Signs, Part I: Delightful entertainment, with meaning
This article is part of an analysis project about M. Night Shyamalan‘s five films from 1999 to 2006: The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), The Village (2004) and Lady in the Water (2006). This is the first article about Signs. The second is here, the third here, the fourth here. The articles about the other films can be found in this overview.
This article will discuss Signs in a general fashion, including some problematic aspects. It will make the case, however, that the perceived problems with both the visual design and motivation of the aliens are much exaggerated. The article will then embark upon an in-depth study of the opening sequence. This will also pave the way for the rest of the articles, by pointing out a large number of motifs, subtexts and ideas it is introducing. The last chapter will provide a foretaste of the film’s many subtle foreshadowings. There is an addendum detailing how the aliens appear throughout the film.
The second article will explore motifs and two horrifying scenes, the third one the important subtexts of dreams, magic and inner demons, as well as significant late segments of the film, and the fourth one visual style.
In order to discuss the film properly, I will have to reveal the whole plot, including the plot twist at the end.
For readers unfamiliar with the story of Signs, here is a brief outline of the plot.
A lesser work but still delightful
Signs is a lesser work than the two preceding ones and The Village coming up next. It is less serious, less focussed in its exploration of theme, less consistent in mood, less formally daring than Unbreakable, much less probing in its characterisations, especially of the hero. Eschewing a city setting, Signs also lacks the extra layer of history with which various Philadelphia buildings enriched the two previous films. (The aestheticism of its rural buildings, however, is quite breathtaking, see the second article.)
Nevertheless, within its intentional parameters M. Night Shyamalan has made a Signs fiction film that is delightfully entertaining. On the whole, it is as durable on repeated viewings as the other works of the pentalogy. What it loses in attention to character and related meanings – which provided material for the entire first article about Unbreakable – and in a straighter storytelling, more event-oriented approach yielding less room for formal experiments, it makes up for in charm, liveliness and a number of superior set pieces. It is also almost as motif-heavy and motif-coherent as the other films and contains the extensive apparatus of connections and foreshadowings that one expects from the Shyamalan pentalogy. It is not pure entertainment, either – it tends to get darker on repeated viewings.
A cross between horror and B-movie-type science fiction, Signs is the most genre-oriented work of the pentalogy. The “Shyamalan treatment” gives it an original and distinct tone, however, setting it far apart from other alien invasion films. Its many horror set pieces are executed with such surgical precision and innate sense of how to orchestrate fear, that even with my familiarity of 25 viewings, I cannot help gasping at key points: The first glimpse of an alien, up on the roof, comes like an electric jolt. The sustained creepiness as Graham moves through the cornfield at night, which suddenly explodes into primal panic, after a split-second encounter with an alien. The icy dread of the silent alien pacing around, shut in behind the pantry door, only perceivable as a shadow under it – followed by the sick feeling of being a helpless observer as Graham tries to look under that very door. The thunderous bangs on the doors – methodically: first the back door, then the front door, the fact that they bang just once on each door is somehow much more frightening than a whole barrage – as the aliens start trying to enter the besieged house.
Signs achieves genius, however, in the “horror show” when a TV station presents a videotape someone in Brazil has managed to shoot of an alien in plain sight, which a transfixed Merrill cannot help watching. When after an excruciating wait the alien finally appears, taking a small step towards its audience as if both to scare and mock them, it is a perfect embodiment of terror, the archetypal bogeyman. Stripped down into the most basic simplicity, the scene distils the nature of horror films, their effect on the audience, and the reason for our fascination with them. As on several occasions in The Village, for example with the colourfully robed monsters, Shyamalan seems to be able to tap into mankind’s collective unconscious, dredging up what terrifies us in its most fundamental form. (Shyamalan is “able to summon apprehension out of thin air”, says Roger Ebert in his Signs review.)
