Signs (2002) — Before M. Night went off the rails

“Is it possible that there are no coincidences?”

Clare’s rating: Mr. Shyamalan, I officially forgive you for Unbreakable.

Clare’s review: I had pretty firmly decided not to go see Signs. I was holding on to the righteous belief that my refusal to fork over $6 to see anything M. Night Shyamalan created would somehow let him know how much I hated him for royally screwing up the last ten minutes of Unbreakable. Also, I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the knowledge that going out to the movies in our modern cultural environment pretty much sucks. I could go into detail about what exactly it is that I hate about going to the movies these days, but let’s just boil it down to this: Carrot Top ads should not be forced on anyone, especially people who have to pay for the experience.

Also, people who sit in movie theaters and use their cell phones to call their friends in the lobby to have them bring back concession snacks make me spontaneously weep for the lives of my non-existent children.

So as is well-documented, I thought Unbreakable was disappointing to put it mildly. But the ads for Signs looked promising, I love Joaquin Phoenix with a fiery passion no man can sunder and my sci-fi loving friend Druidgirl practically begged me to go with her (“I’ll buy you a soda and everything!”). I went with no expectations and was able to keep my homicidal urges in check all the way through the “pre-show countdown” so when the movie finally started I felt pretty ready to take it on. And boy am I glad I did.

Signs is a story about a family living in rural Pennsylvania who wake up one day, find crop circles in their corn field and slowly begin to realize that the Earth is about to be attacked by aliens. Normally, this kind of plot premise would make me think, “Aliens huh? I’ll be over here eating my $3 pickle thank you very much.” However, Signs was a whole lot more than just your standard, run-of-the-mill, rural house attacked by aliens story and I, the ever jaded suspense thriller movie watcher extra-ordinaire, actually jumped out of my seat not once but TWICE during the course of this film. I must say, for that alone, I have to give Mr. Shyamalan props.

Sure, there were some pretty glaring logistical problems with a couple of major plot elements and we were expected to take some huge leaps in logic to really go along with what was happening (it IS a summer movie after all). But besides those weaknesses Signs was well-told, well-acted, surprisingly funny, and kept the tension pulled tight from start to finish. Even as I sat expectantly waiting for the horrible thing to be revealed behind the door or the curtain or the corn stalk, I found myself holding my breath and silently yelling in my head, “Damn you Mel Gibson, why the hell would you walk out of a dark room slowly with your back toward the door!!!” I left the theater feeling like I’d just had a really good time. And putting all other petty nitpicking aside, that’s really what this movie comes down to for me. It was fun. And it scared me at all the right times. And it made me forget all about the creeping horror that is Carrot Top projected onto a huge screen and blasted at me in Dolby digital surround sound.

Signs isn’t life shatteringly amazing movie making, but on a Sunday afternoon with nothing better to do in the middle of summer when you want some free air conditioning, it’s definitely worth the trip.

Justin’s rating: X-COM: The Gibson Defense

Justin’s review: In this movie, Mel Gibson plays an ex-priest who has denounced his faith due to family tragedy. Now, couple this with an alien invasion theme, and you’ve got The Attack Of The Redundant Repetitive Clichés In Horrible 2-D coming live atcha.




Well, maybe not. Consider that M. Night Shamrock took the tried-and-worn premises of ghost stories and superhero tales and turned them into something different and bold… maybe there’s a bit of hope. God knows that we’ve seen enough “Priests-Turned-Atheists” in the movie world — so many that they should start a support group about it. Maybe get together and do group hugs and reminisce how their faith was all easy and stuff until they had to face something tragic in their own lives, and how they fell apart like cheap origami in a wheat thresher. I’m so immune to both this trope and the alien invasion premise that it was a complete surprise to be sucked into a tale that didn’t turn out to be what I thought it was.

