Monday, May 08, 2006

Movie Review: M. Night Shyamalan's Signs

I'm watching the movie Signs, M. Night Shyamalan’s 2003 alien crop circle suspense movie starring Mel Gibson. The story starts immediately with a stone-faced Gibson discovering his kids in the cornfield with the family dogs, inspecting an elaborate series of crop circles.

There’s a great shot a little bit later where we see the family car driving from a bird’s eye view, in which the roads and crops and buildings echo the patterns of the crop circles. The director is setting up the circles as maps, and he does it well.

We learn pretty quickly that aliens are the most likely culprits for the crop circles, and that it’s happening all over the world.

Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Merrill, has the idea that the circles are a hoax executed by "nerds". We understand that he’s scared and he’s trying to make the phenomenon sound mundane, both to calm his brother’s kids and to relax himself. He’s a jock, but he doesn’t act like one. He had an amazing minor league home run record, but he also had a nasty strike out record. Justifying the latter to a military recruiter and the town bully, Merrill has a telling line: "it didn’t seem right not to swing," which implies he only understands brute force.

There are a lot of terror codes here. They hear something(s) speaking different languages over the baby monitor. We see the director in a cameo as a lone “other” in this small Pennsylvania town. Who is he? My guess was that he’s a guy who accidentally ran over the matriarch of the family and killed her, and I turned out to be right. Did I know that subconsciously or have I just seen so many of these movies that I could actually write them?

So if the subtext of the movie really is terrorism, we have to ask, why would any terrorist group attack a rural community? Good question. Maybe the aliens have an answer to that. I mean, why the hell would the aliens hang out in small town, Pennsylvania? Think about and you’ll be able to come up with millions of reasons. That’s how paranoia works.

About 40 minutes into the movie, when it looks like aliens are making themselves known all over the world – Mexico City specifically – Gibson’s character, Graham, tells his younger brother Merrill (Phoenix) that there are basically two ways people see good (or bad) fortune: as luck, or as evidence of God. That is, as random chance or as a sign of something bigger. Now Mel Gibson the actor might say something here about ‘intelligent design.’ But we expect more of Mr. Shyamalan.

Graham goes on to say that the people who see things as random will be very suspicious and fearful of this UFO incident in Mexico City . Their belief system isn’t equipped to deal with something like this, so they worry. Merrill says he’s falls on the side of faith, but Graham delivers bad news. He was a reverend before his wife died – he’s since quit. He tells Phoenix about his wife’s dying words, which sounded like a random memory of one of Merrill’s baseball games. Random. “We’re all alone,” he tells Phoenix. He’s scared, but there is room for movie redemption. Why have a father who’s lost faith unless it could be regained? Ah, now we have a movie plot.

So what’s really going on? This seems strange:

  • Why would aliens care about a farm family?
  • Why can’t the aliens get through wooden doors?
  • Why is it the book about aliens that Morgan reads has an artist’s rendition of this family’s house, complete with three bodies in front of it?
  • Does any of this have to do with the dead mother?
  • And finally, are we going to be terribly disappointed when we learn the truth?

First, let me answer the last question: affirmative. In reverse order: of course it has something to do with the dead mother. She, near death, was not speaking nonsense at all, but giving her husband a coded message from God on how to defeat the one alien who stayed long enough to try to kill Graham’s asthmatic son. Whose asthma saves him from breathing in the alien poison. Question three: no good answer except that it furthers the suspense. Instead of answering question two – why can’t the aliens get through the most meager barriers – let me add this puzzle: how is it an invading force of aliens didn’t count on their allergy to earth’s most abundant resource (water)?

The best alien movie I’ve ever seen was an Australian film called Encounter at Raven’s Gate. It too deals with a rural family that runs into extra-terrestrial trouble. In that movie, we never see the aliens, and if my memory serves me correct, the term ‘aliens’ is never used. That’s the mark of a great genre movie: it ignores precedent. I mention this because Signs makes the crucial mistake of showing us the aliens. This is a mistake because no artist’s rendition can do them justice. They will always look silly in a movie that waits till the end to show them.

Adding insult to injury, the aliens are caricatures of the ones familiar to us from UFO lore: it’s as if they were propaganda cartoon versions drawn by a racist group. The ending is so silly that it makes the rest of the movie look like a vehicle for messages of xenophobia and Christianity. It’s hard not to read this 2002 movie in the context of America in late 2001. This movie appears to pander to the xenophobic fears of rural America, and the only remedy it offers is faith. That’s this movie’s intellectual failing.

War of the Worlds with Tom Cruise did a much better job of trying to blend an alien takeover story with a single father, two children subplot because it didn’t sequester the family for too long. And it showed the aliens (or at least their ships/machines) early enough that they weren’t disappointing. Signs' biggest failing is in its plot. It tries to do too much. It tries to be an ‘aliens take over the world’ movie but it fails because it focuses on one family. It tries to twist the typical ghost story, but it fails because most of the suspense is removed by the backdrop of alien world domination.

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