Simplicity is also key for James Newton Howard‘s music, which, unlike his complex contribution to Unbreakable, here achieves a hypnotic effect by being primarily built around the same three-tone motif, which during the “horror show” rises into a hysteria that also manages to be icily cold. (We will return to this and another horror scene in the second article.) Furthermore, the extended sequence when the family have to barricade themselves in the cellar employs a recurring motif of flashlights to string together events in highly inventive fashion, elevating a set piece that would seem to have few visual possibilities (see the second article.) The film’s opening sequence attempts something new for the usually slow-moving Shyamalan, who without giving up his trademark methodicalness constructs an unnerving chain of disjointed incidents, while sneaking many of the film’s major motifs in between the lines.
Then there is the charm. Joaquin Phoenix is excellent as Graham’s impulsive younger brother Merrill, who is rather slow on the uptake, somewhat immature and a bit of a male chauvinist. But as usual in Shyamalan’s pentalogy, it is the child actors who take the cake. Rory Culkin is unable to put one foot wrong as the serious-minded and intelligent son, and his distinctive features make him constantly compelling to look at. Abigail Breslin, who four years later was very impressive in Little Miss Sunshine (teaming up with Toni Collette of The Sixth Sense), delivers about the most endearing and natural performance from a small-child actor ever. Even though she may lack focus in some of the more complicated ensemble scenes, for a 5-year-old she displays an astounding emotional depth, seriousness and intelligence. Shyamalan’s dialogue for her often displays splendid insights into a child’s point-of-view.
Not only as characters, but the interaction between Culkin and Breslin – their emotional bond, fooling around, support for each other – is a big part of the appeal of Signs. Furthermore, the scene in the car where Graham and Merrill try to talk Morgan out of the idea that the babycall is in fact picking up alien voices, perfectly captures the way grown-ups do not take children seriously. And the following scene on top of the car where Morgan holds the babycall up in the air is very elegant in its visual simplicity, and steeped in science-fictional “sense of wonder” emanating from the weird, almost mournful song of the alien voices. (Speaking of actors, M. Night Shyamalan himself is actually quite good – his only dialogue scene is perhaps the film’s most serious situation – as the bitterly repentant veterinarian Ray Reddy, whose car killed Graham’s wife.)
There are aspects of Signs that do not work so well. Shyamalan’s previous films had flashes of humour, but here a large dose of humour of a very offbeat kind is injected. (It is almost as if Signs has adopted Colleen’s dying advice for Morgan: “It’s okay to be silly.”) There is an almost unbroken stretch of deadpan, starting with the brothers acting very awkwardly during the sheriff’s questioning about the alien on the roof, and, shortly thereafter, through most of the trip to the town. The humour is well done but not exceptional, and among the few things in the Shyamalan pentalogy that wear thin on repeated viewings – especially the pharmacist who insists making a confession to Graham. Boring would be too strong a word, rather this whole segment feels prematurely exhausted, less rich in detail and meaning.
The humour more on the absurd, even downright silly side tends to fare better, and it helps that it is delivered in short bursts. Although it does not cut deeply, the gradual unfolding of obsession as a contagious disease is excellently observed and with great timing. The way that Morgan’s “Everything people have written about in science books is going to change” is echoed almost immediately by the TV announcer, almost word for word, is executed with a perfect degree of emphasis and tone. And the film’s most psychologically telling joke must be, “Isabel, you’re gonna feel very silly when this turns out to be all just make-believe,” when Graham talks to his dog, projecting himself into it, when it acts very upset due to some unseen alien presence. The thick denial Graham buries his head in, blaming all the strangeness on some neighbourhood no-goods, works fine, and the literalness and expository nature of his scream, “Aaah! I’m insane with anger!” when the brothers run around the house to scare the intruders shitless, is simply hilarious.
Mixing humour and horror is a well-proven entertainment formula, but Signs also wants us to take Graham seriously as a tragic figure. It fails considerably. His denial is pushed to rather silly extremes. He is also provided with quite a few, although moderate, clownish traits. The weight of the accumulated funniness simply tends to undermine Signs as serious drama and, especially, Graham as a character with emotional depth. Mel Gibson is fine in many ways, particularly his incisive delivery of the “Are you the kind who sees signs, sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky?” monologue. Here and in other selected scenes, he is convincing as someone left utterly at sea without his faith, almost unhinged. It is very hard to square this, however, with the clownish things the script requires him to do and still believe in him as a real person. But without such belief, the film’s last two shots cannot work. (At times, Gibson also has an odd air about him, looking kind of paralysed, with a strange, glazed look.)
