M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs Deserves More Credit 20 Years Later

In 2002, a little movie called Signs hit theaters. You might remember it — it’s the alien movie where Mel Gibson finds his faith via an alien invasion. More appropriately, it’s the flick that inspired a number of parodies, the best being 2003’s Scary Movie 3:

Anyway, Signs was marketed as M. Night Shyamalan’s third feature following the very successful The Sixth Sense and the not-quite-as-successful (but still good) Unbreakable. Signs was also the film that earned Shyamalan the moniker “the next Spielberg” — a prophecy the divisive director never lived up to as his career stumbled with The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth — though he has occasionally delivered quality projects such as The Visit, Split, and Glass over the last several years. While I wouldn’t place Signs next to Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, the alien-invasion drama deserves more attention than it seemingly receives.

Surprisingly, Signs was the last truly big hit of Shyamalan’s career, grossing a cool $408 million against a $70 million budget. The only other film on the director’s oeuvre to come close was 2010’s The Last Airbender, which accrued $319M worldwide and was deemed a financial failure. (Of note: The Sixth Sense remains Shyamalan’s highest grossing feature with a $672 million worldwide box office haul, not adjusted to inflation.) Signs also remains the biggest film of Mel Gibson’s storied career by a wide margin — What Women Want ($374 million), Lethal Weapon 3 ($319 million), and Ransom ($308 million) are the next in line, in case you were wondering — which surprises me considering the box office run the actor/director enjoyed in through the 1990s.

Of note, Signs earned $60 million in its opening weekend and tumbled by 51% in its sophomore frame, but held firm through August and September.

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Look, I won’t pretend Signs doesn’t have its flaws. Yes, some of the acting — particularly by Abigail Breslin and Rory Culkin — is flat and Shyamalan’s script is at times a little clunky — “There’s a monster outside my room, can I have a drink of water?” And yes, the ultimate payoff doesn’t quite hit the bullseye, but the positives outweigh the negatives by an overwhelming margin. In fact, the good part of Signs is so good that I’m willing to shrug off the film’s sillier aspects and just enjoy the spectacle. I mean, it is a little frustrating that Shyamalan arrives this close to perfection before stumbling slightly in the third act, but, hey, a number of Spielberg flicks (including, ironically, War of the Worlds) fizzle out in the final reel … so, I’m willing to grant some leeway — especially given this was only the third (fourth, including Wide Awake) film for the writer/director.

Say what you will about that ending, but few directors would have the balls to attempt such a feat. And yet, Shyamalan somehow makes it all work with satisfying results. At least, for most people.

What’s Worth Appreciating in Signs

Signs opens with a wicked title sequence — featuring James Newton Howard’s amazing, Bernard Herman-esque score — that perfectly establishes the mood. Fun, but creepy. Thrilling, but mysterious. (Sometimes I miss the days of opening credits as they would go a long way in preparing audiences for the film. They were also a last-second call for viewers to, ahem, shut up).

Following the credits, we are treated to a series of shots centered around Gibson’s character, Graham Hess. Graham is a former Episcopal priest who lost his faith after a horrible tragedy, the fallout of which continues to tear his family apart. The opening bit also establishes supporting players Merrill Hess (Joaquin Phoenix), Morgan (Culkin), and Bo, (Breslin) before stepping back even more to reveal our first glimpse of the film’s extraterrestrial antagonists via crop circles carved into Graham’s corn. Shyamalan doesn’t beat around the bush with this one — he knows audiences are waiting for aliens and leaps right into the fantasy in the opening scene.

At this point, the tone of the film is appropriately … weird. Bo says something about a dream and walks oddly amongst the broken corn stalks, Graham’s dog behaves violently, and the family dynamic feels oddly displaced. As others (notably Chris Stuckmann) have pointed out in their analysis of Signs, the first shot we see is the empty playground lingering outside Graham’s bedroom window — our first sign that something’s amiss with the Hess clan.

These early chapters are interesting, but cold, which, I suppose, is the point. Had the film continued on this trajectory, I think it would have derailed quickly. Luckily, the following scene is one of the film’s best. Graham awakens to Bo talking about a monster outside her room. The young child’s delivery is so nonchalant that Graham (and the audience) disregard the information almost immediately. He takes her back to bed and the two engage in a quiet conversation about her deceased mother long enough to make us forget about the “monster” supposedly lingering right outside her window. Suddenly, Graham casually looks up and — gasp! — spots a dark figure on the roof of the house. (This is the second big scare of the flick, following the dog bark earlier, and it works tremendously).

