Film (2002). Touchstone Pictures presents a Blinding Edge Pictures/Kennedy/Marshall production. Directed by M Night Shyamalan. Written by Shyamalan. Cast includes Abigail Breslin, Rory Culkin, Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. 106 minutes. Colour.
Superficially, Signs is an alien Invasion movie, told from the perspective of an American farming family who are directly threatened by a handful of Aliens during the larger attack against Earth. At its heart, it is a film about religious faith: the malevolent bipedal invaders are just a convenient catalyst for the protagonist's (Gibson's) spiritual journey. The title has a dual meaning; it refers to both the crop circles that the aliens create to signal to the rest of their fleet, and to the providential events that point to the intervention of a benevolent deity.
As a science fiction story, Signs is inelegant. Perhaps as a homage to the famous ending of H G Wells's The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898), the aliens of Signs are overcome by a seemingly innocuous terrestrial substance: in this case, water (water is a recurring symbol in the films of Shyamalan). No explanation is given as to why the aliens invade a planet so toxic to them, nor are their motivations examined. However, it is clear that Signs is meant to be understood more symbolically than literally. Long before they have shown any indication of antagonism, the invaders are painted as Monsters. Animals bark at them, they cause bad dreams in children and bad feelings in adults. Having lost his faith after the death of his wife in a car accident, Gibson's ex-minister regains his belief during his struggle to defend his family and property. Signs may be a simplistic movie, but it is intentionally so.
Shyamalan is generally regarded as a good director of suspense, and Signs is successfully imbued with an atmosphere of dread. The concept of a besieged Pennsylvanian farmhouse, its inhabitants only able to understand their situation from emergency television and radio broadcasts, is reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead (1968). However, in place of that film's harrowing intensity and sly social commentary, Signs has a smug portentousness that is not always justified by the script. [JN]
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