In the last shot, the camera pans around the same bedroom as in the opening shots, moving from summer to winter in the same take, ending with a reborn Graham back in his Reverend habit. It strives for an elegant sense of closure and is packed with meaning – but it is hard to feel anything at all. This follows a shot which for a Shyamalan film is strangely lackadaisical. The handheld shot feels rushed and technically insecure, distractingly jerky and imprecise. Suddenly everyone’s acting is dodgy. The film’s last lines, with the revived Morgan saying, “Dad? What happened? Did someone save me?” and Graham responding, “Yeah, baby, I think someone did,” just come across as glib: Gibson is unable to project any distinction or depth into his relief over God’s miraculous ways. It seems Shyamalan has trouble pulling off scenes where the heroes are supposed to be emotionally naked and reach deeply within themselves, for Paul Giamatti fails in a similar scene in Lady in the Water, when reviving the comatose sea nymph. (At least at this stage in his career, Shyamalan was famous for not shooting coverage at all, instead relying on preplanning and storyboarding to carry the day – but one wonders if this was one of the rare cases that he ended up with something that did not work, in a situation that might not have allowed reshoots.)
The alien pseudo-problem
Ah, the aliens. Objects of ridicule and harsh criticism. Signs is supposedly breaking down into utter inanity in its dying minutes.
Signs scored generally favourable reviews (75%) on Rotten Tomatoes and mixed/average ones (59%) on Metacritic. But there was some tough criticism and its later standing seems to have decreased, perhaps influenced by the later decline of its director’s career. The problems made out of the aliens and the perceived lack of logic of the entire film are, I feel, the first signs of the increasingly unfair backlash against M. Night Shyamalan, which I delineated in the opening paragraphs of the first article about Lady in the Water. The criticism of Signs seems to fall into three main grievances:
1. The “twist” of how a lot of details suddenly come together, showing Graham how to defeat the last alien, feels tacked-on and unorganic. It is hard to agree. For one thing, like all these five Shyamalan films, Signs is shot through with a dense network of connective motifs and threads – so from a point of view of the construction of a work of art, it feels highly organic indeed that some of these connections turn out to have a concrete bearing on the plot. The crucial-for-the-twist details are also directly relatable to Graham’s central monologue about the world either having divine meaning or no meaning at all, just a mass of coincidences. Granted, the theme of faith is not explored in much depth, but Graham’s epiphany is undeniably central to regaining his faith, so it is resolving a major and obvious thematic line.
2. The aliens have so far, to great effect, merely been glimpsed, but when shown in full at the end look just plain silly. In the addendum, I work through the depiction of the aliens. Yes, there are problems. First, the Nemesis Alien’s face in two close-ups looks much too smooth and even. Second, the three successive shots of the alien when it shows the first signs of being vulnerable to water, make it look a bit silly. But these shots only take up two seconds of screen time – hardly enough to sink a film. During the rest of the climax, it is mostly shown as a vague outline.
3. Why did the aliens come to Earth in the first place? A refrain among the nay-sayers goes “why did aliens who cannot stand water invade a planet whose surface is 70% covered by water”. Even though Signs is a fable – on some level, for example, the aliens could be sent by God to test humankind – and should not be held to standards of realism, this is easily refuted. After the aliens seem to have left, a voice on the radio says, “Nobody believes it, but they didn’t come here for our planet. This is a raid. They came here for us, to harvest us.” (In the Blu-ray extra material deleted scenes, there is another version of the scene with a different radio monologue, so the explanation might have been a late, clarifying addition.) Like a lot of true information in the film, from TV and Morgan’s book, this is coming from the outside world. Even though presented as somebody’s opinion, surely the film would not now suddenly convey misleading information? So this must be regarded as an explanation – they are not out to conquer Earth – stated very clearly by the text of the film. (A raid on such a watery planet may be out of pure necessity, since Morgan’s book states as a reason for alien hostility, “They’ve used up all the resources on their planet, and they’re looking to harvest our planet next.”) While we are at it: why is the alien there in the Hess living room at all? It is clearly stated that this is the Nemesis Alien whose fingers were cut off by Graham in the pantry door scene. Merrill just heard on the news that, “They left some of their wounded behind”. This may be just to foreshadow the alien’s presence, but it is conceivable that the aliens regard injured members as unworthy or dysfunctional. This is speculation, but would greatly increase the Nemesis Alien’s motivation for wanting revenge on Graham. (On the level of fable, it is of course there to be Graham’s… nemesis.)