Faith is a very difficult subject to portray in movies, mostly due to the fact that one’s faith is very personal, very complicated, sometimes seemingly irrational, and not quite as photogenic as the cameramen would like. The whole subplot with Graham’s (Gibson) loss of faith filled me with conflicting feelings. On one level, it’s a shallow foray into what one’s religious faith is really built on; Signs more or less figures that if good or miraculous stuff is going on in the world, people will believe in God, and if bad stuff happens, they’ll lose their faith. Maybe that’s how it is for some, but I’d like to think that the millions of people who believe strongly in (or against) God have something a bit more substantial behind that than however the wind is blowing and the spit is flying that particular morning. Yet, I’m also glad that a filmmaker at least took a step (if a baby one) to begin to tackle a subject that’s been forbidden to most hollywood films (also, see Dogma) in the past. If nothing else, I’ve noticed that this movie has stirred up discussion over the nature of faith and God, and hey, promoting intelligent discussion is a good end result of cinema, in my book.

Graham’s lack of faith is put to the test as the world comes under siege by nasty alien critters. Crop circles are just the forerunner to the inevitable invasion, which may go down as some of the most tension-filled moments in screen history. I was honestly impressed that M. Night resisted the urge to go beyond the immediate story in presenting his tale. Like a submarine, we’re kept cooped up with Graham and his family (including the standard creepy/cute/psychic kid) in their farmhouse, only allowed brief glimpses of the TV and snippets of conversation that enable us to come up for air and see the larger picture. Mostly, we’re just left up to our imaginations to fill in the blanks, and that can be far, far worse.

Signs’ slow and deliberate storytelling style might be frustrating to some, but I very much appreciate how it helped me to look closer into every scene for details and how it let the dread build up and emotions overload before anything really happened. As we follow the family during the few days that this film takes place, we become the invisible member. I started to become very emotionally attached to the family as a whole, and desperate for the tension-breaking nuggets of humor that were thrown into the mix.

As with Unbreakable, I’m still undecided whether Signs is a masterpiece or merely a good story told in a brilliant fashion. Maybe I’m somewhat conflicted because the end part where the family was in the cellar strongly reminded me of Night of the Living Dead, and I was secretly hoping that Gibson would start eying Joaquin Phoenix’s right thigh as a main course for that night’s meal.

So you can take it as a straight-up alien invasion tale, or as a faith exposé with some odd trimmings. I give Signs hearty approval (now, with 20% more heart!) because of the deceptively easy camera techniques and attention to detail that appears both lavish and languid. M. Night truly takes the ordinary and elevates it, where tiny things like a baby monitor and the outline of a cross on the wall become the pivotal pieces upon which this story revolves.

Ultimately, Signs poses a personal — and hopefully hypothetical — question: how would we react, if the world came tumbling apart? What would we keep of ourselves, and what would we find to cling onto? After the events of September 2001, it’s not so fanciful of a thought; it’s almost a necessity.

PoolMan’s rating: Keeping the monster in the closet instead of in the spotlight.

PoolMan’s review: I hate being scared.

The key reason I don’t (and probably won’t ever) watch slasher movies is that as moviegoing experiences go, being resuscitated after choking on popcorn inhaled when the scarfaced axe-wielding maniac has leapt from the bushes towards the cheerleaders ranks at #63 on the list, just behind having the stranger next to me demonstrate all his different cellular ring tones during the movie. Mostly, it’s the images. I get a thought in my head (‘What WOULD it be like to lose several fingers before having my stomach torn open?’) and I just can’t let it go. These thoughts then serve to nag me until my next bout of amnesia.

What I enjoyed about M. Night Shoelace’s Signs the most is that while I was in the theater, I was on edge the whole time, scared at appropriate times, but when I went home, it was all gone. No muss, no fuss. The beauty here is that the most effective tool in scary filmmaking is put to better use than it has in ages. The audience’s imagination is left to its own devices, twisting in the wind. Instead of throwing buckets of corn syrup around (as some filmmakers are wont to do), the aliens are largely absent from the movie. It’s like they’re just out of frame, or right behind that wall, but never actually there. The tension that’s built is wonderful, and the scares aren’t fake, and they aren’t contrived. They’re damn good. And they wash really clean. Look Ma, no nightmares! (I’m aware, however, that some people are fine with lots of gore, and it’s the creepy, subtle horror they can’t take. Figure out your priorities first.)

