Last week I saw M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie, Signs. I will now review it in SPOILER-HEAVY fashion. I repeat: There WILL be SPOILERS. I shall make no effort to conceal any plot element of Signs that I think is germane to my opinion of the film. Got it? OK.
And for those who are still squeamish, I will include some blank space so as to require scrolling down to get to the actual review.
That should be enough. From here on out, if you read this and you haven’t seen the movie yet and you read something that you might not want to know prior to seeing it, I accept no responsibility.
Signs is, first and foremost, a very good film. Seeing it, I kept thinking: “This is how The X-Files used to be, back in its early seasons, before it became a Franchise for FOX.” Or, even better, this is how Millennium was at its best: not merely scary but also thought-provoking, a meditation not just on What Is Out There Waiting For Us, not just on Things That Go Bump In The Night, but on what purpose there may be to everything. It seems to me that horror is probably the genre most suited to meditations on the problem of evil: Why would a good God allow so much Evil in his own universe? Of course, my own personal thoughts on this subject are not the focus of this article. Suffice it to say, Shyamalan’s answer isn’t totally satisfactory; in fact, in some ways I find it incredibly faulty. Even at the end, when things have played out the way they were supposed to and faith has been restored where before there was none, it still seems to me a bit capricious, a bit of whimsical action on the part of God. If God could set things up so that everything leans toward the outcome that Mel Gibson’s son doesn’t die, including his wife’s dying words which at first seem so arbitrary as to send Gibson into a tailspin away from his faith but eventually turn out to be the key to everything, then why can’t God set things up so that Gibson’s beloved wife doesn’t die in the first place? Shyamalan’s film attempts to answer the question that bedeviled Job, but in the end I don’t think he provides an answer at all, much less a satisfying one. Gibson seems to return to faith well before the key event in the film that is supposed to make it all possible. Is this a fault with the film? Not really. I rather suspect that it’s a fault with the entire question of evil in the first place. I simply am not sure that there is an answer that satisfies all formulations.
So I don’t think that Signs really works as a theological statement, but thankfully that’s not really the level that I think it should be evaluated upon. In fact, in this day and age one almost gets positive yardage just for being willing to ask these questions in the first place. Signs is a horror film, first and foremost; and as such, it’s probably the most effective one I have ever seen.
Much was made about the role of silence in Shyamalan’s earlier films. (Actually, this seems true of The Sixth Sense; I never saw Unbreakable, however.) This is even more true this time out. There are long passages of this film where nothing more can be heard than the breathing of the characters, and Shyamalan likes to stretch out his silences. We know that the silence will be broken, and probably by something calculated to make us jump. Shyamalan does make us jump, but he does so in unexpected ways. The “jump” moments happen not just when characters are walking slowly through an area in which they are terrified to be, but during other moments when the “jump” moment can slip in under our radar. An early example involves a well-timed bark and snarl by a dog, during a scene where two characters are talking in fairly mundane fashion. It’s not something jumping out at us in the midst of silence, backed by a fierce chord in the soundtrack; instead, we jump because it’s so unexpected at that particular moment.
This careful use of unexpected moments, woven throughout the film, is how Shyamalan generates so much suspense. There is a scene where what may (or may not) be an alien is locked behind a door, and Mel Gibson picks up a butcher knife – not to use it as a weapon, but as a mirror so he can look under the door and catch a glimpse of whatever is behind the door. The film is full of unexpected moments like that, and they add to the suspense and the overall feeling of fear. He also uses humor at odd moments to defuse our fear, so that he can pop one of his unexpected moments at us again. There are some very funny moments in the film, some of them occurring during moments of high tension. The fact that they occur during moments of tension does not defuse the tension one whit, but somehow elevates it.
More interesting is the way almost nothing in Shyamalan’s script is wasted. Nearly every single detail in the screenplay has some bearing on the outcome, even moments that in other films are generally used as “filler” or throw-away moments designed only to give us more information on a character. Gibson’s brother (Joaquin Phoenix), for example, is a failed baseball player. This seems only to explain why he is so unfocused in his life, and why he has hung around his brother’s farm for so long – until the film’s climactic scene, when the nature of his baseball failure, coupled with the formerly inexplicable last words of Gibson’s wife (“Swing away”), come together in startling fashion. Other details are easily overlooked: early on, we barely notice that Gibson chooses to call his human doctor rather than the vet for the family’s ailing dog; only later on do we realize that he has a very real reason for not wishing to involve the local vet. Shyamalan’s theme in Signs is the conflict between two worldviews: that there are no coincidences, and that everything is a coincidence. Since he comes down on the side that there are no coincidences, the structure of his screenplay – such that there are, in fact, no coincidences in his story – is all the more remarkable.
Signs works as a horror film. It is less than plausible from the standpoint of science fiction: how can the aliens fly across interstellar space but then be thwarted by wooden doors? if water is literally a corrosive poison to them, why would the aliens come to a planet that is three-quarters covered in the stuff? Questions like these, however, should not be asked. Nothing about the aliens is ever explained, and that is actually a strength, because we never know anything that the family in the film cannot also know. Again, the tension is heightened. I’ve rarely seen a film that displays as much calculation in every facet of its story and visuals as Signs. This film is a bravura performance by M. Night Shyamalan.