Graham, believing the figure to be nothing more than the work of local kids, wakes Merrill. The two brothers then attempt to scare the pranksters away with curse words, which also tells us that Graham is still adapting to his newfound religion-free lifestyle. Light comedy ensues, followed by mystery as the figure somehow evades both men and disappears into the cornfield. I get goosebumps just thinking about this moment — a perfect amount of suspense, comedy and dread all rolled up into one terrific sequence. Really, this is where Signs truly comes alive.

We get some more brief exposition in the next scene as Officer Paski (Cherry Jones) attempts to piece together the previous night’s events. We learn a little more about Merrill and Graham’s fractured relationship, Merrill’s “stimulating” job at the gas station, and Bo’s propensity for leaving glasses of water all around the house. Paski tries to find logic in Graham and Merrill’s testimony, noting that high jumpers in the Olympics can pull off the astonishing feat accomplished by the intruder — i.e., leaping from a rooftop and into a cornfield. Basically, she’s just trying to keep the peace, mostly because she knows what this family has gone through and doesn’t want to cause more commotion.

Right here we see the brilliance of Shyamalan’s work. Where alien invasion films of the 90s often featured expensive CGI shots of exploding landmarks and cities, Signs quietly observes this harrowing event from the perspective of one family. Everything that occurs in the film seemingly revolves around these people, including the various “signs” and miracles. People often mistake the ending to signify that the entire alien invasion occurred in order to help Graham find his faith, but that’s not really the case. He rediscovered his faith because of the event, but it’s just as likely thousands died as a result of the horrific event.

Also, there’s a scene later on where Merrill and Graham discuss the nature of signs. Merrill talks about a time when divine intervention prevented him from kissing a girl who was about to vomit. That moment aids in his personal conviction that someone somewhere is watching over us (a nice counter to the evil aliens that are doing the same, albeit for very different reasons).

The point is, perhaps we all receive signs that we can choose to accept or ignore. Maybe there were other dying wives leaving cryptic notes to their husbands, or water-conscious children depositing half-filled cups all over the house. Except, those people weren’t paying attention and wound up dead. Or, maybe it’s merely all a series of random coincidences. It’s possible Graham’s wife saw a memory, and that Bo’s obsession with contaminated water is just that. These signs can be seen as a miracle, or not. Shyamalan leaves it up to the viewer.

Anyways, following Paski’s interrogation, we get another hint of the aliens via a news broadcast reporting on a number of crop circles appearing around the globe. “Extraterrestrials,” Morgan says.

The revelation forces Graham into action, … well, retreat. He takes the family into town where they separate and enjoy their own individual quests. There’s a great shot of Graham (who, we can see, is barely hanging on and rendered nearly obsolete without his faith) watching his children grasp hands and walk in one direction while Merrill heads in another. The poor guy is isolated, and literally requires a near-death experience to return to life. It’s good stuff.

Morgan and Bo find a book on aliens that (coincidentally) happened to arrive at the local shop, Merrill bumps into a former schoolmate at the Army recruiter’s office and engages in a conversation that sheds light on his backstory (basically, he’s as lost as Graham, mostly because he has no guidance). Graham then gets into an awkward exchange with the pharmacy clerk, who confesses her sins, much to his detriment. These scenes help flesh out these rather ordinary characters in unique ways that pay off in the final act. We also get a brief moment where Graham and Co. spot Ray, the man who basically ruined their lives (played by Shyamalan himself). This bit more or less ends the first act.

Note that we’re 30 minutes into this alien invasion story and we’ve seen remarkably little about the alien invasion itself (kind of like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds where we wait for nearly an hour before our feathery friends attack). Instead, we’ve spent our time hanging out with this rather lifeless family. The death of Graham’s wife quite literally sucked the life out of these people to the point that they can’t even manage a smile.

That all changes, of course, in the very next scene that sees the family pick up a signal from the aliens via a baby monitor. Shyamalan has said this is the final scene where the invasion itself is deemed fun. Indeed, the clicking noises on the other end of the monitor seem to yank Merrill out of his funk (“You’ll lose the signal!”) and prompt Morgan and Bo into action. The only one not enjoying the fun-filled family event is Graham, who seems completely numb to the hypnotic (albeit terrifying) occurrence. I also love Howard’s music in this scene.

