    One aspect I think might be overlooked is the "signs" of the aliens' presence as an allegory for signs we see in our own lives of a greater or higher spiritual being. First only hints and whispers whose implications are clear, but that we (jaded as we are) just can't bring ourselves to believe. Then a gnostic revelation of the reality of evil and despair, and then finally transcendence of evil by divine providence. Each step is transcending one layer of conception of the universe's true nature; Nothing of import is real, nothing outside of our material experiences and everyday life exist -> Beings of great power and malevolence observe and oppress us, only evil is real -> God is real and has brought good from evil in an act of divine mercy and love.

    Some parts were a bit heavy handed, but other than the unfortunate wife's dying alien fighting instructions, the only part I found really contrived was that junior happened to find the one book which so accurately predicted the logic and strategy of a race of alien invaders.

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  8. Signs makes perfect sense if you substitute Aliens for Demons.

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    1. Another data point for secretly based Shyamalan

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    2. Turning War of the Worlds (complete with obvious enemy weakness) Christian is no small feat!

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