What if extra-terrestrial life actually existed? And how would you react if amidst the resulting worldwide confusion, they actually turned up on your doorstep? Upon the presumption that no everyman would simply be able to infect the alien’s computer grid with a virus and be done with it, M. Night Shyamalan approaches the subject in a mood far more thoughtful and restrained than most of his predecessors. Because while intrigue certainly features, the focus of “Signs” is undoubtedly on a family drama unfolding in eastern Pennsylvania between a widowed Mel Gibson, his brother (Joaquin Phoenix) and his two children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin). For long portions of the film, from the characters’ initial disbelief through their gradual encroaching on the humans, the alien life-forms remain in the shadows, importantly rooting the film in reality while equally adding the other dangerously Shyamalan horror undercurrent.
Unidentified flying objects are spotted over Mexico city and around the world but after mysterious crop circles appear in his cornfield, retired reverend Graham Hess (Gibson) and his family quickly need to come to terms with the fact that a close encounter with E.T. might be closer than they had initially thought. The family dogs begin acting strangely, shadows steal about the farm at night, certain radio frequencies pick up odd interference and a general sense of foreboding prevails the whole area. Even when his slightly eccentric children decide to don tinfoil hats as a precaution, Hess is far from convinced and is determined to hold the family unit together. M. Night Shyamalan movies are often hit-and-miss affairs, and his follow-up to “Unbreakable” treads a similarly fine line between thrills and the ridiculous: On the one hand “Signs” sells itself as a deep and contemplative family drama, successfully posing a what-if scenario with an added element of psychological horror for vast stretches, while on the other is Shyamalan’s palpable itching to remake “Independence Day.” One can easily get the feeling that the director would have relished a go at a straight-forward alien invasion movie à la Emmerich.
The resulting film is one of baffling paradox and for all of Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix’s fine acting and intricately wrought suspense throughout, the climax is painfully (or laughably depending on your mood) capricious and underwhelming in every way. The sad truth of the matter is that the blame must be laid exclusively at Shyamalan’s door as his screenplay shovels itself a hole it can never climb out of in a satisfactory manner. The world of a film should develop from A to B rather than try desperately try to find its way back to A, no matter how external the forces acting on characters. Similarly, detractors will be quick to point out the director’s reliance on creepy young children as a way of inflating chills, a method that paid far more dividends in the superior “Sixth Sense.” It’s a shame that these flaws and missed opportunities are so marked as they cloud over what is the basis for a genuinely good science fiction premise. The isolated and disconnected farm homestead and local community looking to its priest for guidance is positively brilliant, as is an utterly heart-wrenching last-supper scene (though the religious overtones are thankfully kept in check). “Signs” remains a missed opportunity for many reasons and it remains far more satisfying to watch Steven Spielberg tackle the same subject, something he twice managed masterfully.
James Newton Howard, Shyamalan’s composer of choice has served the director well, often delivering music superior to what the film deserved. However the music for “Signs” sounds a little like an extended development of “The Sixth Sense” that would only come to full fruition in Howard’s score for “The Village” two years later. That is not to say the score doesn’t fit the film however, in fact quite the opposite: A repeating piano figure of three notes heard in the opening “First Crop Circles” and again throughout the score treads a fine line between delicate beauty and suspense. The alternating chord patterns make the theme suitable for both wonder and fear in the face of new discovery and Howard successfully leans into both. The closing “The Hand of Fate – Part II” rounds out the satisfying copious performance of this theme. The crashing dissonance that defines cues such as “Main Titles” and “Asthma Attack” and represents the aliens is far less interesting however and for listeners will return only for the first theme. Overall, “Signs” is beautiful in parts but not quite on par with some of Howard’s later work for Shyamalan, especially the aforementioned “The Village” and “Lady in the Water.”
“Signs” often displays flashes of brilliance but without the firm grounding of a satisfying resolution (and it’s not easy see how that could have been put together) the entire film seems somewhat pointless. Sci-fi fans might appreciate it but even they will be pushed. It needs to be said: Watch “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” instead.
What did you make of “Signs.” Please do leave a comment with your thoughts or simply give the film a star rating above. Thank you for reading and all the best!