Still, thank goodness that there are so many moments of levity scattered here and there. Gibson’s kids are a hoot, particularly the daughter. The tinfoil hats are a tremendous release, especially when Phoenix dons one. There are huge laughs all over the place. I particularly liked Gibson running around the back end of his house trying to spook what he thinks are neighbourhood kids by yelling “I am insane with anger! It is time for an ass-whupping!” It’s like being scared of your grandma. Yet that same scene seamlessly turns from lighthearted to creepy in the blink of an eye.

Where Signs goes off the rails a bit is in the logic department. Once the movie was over, my brain immediately started in on all the gaping holes in the plot. Here’s a mild one. If you have a stocked cellar in which to fall back, why wouldn’t that be the FIRST place you think of to take refuge in your house, instead of the house itself, which you know you can’t seal completely? This would be a small complaint. The big ones revolve around the aliens’ plans and weaknesses. They make almost no sense under the scrutiny of logic, but they do serve the feel of the movie. Still, Signs manages to leave these questions till later. The movie itself runs beautifully, and never drags to the point of boring anybody.

One other note I’d really like to make. Although it may seem like he’s trying too hard, Shyamalan’s cameo is pretty good. I enjoyed his role here as the haunted Ray Reddy. He at least seemed appropriate to the part, and seems like he could act his way out of a paper bag if so required. He does, however, need to start moving away from his own clichés. To borrow so heavily from yourself so early in your career is a dangerous thing. At least he didn’t shoot for an outright twist ending like his last two projects. The final shot is almost as flighty as that of Unbreakable, but it IS appropriate and it DOESN’T shoot the whole preceding movie down the crapper.

Signs is a great mix of lots of scary, just enough funny, and a good deal of quality. I’ve seen it categorized as a horror movie, a description that’s not quite apt. It’s tense, dark, and scary, sure, but it’s not leap-out-and-eat-your-eyeballs material. It’s scary in an intelligent, stylish, and eerily claustrophobic way. This movie wanted to scare me, and it *did*, but I didn’t feel insulted or nauseous after the fact. After Unbreakable, Mr. Night, you finally have my respect back.

Lissa’s rating: I want a tinfoil hat.

Lissa’s review: Yes, yes, we know, we know. I hate horror movies.

That’s not completely, 100% true, incidentally. I don’t always hate horror movies. I hate gore, yes. Call me crazy, but I just don’t find seeing someone’s innards and blood and all that remotely appealing, and certainly not worth 10 bucks of my money. I hate stupid plots and stupid heroes, which horror as a genre tends to have in abundance. But I love a movie that can screw with my mind. I might not watch it over and over, but still. The kind of horror movie I love is probably considered more “suspense” or “thriller.” But what’s scarier, honestly? The zombies in Dawn of the Dead or Dr. Hannibal Lecter? Freddy Krueger or Kevin from Sin City? I’ll take insinuation and suspense over gore and growling any day of the week.

Which brings me to Signs.

Signs was actually the first M. Night Shyamalan movie I’d seen. It took me forever to get around to watching The Sixth Sense, which is annoying because I had the ending spoiled for me by Duckie’s Maxim. I still haven’t seen Unbreakable. And I saw Signs in theaters, so naturally I saw it before The Village. I know most people don’t consider it his best, but let me tell you, for most of the movie I was hooked.