One has to admit, though, that Signs is living dangerously at the end. In addition to the intermittent dodgy look of the alien, the oddities are piling up: The drawn-out stand-off with the alien with several family members in glazed-eyed paralysis. The wide-angle shot of Graham (below) just before the epiphany, where the lens distortion expresses the strangeness coming over him but also makes him look a bit silly, if not downright demented. The flashback asking the audience to square three wildly differing tonalities: a moving farewell between spouses; our knowledge that Colleen has had her lower part of the body cut off; a dialogue that seems utterly nonsensical. The sudden discovery that an innocent substance like water will badly damage the alien, with this seemingly far-fetched idea accompanied by shots showing the living room stuffed with glasses of water. Upon first viewing this author, too, was rather bewildered. Having got to know the film well, though, I find the finale majestic, with invaluable support by James Newton Howard‘s rousing music and some sweeping, rhythmic traveling shots after Graham manages to get Morgan outside. The problems with the alien’s appearance are felt as just small glitches in what is in fact a well-orchestrated conceptual breakthrough. The real problems occur with the failed striving for emotion in the film’s two last shots/scenes.
The third article will explore the film’s undercurrent of being a dream. The most dreamlike and surreal part of Signs is its prologue-like opening sequence. This can account for its disjointed, abrupt tone and odd touches of comedy. I will walk through it shot by shot and, DVD commentary-like, indicate items of interest and the ideas/motifs it introduces, to which we will return in the second and third article.
The waviness of the window image was a gentle harbinger that the harmony of the backyard and the all-smiling family photo is an illusion, already punctured ever so slightly by his gasp and unnatural way of appearing. The replacement of the photo with his head signals how concerned, even obsessed, he has become with the remainder of the family, now that his wife is dead. It may also indicate his current denial of God, since he is blocking out himself in the Reverend outfit. There is more, however, to these two opening shots. In the article “Jan Troell‘s Fleeting Still Moments” by the scholars Jørgen Bruhn (Denmark) and Anne Gjelsvik (Norway), published in Journal of Scandinavian Cinema (March 2012, Vol. 2 Issue 1), the authors describe how in Everlasting Moments (2008) Troell creates “a middle position between film and photography”: the stillness of a photography in the process of being developed starts to “move” due to ripples in the developer fluid. Reading this made me realise that what we see through the window is in fact a frozen image. (This could also contribute to its indefinably hypnotic impact.) There is no sign of any movement in leaves or shadows from the wind. It springs to life, however, through the “ripple effect” of the window pane, in a way remarkably similar to what happens in Troell’s six-years-later film.
Furthermore, the “still photograph” of the backyard creates an even stronger connection to the bedside photograph. (See the below montage.) It was always clear that the four (groups) of objects outside could be connected to the four people in the photo: the grill and the table/chairs to the grown-ups (preparing food, setting the table) and the swing and the playhouse to the children (the third article will connect the playhouse specifically to the girl). The window frame, now with its double meaning, binds the outdoor view even more tightly to the framed photograph. Both images are frozen representations of an idealised, happier age. (Signs maintains the size of the family in the photo, since Graham’s younger brother Merrill has joined the family to help Graham out in his grief – we will return to the number four in the second article.)
We will return to the importance of windows and this particular view upon discussing the film’s ending in the third article.
