Most filmmakers start off weak and improve with practice, but then there’s M. Night Shyamalan, whose artistry burst onto the movie screen with the flair of a virtuoso and has since diminished to an unfortunate nadir. Everyone hails The Sixth Sense as his greatest achievement, which it is, but forgets or downplays his second stroke of genius in Signs.
A cornfield used to be just another bucolic piece of acreage, but Steven King’s Children of the Corn and this film forever made it a foreboding lair to be feared. When James Newton Howard’s suspenseful score plays, the tension builds; when the score is nonexistent, the cinematography and quiet discussions of unnatural circumstances and potential invasion reinforce the tension even more strongly. In certain scenes, such as Graham’s cornfield exploration and some jump scares toward the end, the anxiety comes to a head with bloodless encounters from which other horror films could learn and which I and my VC certainly appreciated.
Amid all the suspense, there are examples of Shyamalan’s unique framing technique, subtle and profound performances from Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix, and unexpected moments of welcome humor. Above all, it boasts one of the most reserved yet God-affirming messages of any recent Hollywood flick. Graham’s loss of faith and anger at the Lord are understandable, for he sees his pain as meaningless; but, even at that time of greatest distress, God was sending him messages he had yet to interpret. There’s a moment near the end in which everything clicks: Merrill’s eagerness to swing in baseball, Bo’s water fixation, Morgan’s asthma, details that added to their characters but seemed like trivialities, even nuisances, in their day-to-day lives. It reminds me of the passage in Isaiah in which God explains how superior his ways and his plans are above our own, and when Graham recognizes this, he realizes he is not alone (in a good way). Note how Graham tells God “I hate you,” just as Morgan had to his dad, yet in the end both father/child relationships are restored.
A coworker of mine once decried Signs as among the worst movies she had ever seen, and I suppose its appreciation depends on the viewer. What I saw as contemplative, portending, compelling, and well-crafted, others viewed as self-important, tedious, implausible, and manipulative. Others have criticized the under-explained alien invasion and the invaders’ preposterous weakness, but I enjoyed the film’s more personal take on such a crisis and could compare the creature’s undoing to the aliens’ germy downfall in War of the Worlds. In many ways, Signs is the antithesis of Independence Day; everything is smaller, with no explosions, no bombastic victory, no clichéd relationships, and all for the better. It’s a tense, non-gory thriller with hardly any profanity and an uncommon theme of finding lost faith and recognizing God in what seems like coincidence.
I dare anyone to watch Signs and then enter a dark corn maze without being a little nervous.
Best line: (Graham Hess) “See, what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?”
Other best line: (young Bo, waking her father up one night) “There’s a monster outside my room, can I have a glass of water?”Rank: 53 out of 60
© 2014 S. G. Liput
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