Then comes my favorite sequence of the entire film. For all his flaws, Shyamalan knows how to convey a mood, and the cornfield scene is proof of his mastery. Lit with only a flashlight, the disturbed and crazy Graham heads into his cornfield to investigate a noise. He’s determined to prove this whole affair is nothing more than an elaborate hoax, but even he gets the heebie-jeebies after venturing too far into the foliage. This bit reminds me of Jaws, except on land. Graham has swum out too far, and the mere idea of a nearby predator is enough to create panic. He makes his way back to the house and stops at a break in the vegetation. Shyamalan leans hard on the sound effects — wind and rustling leaves figure heavily — and scares the bejesus out of us (and Graham) using but a few clicking sounds.

Startled, Graham drops his flashlight and peers into the darkness. There’s obviously something hidden in the shadows. We later learn that these aliens can blend into their environment like chameleons, which means there could be one or two staring at Graham right now. I love that. This kind of horror — the type that forces me to imagine the unimaginable — is the kind that freaks me out. That’s not enough for Shyamalan, who scares the shit out of us by revealing … a leg protruding from the corn. Graham spots the appendage and justifiably freaks out and books it back to his home. (We hear a weird sound during this bit that I always took as a spaceship, but who knows … ?)

That scene gives me the creeps. Every time. I think what scares me the most is Graham’s complete isolation. Sure, he was dumb to wander into his crop alone, but he has no reason to suspect anything beyond a few neighborhood boys, even if his gut tells him otherwise. I love that he charges into the corn with full conviction and then immediately regrets his decision and opts to head back to his house. We’ve all been there.

This bit leads to our family flipping on the TV to discover spaceships floating overhead. Once again, I love the family dynamic in this scene. Graham and Merrill stay up, obviously understanding the implications of these extraterrestrial beings, while Bo and Morgan eventually tap out as children do. In fact, the event is rather … boring. After the novelty of seeing those twinkling lights hovering over the city wears off, you’re left with a rather rudimentary news broadcast. This isn’t Independence Day or War of the Worlds where the invasion consists of spaceships or mechanical devices vaporizing cities and landmarks. The aliens in Signs appear more interested in observing than attacking. Perhaps they’re hesitant to launch an assault on a foreign enemy. I’ve read some theories that suggest the aliens are desperate, which is why they risk sending foot soldiers on a land covered in water. You decide.

The aforementioned scene between Graham and Merrill then occurs — the one where Merrill recalls nearly swallowing a girl’s vomit — and we arrive at our first flashback to Graham’s wife’s death. We see this sequence in sections throughout the remainder of the film, but only understand its significance in the final scene. We’ll get there.

When Graham awakens, he finds Merrill glued to the TV, swallowing as much info as possible. Merrill certainly likes to swing away at everything in his life. No half measures. Graham, on the other hand, is still in denial. He takes a shower, stares out his window (likely remembering happier times), and comes across his kids adorned in tinfoil hats reading the alien book they purchased (in front of wallpaper that makes them look like they’re floating amongst the clouds). Turns out, the alien book is kind of handy for the characters and Shyamalan, who uses it to deploy heavy bits of exposition. The book states the aliens could be here to explore or take over after using all the resources on their planet. Eventually, the threesome happens upon a drawing of a house, not unlike theirs, on fire with three corpses (a man and two children) lying on the front lawn. Eesh.

The telephone rings and snaps them out of their funk leading to a bit I’ve never understood. Graham answers the phone, we hear clicking, and the camera pulls back to reveal a room containing an unfinished dress, boxes, and a sewing machine. Okay, the wife was a seamstress, but was there an alien in Graham’s house? The door is partially open … so was an alien trying to invade the home to do some recon work, but forced to retreat when he couldn’t get the door open? I don’t know.

Anyways, Graham drives to Ray’s house (following the mysterious telephone call) and the pair discuss the incident that brought them together — Graham’s wife’s death. Notably, this is the only scene in which Graham doesn’t correct an individual for calling him “Father,” perhaps because the moment is too much for him to bear, or maybe because, for the first time in the film, he’s actually waiting for a true confession. Ray apologizes sincerely for the pain he caused Graham’s family but notes the accident occurred at just the right moment — “I worked so long that night. I’ve never fallen asleep driving before … never since. For most of the ride home, there wasn’t a car in sight in either direction. If I had fallen asleep then, I would’ve ended up in the ditch with a headache. And it had to be at that right moment … that 10, 15 seconds when I passed her walking. It was like it was meant to be.”