The introduction of the hero in the second shot was exceedingly strange, but the way Merrill makes his entry must be one of the weirdest in film history. Through the film, Merrill is usually portrayed as the last to enter situations, the last to become aware of what is going on, and to realise how things hang together. (He will, however, come into his own in the later stages – a turning point seems to occur in the cellar, observing how Graham is helping his son survive an asthma attack.) In his room below, some bottles lying around suggest a bit of a drinking habit. He has fallen asleep in his clothes, face down on the bed, holding on to a pack of snacks – maybe after a night out on the town?
But there are more items of interest here. In Unbreakable we discussed Shyamalan’s trademark “short-term foreshadowing”, where a clue is presented about something that will immediately happen. There seems to be an instance here: when (below) the family are looking ahead, they are “encircled” by an opening among the stalks that is oval-shaped, a curved form resembling a squashed circle, which may signal the crop circles they are about to discover. (When we look at the circle motif in the second article, several oval-shaped objects are included, for example rugs like the one in Merrill’s room, which are clearly intended to connect with the circle motif.)
The crop circles may also be regarded as footprints that the aliens have left behind in the field, something that gives new meaning to another shot just before (below). In addition to Shyamalan’s much-used dramatic device of holding back information, here by concentrating on Graham’s feet rather than provide an overview, it is also emphasised that he is stepping on the ground. Thus, within the larger alien footprint, he is leaving his own “footprint”. This connection is entirely logical considering the strong parallel that Signs constructs between Graham and the aliens – specifically, the Nemesis Alien that he is confronting, each of them separated by the pantry door (in the second article).
Finally, Signs opened with the backyard and its objects closely connected with and thus symbolising the family – “left behind” since no one is around – shot with a downward gaze against a green field. It seems that the start and end of the opening sequence mirror each other.
This prologue indicates that M. Night Shyamalan is, as usual, intensely massaging the viewer’s subconscious. We shall end this article with a few subtle connections, most of them based on the above-mentioned “short-term foreshadowing”. The first example occurs right after the prologue. Morgan is preparing food on the grill, but the close-up of the meat fork does something more than serving the usual function of providing the audience with a tactile feeling of the story-world by concentrating on objects used by the characters. It is signalling the object with which Morgan will soon kill the dog after it attacks Bo. (The shot can also be said to be a comment upon food chains: humans eating animals vs. aliens coming to Earth to harvest humans. The sheriff asking Graham “So, what happened to your crops?” [i.e. harvest] just before the cut may serve as added emphasis.)
The next situation is extremely short-term. The dog in the background seems to be a subconscious signal that a dog (the other family dog) will be the crucial element in the next shot. A nice progression is also indicated by the next dog being strongly foregrounded, as if it takes centre stage:
The next instance (below) is certainly tiny – but there is definitely a connection. Bo pours the glass of water into the food bowl, then puts the glass aside before pushing the bowl in front of the dog. When it rises to threaten Bo, the glass becomes visible again. The next shot looks down into flattened cornstalks, then tilts up to take in the whole crop circle. One could say the camera rises like the dog did, but more interesting is the fact that the glass is full of green circles, as if to signal the green crop circle coming up. Something small being replaced by something big echoes the progression with the dogs. High up on the house there are a set of half-circles that seem to supervise the whole thing, even with radiating lines for visual emphasis. (The set-up may well be intentional: Bo puts the glass down, then corrects herself and moves it to another spot, as if Abigail Breslin initially missed a mark.)
The glass with the circles will continue to play a role. Graham is in the process of collecting all the glasses Bo has left around the house, but faced with the magnitude of the task just gives up. This turns out to be crucial because during the climax the Nemesis Alien is splashed with water by accident, exposing its weakness. Graham’s all-important moment of resignation is marked by that very glass as the prominent one in the shot:
The next example is elegant. We see one of the film’s four mobiles. Its form is laden with meaning: the circle connects to aliens, the star-shape to magic (see the third article), the number of hanging objects to the four family members. This image dissolves – as if a time-compressed nightfall – into a shot of the house, with the mobile superimposed on a window. Inside, Graham will soon spot an alien through precisely a window – following a conversation with Bo, who is connected to the star-shape. (The dissolve also hints about the film’s dream aspect, see the third article.)