Signs is exactly what War of the Worlds should have been. The plot is pretty simple: Aliens invade Earth. But what War of the Worlds fails to do and Signs does so perfectly is capture the feeling of helplessness and fear that a family in the crossfire feels. The family in question is the Hess family: former reverend Graham (Mel Gibson), former baseball star Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), and two cuties Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). Set in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the family has a sort of All-American wholesome type feeling to them, but is isolated enough for this whole plot to work. The movie isn’t perfect, but I don’t remotely care. It’s still the best horror-type film I’ve watched since Silence of the Lambs.

I really enjoyed the acting in this. I like Mel Gibson a lot, and Signs is probably one of my favorite movies he’s done. I love the quirky, understated humor he brings to the role of Father Hess, and darn it, I just love that he’s part of the Hess clan in this anyway. Joaquin Phoenix is highly underrated in my opinion, being both quite good-looking and an excellent actor, and I’m hoping that maybe he’ll get a little more recognition from the general public after Walk the Line comes out. And for all that we laugh and mock the Culkin name, Rory is far from annoying and plays Morgan well, and Bo is just cute. Hating Bo would be like kicking puppies.

And I have to mention the acting work of Shyalaman himself. I’m not saying he should win Oscars, but the man isn’t hopeless as an actor, and his performance didn’t stick out like a sore thumb like one might expect.

The horror aspects of Signs are extremely well done. Signs makes me enjoy being scared, without the budget that goes with buckets of blood and gory special effects. In fact, there’s very little in terms of the special effects, and when we finally do see the alien for the first time, even though I knew it was coming, I jumped about a foot in the air. (Someone else in the theater actually screamed.) That’s how horror should go. But it’s also tempered with humor, which gives you a breathing space every now and then and means your hands aren’t in pain from clutching the seat for two hours straight. Humor is very, very important in a good horror flick, and between the Nerd Speech and the tinfoil hats, Signs has just the right amount and style of humor.

Additionally, there’s a lot more to Signs than simple horror, which makes it worth rewatching. There’s no twist ending here (at least, I wouldn’t call it a twist), but there’s some interesting perceptions on faith. I tend to think that, like most movies, Signs simplifies matters of religion, but I really enjoyed the plot line of Graham Hess struggling with his faith. I particularly liked how, although his faith was faltering, he was being called on to be the support for the faith of others. Perhaps it’s clichéd, but I thought it was well done anyway. Merrill’s character is also complex and interesting, and I enjoyed watching how both men related to the children and coped with the situation at hand, as well, and how they related to each other. (I am such a sucker for sibling bonds.)

There are a lot of things I like about this movie, and I admit, a lot of them are just things about M. Night Shyalaman that I like. I love that he doesn’t like using CGI (although he does use it some). I love that he’s a native of my adopted area and uses landmarks I know. I love that he works so much of his personal life into the scripts (for example, the birth stories of Morgan and Bo are the stories of his own kids’ births). I love the sly little touches, like Joaquin Phoenix staring at the poster for Buffalo Soldiers. But mostly, I love the humanity that he infuses in his movies, and that’s something I saw in The Sixth Sense as well, and the better elements of The Village. And that’s what really makes the horror work here- you actually care about the people on screen.

War of the Worlds, eat your heart out.

Nancy’s rating: Possibly the most controversial subject of my life.

Nancy’s review: I get in constant fights with people almost every day of my life about the matter of Signs. My arrogant theory is that I get M. Night Shamaylan like no other, and therefore that makes me right.

M. Night Shamaylan is not here to scare the living daylights out of you, or to make a modern day horror movie. M. Night is an incredibly creative guy. Watch any of his interviews — he is not a sadistic, creepy or masochistic man. He seems like an eager little child, who loves to tell stories and be creative and strange. He loves beautiful imagery and he seems, more sincerely than any pretentious director I’ve witnessed speak about the concept, to be very wrapped up in the “magic of making movies.” Like a little kid, M. Night believes in that cliché. It’s like if Adam Sandler really thought that the underdog will consistently triumph and yet still remain ‘the underdog.’