Again, some will take this as “Graham’s wife needed to die in order to save her family from the aliens,” but really, this conversation plays into the larger theme of the movie: are we all connected by a random series of events or is there a divine plan to everything? You can see Ray and Graham struggling with this question in this scene. As Ray states, any other night would have led to a minor accident, but he happened to fall asleep at just the right moment, which would certainly cause one to wonder if the tragedy was meant to be. And if it was, what was the point? By the film’s end, I think Graham chooses to believe the accident (and/or strange coincidences) are a product of divine intervention, which allows him to move on with his life with a greater understanding, even appreciation, of God — though, his conclusions may not necessarily be true.

During the conversation, Ray mentions that he has an alien locked in his pantry. He also notes that extraterrestrial beings may not like water, which feels like a callback to War of the Worlds in which the invaders died after exposure to our atmosphere. (It is interesting how Signs treats the invasion almost like an afterthought. There are deeper problems surrounding Graham’s family that all but render the alien attack trivial by comparison). Graham heads inside Ray’s house and we get this doozy of a scene:

I find it ironic that a man of faith refuses to accept the reality of his situation until he actually sees and experiences an alien attack himself. If he were still a Father, I’d imagine he’d be offering comfort to his friends and neighbors at the local church during this trying time, rather than moping around his house.

Just before this bit, we also get this terrifying sequence:

This moment only works because Shyamalan has, up until this point, only hinted at the aliens. We’ve seen a shadowy figure along with a very quick shot of a leg, but this is our first look at the visitors; and our first true indication that all is not right with the world. Also, this is probably the third or fourth really effective jump scare in Signs, which is saying something. Typically, one or two jolts are all a filmmaker can muster (see Jaws and Jurassic Park). Shyamalan knows how to lull his audiences into complacency and then hit them when they least expect it. I think part of his success stems from the various methods he utilizes. In the Brazil scene, he leans on Howard’s score and some crushing sound effects to sell the moment, whereas the pantry scene plays out sans score — we’re not anticipating the scare because there’s no music prompting us to look out for danger. Awesome.

Graham’s scene is followed by a brief shot of birds flying into the sky. You know shit is about to go down when our feathery pals are heading for greener pastures. Does this signal the moment the aliens stepped foot on soil en masse?

So, after knocking the crap out of us twice, Shyamalan hits us with another gag: Morgan and Bo, still adorned with their tinfoil hats, except now they’re joined by Merrill, who drops some exposition for slower members of the audience — “Their skin changes color, that’s why we couldn’t see them.”

Graham suggests heading to the lake but is outvoted by the other three who would rather wait out the attack in the home. That effectively ends the second act and launches us into the big finale.

There’s a great scene that kicks off the third act where Merrill wanders past the cornfield and pauses to take in the scene. Once again, wind blows and leaves rustle. Wind chimes clang together in the distance. Merrill picks up a rock and launches it into the crop and waits. Nothing. This is the kind of thing that freaks me out. My imagination goes into overdrive and I assume three or four creatures are hiding in plain sight just waiting to pounce. Very creepy.

News reports (and Morgan’s book) warn of an impending attack and Merrill notes, “It’s like War of the Worlds.” Touché. (Howard’s music, in case you still didn’t know, is amazing). Graham heads out to board up the windows, leaving Morgan, Bo, and Merrill alone together. “I wish you were my dad,” Morgan says bitterly. “Don’t ever say that again,” Merrill snaps, not just out of respect for his brother, but also because, well, he knows how much of a “world-class screw-up” he is. Basically, this is just his way of saying, “Don’t be like me, kid,” which is a nice little character beat — Merrill is just as broken as everyone and in dire need of his brother’s help. Only, Graham is stuck mourning the loss of his wife and completely oblivious to his brother’s struggles. I like to think that Graham’s reawakening also leads to a happy ending for Merrill as well.

We then arrive at the big dinner scene where Graham finally cracks under immense pressure. All of the pain and anguish built up from losing his wife pour out; and Morgan, who was, perhaps, angered by his father’s lack of emotion, finally sees his real dad for the first time since the incident. Even Merrill gets dragged into the tender moment.

Shyamalan doesn’t allow the tender beat to play out for too long. The nearby baby monitor picks up an alien communication and the family abandons their tasty meal in order to finish boarding up the house. Graham walks to the window and we hear the sound of crickets dissipate. Even the news broadcast has stopped. “It’s happening,” Graham says.

Still, Graham offsets the terror by offering comfort to his children via stories about their birth. We’re finally seeing Graham, the man, the myth, the legend, emerge from his shell to do what he does best — be a Father.

