Most Shyamalan fans agree that his first three major films (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs) are his best work. While I agree with this assessment, unlike most people I find The Sixth Sense to be my least favorite of these three. I still think it’s an excellent film, but as I stated in my last review Unbreakable is my favorite Shyamalan movie. Signs is a close second.
Signs is the story of a family in rural Pennsylvania during an alien invasion. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a pastor who has left the church after a painful time in his life, which has caused his brother Merril (Joaquin Phoenix) to move in to help raise his young children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). Throughout the film the aliens are slowly built up, as is the film as a whole. I’ll get to what I mean by that later on.
Something that surprised me years after seeing this movie was how polarizing it is among viewers. Two of my favorite critics have each done a video review of it and have wildly different opinions, with one hating it and the other one crediting it for his love of film. My fiance couldn’t stay awake for most of it.
Some of the criticisms of Signs, such as just how much danger the Earth was really in, I can understand. These aspects don’t bother me because of the greatest strength of this movie, its trust in the audience’s imagination. You think about Signs more when re-watching it, and after multiple viewings I’ve realized a few key elements:
- The “twist” in this movie (the reveal with the aliens) is actually a red herring. This revelation, though important to the plot, does not make the picture much different when you re-watch it, though you are given enough information to make some fun speculations about the aliens’ motives and society.
- Plot and character elements are subtly inserted throughout the movie. These are only noticed when you’ve seen it enough times to focus on the backgrounds or think about supposedly throw-away lines.
- The cinematography works especially well with two elements standing out: the long shots and the handheld camera. The reveals done using single takes (especially towards the end) are very well paced and set up, something that Shyamalan has had trouble with later in his career (as in Last Airbender). The birthday scene with the handheld camera was particularly effective at building up suspense and showed his proficiency with “found footage”, which he would further utilize in The Visit.
Finally, the real surprise of this feature is more of a puzzle for the audience: figure out how the events we have seen are constructed. Everything hinges on a tragic event in Graham’s past which is not fully revealed until the end. This is where the audience’s imagination comes in.
Throughout the film we’re given examples of how Graham’s duties and relationship to his family have changed because of his past; at one point he feels overwhelmed and stops cleaning up Bo’s glasses of water, something which comes into play at the end. That tipped me off to what Shyamalan was doing, and I began to think about all the elements that were needed for this movie to conclude as it did. What if Merril hadn’t moved in? What if the veterinarian hadn’t called Graham? Would someone have remembered Morgan’s inhaler? Watch the movie again and think about what would have been missing if that tragic event and its revelation had not happened.
Like Unbreakable, the music for this movie by James Newton Howard is amazing. Those who are fans of Psycho and Jaws will immediately recognize the inspiration for it.
In conclusion, Signs is a largely misunderstood film. Its true and more significant twist is usually overlooked with focus being on the more obvious revelation about the aliens. Re-watch this film from the perspective I’ve discussed and have fun filling in the blanks!
Rating: 5 ★★★★★