Our last example of short-term foreshadowing comes during the “horror show” videotape of the alien in Brazil:
Her pause is for dramatic effect, but also gives our subconscious a nudge about what she is actually saying, and the line, its meaning and the pause are all closely choreographed with the background movement. (It is hard to believe this to be unintentional – on a film set, extras are not exactly known to be allowed to mill about on their own.)
The wall and the bushes form a passage leading to the alien, and there is a door in the far background. This helps connect the alien with Graham’s appearance in a door in the very next shot (below). But there is more connective tissue: Signs constructs a robust parallel between Graham and an alien (the Nemesis Alien). In this scene he is going to confront that alien. It is locked in behind a door. The awful din from the birthday party children in the video and the absolute silence of the kitchen contrast strikingly. And Graham performs a curious pirouette when he appears, as if Shyamalan wants him to do something weird that can subtly echo the strangeness of the alien’s appearance. (We will return to these two scenes in the second article.)
We shall conclude this article with an echo in both image and meaning, which also demonstrates Shyamalan’s adeptness at creating “abnormal” visuals. In both cases (below) an ordinary object looms in the foreground, while the humans are dwarfed (and framed). In the exterior shot, the storytelling element – Graham’s arrival at Ray Reddy’s house – is virtually a negligible side effect. Shyamalan seems more interested in suggesting that the mailbox is reminiscent of a house-shaped object, like the many structures around Graham’s own house. (We will return to the house motif in the second article.) The composition’s strangeness and the “abnormalisation” of the everyday object of the mailbox also signal the danger of his upcoming encounter with the alien in the kitchen. (See also how the colours of house and mailbox mirror each other.) And the dwarfing of Graham echoes the helicopter shot of the alien crop circles. It may even suggest how his life has become dominated by his wife’s death, caused by Ray Reddy, whose name marks the object that dwarfs Graham.
In the interior shot, there is something fishy about the scale: the family seem too small compared to the wall portal; the set appears to have been built too large specifically for this shot, to make them look even more powerless faced with the aliens clamoring to get in.
Even though Signs is a lighter piece than its surrounding works, at this stage of his career M. Night Shyamalan cannot help making films that are rich in structural complexity. It is unclear how much is a result of conscious methodical planning, how much springs from a fertile subconscious, how much is unintended results of deliberately placed strands of motifs that start interacting on their own. Nevertheless, the next article shall explore these systems of motifs, and two horror scenes that operate under their influence.
Addendum: The aliens
This is a brief summation of the depiction of the aliens throughout the film. For a long time, they are merely hinted at, or shown very briefly on two occasions. First Graham spots one on the garage roof through the children’s bedroom window, and later he glimpses an alien leg as it is disappearing into the cornfield:
Then the Brazilian video shows, with shocking impact, an alien in full view for the first time:
The next three physical depictions are through hands only. First the clawlike hand coming at Graham from under the pantry door, then a hand sneaking in under the entrance door at an early stage of the alien attack, and at last the hand that assaults Morgan in the cellar, the hand at first perfectly blending in with the coal chute door:
During the climax inside the house, the alien is first shown as a hazy outline in the light from the window:
The same goes for the final battle between the alien and Merrill:
Inbetween, however, the alien is shown in two close-ups, with a much more defined look:
The same shots, artificially brightened to get a better look:
There is also another shot that shows the alien quite clearly, and compared to that, the close-ups seem to depict a much smoother alien, something that seems inconsistent:
The best view of the alien comes in three consecutive shots that reveal it to be vulnerable to water (the first two images below are two different stages of the first shot). Again, the alien seems to be a smoother version than depicted in many of the other shots:
Finally, some shots that show the alien skin’s ability to mimic surroundings:
Below are two shots where Graham is reflected on its wrist and Bo on its back. The reflections might indicate that the alien is able to read the humans’ minds. The spike is used for releasing poison gas.