Oh, we also get this scary bit, which, again, relies almost exclusively on sound effects and simple camera pans with horrifying results (see kids, you don’t need gore or flashy FX to create terror):

The family then heads to the basement as tension escalates. I always thought it was great how Morgan refuses to take his eyes off the hand curling underneath the door. As Graham steadies himself against the basement door and disregards Morgan’s very real book notes — “They’ll know our thoughts!” — we get an extreme close-up of our protagonist. Shyamalan slows the moment down as Howard’s music gets even darker. The first time I saw Signs, I thought Shyamalan was letting us know: this family is screwed. Essentially, we were witnessing the final moments of Graham, Merrill, Morgan, and Bo, which would have been … well, harrowing.

In actuality, the shot captures the moment Graham decides, “I’m not ready.” Up until now, you get the sense the man doesn’t care whether he lives or dies. He takes foolish chances with his life early on, and while he often flees the scene following each close encounter, he appears capable of throwing in the towel at any moment.

Not anymore.

Graham springs to action, leading to this freaky bit:

I need to point out the flashlight bit. After Morgan is attacked, the camera cuts to the flashlight on the ground. We hear the struggle, but don’t see it, which is somehow more chill-inducing. Also, what a cool way to shoot that scene. I don’t know if it has any deeper significance, other than to save producers a lot of money, but it’s a classic case of showing just enough to freak you out, whilst forcing your imagination to fill in the gaps.

We then get the big asthma scene where Graham reaches his lowest point. We’ve seen him attempt to ignore the pain, then witnessed a full-on emotional meltdown followed by a brief moment of happiness whilst recounting his children’s birth. Now we see the man in full-on anger mode. “I hate you,” he says aloud, obviously speaking to the man upstairs. Again, where the aliens are seen only in brief glimpses, Shyamalan keeps his camera focused on the film’s greatest conflict: Graham vs God.

Some may balk at this heavy-handed bit of storytelling, but I find it emotional and rather unconventional, in a good way, particularly when placed atop an alien invasion story.

This marks the end of great Signs.

The rest of the film is good, but, for whatever reason, Shyamalan abandons the less-is-more concept in favor of a grand finale that posits the monster in plain sight. The moment might work if we had any idea what the hell the intruding alien was planning to do … the creature was obviously left behind E.T.-style and his first move is to go and murder Graham’s family? To what end? Revenge? We’re not sure. Hell, the alien might be asking for some medicine or a phone, but panics when Merrill grabs a baseball bat and starts swinging it without mercy.

Everything comes into place. Bo’s cups contain water that hurts the alien, Morgan’s asthma prevents the poison from entering his lungs, and Merrill’s baseball skills are surprisingly useful against a 10-foot-tall monster. Coincidence or divine intervention? You decide.

Yeah, the staging of this sequence is rather clumsy. Shyamalan shoots the Merrill vs. alien encounter via reflections on the TV screen and POV shots. It’s not bad, just underwhelming when compared to everything that came before. The miraculous survival of the family dips the picture in Hallmark grease — it’s a warmhearted, though jarring and rather abrupt, end to a wonderful picture.

I guess the significance of the finale depends largely on your point of view. As stated earlier, Graham clearly accepts that all of these coincidences are a sign of the divine and quickly returns to his faith. The last scene shows him adorned in his black suit and wandering past a cross hanging on his wall whilst his kids play downstairs. (The shot of the family outside following the alien encounter is a wonderful contrast to the empty playground that opened the film). Is Signs little more than religious propaganda? Maybe. I choose to see it as a tale of a grieving man struggling to come to grips with his wife’s death. That he happens to be a Father has very little significance to the overall story — there’s never a moment where his not being a Father hampers the plot in any way. Graham lost his wife and, by extension, his purpose. Without a purpose, we’re all lost.

I think that’s the significance of Merrill in the story — a former baseball player who lost his way after abandoning the sport he loved. The character wanders about the film without much resolve and finds himself jolted awake by a cataclysmic event. He still lacks a clear directive until his brother orders him to take up the bat once more. Again, divine intervention or merely a series of random coincidences that happened to strike our heroes at precisely the right time? You decide.

Suffice to say, by the film’s end, everyone knows which path they need to take. Graham’s path lies in religion, Merrill’s, presumably, in sports; Morgan and Bo’s alongside their dad. All it took was a little alien invasion to pull them all back to the light.

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