In all of his movies, there seems to be a sense of whimsical imagery combined with the concept of horror. But it’s not even — really — horror. It always feels like it is incredibly well-timed and creative ghost stories, not a typical slasher or vampire romp. I think the fact that The Sixth Sense managed to be so utterly terrifying and successful made people except to go to each M. Night Shamaylan movie and receive massive amounts of sheer horror. But there are certain kickers that prevent each movie from being as easily accepted as The Sixth Sense to the movie-going public.

  • Kicker 1: The concept of ‘ghosts’ is far more terrifying and visually freaky than the concept of super heroes, aliens, monsters or water nymphs. But M. Night doesn’t want to just make movies solely about the concept of ghosts. He wants to make movies about all the subjects in the world that he finds cool and creepy.
  • Kicker 2: His movies are slightly formulaic – There’s suspense, intense character development, and a shocking twist. Some people dismiss these formulas. I think it’s actually refreshing. He makes his movies in a certain way, and he likes to stick to it. It makes it feel like he is trying to please the public less, and he is just making movies the way he likes to see them. And I respect that so much.
  • Kicker 3: They! Aren’t! Terrifying! These horror movies have more emphasis on the ‘movie’ than the ‘horror’. Most of his films are eerie, not nightmare-inducing. Depending on who you are.

Taking into account that M. Night Shamaylan is less of a man who is making creative horror movies to please the masses, and he is more of little kid making creative and interesting movies that HE LOVES, that just happen to please the public, his movies are beautiful and still may keep you up at night.

Signs is my favorite. The Village has a wonderful love story and acting that amazes me, and The Sixth Sense is beyond a doubt the scariest. But Signs strikes the perfect balance between emotional caring for the characters and fine acting (The Village’s good stuff) while being so incredibly scary and eerie at the same time (The Sixth Sense’s good stuff). Best of both world, my friends!

Signs is also one of those movies that is so difficult to review, because I have so much to say. Not only is it scary, but it’s also amazing. And funny. But let’s start with the amazing. The family of four is so incredibly well portrayed. Each character is believable and interacts in a way that makes you care about them (hence the funny – they would have to be funny or else no one would like this melodramatic sap fest). Joaquin especially stood out with very dry humor, very real emotions, and very handsome looks. Mel Gibson played a very strong role – warm, yet distant, wounded and scared. The lines he says are so well-delivered, lines that could be taken to a melodramatic and unnatural place are so realistic and casual. And although the cute kid psychic routine is getting a little old, the two kids manage to maintain the eerie aura without ignoring the fact that THEY ARE KIDS! They are childlike, doing the silly things kids do while being serious and slightly disturbed kids.

Really, the interactions between the characters as as close to reality as they can be without crossing the line into dialogue taken straight from life. And this is a movie about aliens, so M. Night shouldn’t be concerned about the realism factor. Yet he pulls it off as much as he can while having the world under attack by aliens. I also feel that the dinner scene, towards the end, is one of the best depictions of a troubled and loving family. And it even manages to squeeze a laugh out of the intense moment (Graham pulling Merill to the table – cute, meaningful and funny). It’s perfect.

Although the faith concept plays a nice role, the frivolous nature of the Graham’s faith bothers me. My wife dies, God must not be real. God proves himself, alright, I guess I’ll be back. I mean, this man is a pastor, you would think he would have read the story of Job. Alright, got the my only issue out of the way.

Anyway, as for funny, it is dry and hilarious. The more I watch it, the more little subtleties I note that make me laugh when I’m waiting in line at the grocery store. I especially get a huge kick of the old man watching T.V., counting soda pop commercials, convinced that this alien hoopla is just a method to sell products. Merill’s interactions with the T.V. in the closet are priceless. Joaquin, I will say again, is absolutely fantastic. I really think he embodies this little sidekick role so well. He’s funny, nervous, and absolutely believable. He’s just an average guy reacting exactly how I would expect all the average guys I know to react to alien invasion. I’m sorry to drag the ‘acting’ section into the ‘funny’ section, but Joaquin is amazing, and even if he’s wasn’t amazing, I still have a crush on him..

And as for the pure fright of this movie, it accumulates as the film progresses. I get so frustrated with any who think that it is boring. I understand the American public were the ones avidly watching and critiquing this film – and those are the guys fast food was invented for – but come on, have some patience and some appreciation for subtlety. It’s something you have to allow yourself to get wrapped into, you can’t just sit there and expect it to grab you.

I always find some reason to blame people for not liking the same movies I do.

As for the arguable logic of this movie… I hate you. This is M. Night Shamaylan’s dream. First of all, all arguments against this movie are contrived. I have heard the following – 1) Wouldn’t the aliens have better defense systems? No. I say, no they wouldn’t. 2) Wouldn’t the aliens be inhaling water as moisture in the air? Answer – Maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe they have special gills that don’t inhale air, or only inhale the sheer oxygen in the air, none of the hydrogen. Or maybe they were only defenseless against water the liquid, not water in the gaseous form. There was more, but I’ve blocked it out of my memory, for it was all just blatantly wrong nit-picking. Anyway, secondly…it’s a simple movie about one families fight with aliens! The worldly details need not be explained! If Signs chose to take that route, it would lose the feeling of claustrophobia!

I’m getting all worked up knowing people don’t like this movie. Really. I’m watching it right now and I’m actually getting emotional. It’s killing me that there is such a dividing line in my life — people who dig Signs, and people who don’t. I think it is not only one of M. Night Shamaylan’s best, and not only one of the best aliens movies, but one of the most well-crafted movies ever and the BEST movie involving aliens! And I know that’s a stretch! I know it’s quasi-sacraligious for a movie buff to name any modern movie the best of anything. I expect at least one of you to hire Richard Dreyfus to punch me in the face. But really, well-crafted is something I value. Signs has that to the same level as any great drama does, but with aliens! That is rare!

Do you know why The Shawshank Redemption is beloved by almost every person that watches it? It’s slow, it’s sad, it’s vulgar. But the truth is, the entire movie is crafted so perfectly, and the movie latches onto a feeling, one I can’t really describe, but man, it’s powerful. The desire to be human, the desire to live life to the fullest, the desire to overcome adversity and come out good, whole, and smiling.

This movie is dealing with aliens. So maybe that’s why it’s not as universal as Shawshank.

But I still think it is as well-crafted as The Shawshank Redemption. And I know these are all outlandish statement to make about… Signs. But Signs to me is like… I’m constantly shocked by how… perfect and balanced and good this movie is. It’s a drama, it’s a comedy, it’s a horror, it’s suspenseful, it’s everything I love. It’s well-acted and it deals with a subject I love, the jokes are dry and I value that.

If you haven’t seen it… really, you’re in for a treat. Know this is an M. Night Shamaylan fairy tale, a silly movie that HE wanted to make because he likes alien movies, but he is so seemingly unaware of the fact that he is such a genius, he accidently crafts the most magnificent films. He seems to just want to be telling the stories he liked as a kid, and yet he knows the ropes of film-making, and makes some of the best. And Signs, I have to say… alright, I have to stop now. You’ve gotten this far; you know how I feel.

Didja notice?

  • M. Night Shyamalan as Ray Reddy (the driver)
  • How much Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix actually look like brother
  • Scenes filmed through reflections (similar to those in Unbreakable)
  • Tinfoil hats ROCK.
  • The different things/colours the aliens’ skin mimicks throughout
  • Besides the ‘glass’ photography for which he’s growing famous, Shyamalan also continues his trends of: moody father figures, prescient children, dimly lit sets, issues of faith/belief, and his own cameos.
  • Spoiler: The aliens’ weakness, water, is the same as Dunn’s in Unbreakable.
  • The most intriguing use of the “kid with asthma” cliche in history.

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