I have a confession to make. Of course, if you know me than this isn’t really a confession, you already know, because to listen to me talk makes it obvious. But if you don’t know me, than this may shock you.
I am a complete sci-fi NERD.
Okay, so maybe it isn’t shocking.
But what can I say? Science fiction intrigues me. The idea of life on other planets, or worlds beyond our own fascinates me. Needless to say, I have a gigantic soft spot for sci-fi books and movies.
Of course, there are the classics: “ET The Extra-Terrestrial”, “Escape to Witch Mountain”, and one of my three favorite movies of all time, “Close Encounters of The Third Kind”. Then there are the more recent ones, each with their own fan-base as well as a large number of haters: Steven Spielberg’s “War of The Worlds”, “Contact”, “Terminator”. There are also a number of monster movies that could easily be considered science fiction — “King Kong”, “JAWS”, “Frankenstein”. There are end-of-the-world movies like “Armageddon” or “Deep Impact”. There are sci-fi/fantasy films, like the “Pirates of The Caribbean” series or “The Lord of The Rings” trilogy. And those movies are just the ones that come to mind right away — there are any number of science fiction films that just weren’t as successful in the box office, and therefore haven’t exactly become household names.
“Signs”, M Night Shymalan’s fifth film, is not one of these movies.
People either love it or hate it, but everyone’s heard about it. And for good reason.
This movie contains so much to talk about. The acting. The relationship between the four family members. The back story. The main theme of the film. For sci-fi and visual effects geeks like me, the aliens. People even argue about what genre the movie fits in. Some say that, although there are aliens, they are so rarely on-screen that it can’t really be called a sci-fi film. Some of those people say that it is, in fact, a horror. Others say that it’s a psychological thriller. And others argue that it’s simply a character study of a family who’s lost their mother. What do I think? All of the above.
The movie opens on a quiet farm-house in Philadelphia. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is jerked awake by we’re not quite sure what. As he readies for his day, he hears a scream from outside. Unsure, he listens nervously. There it is again!
In a separate house near Graham’s, Merril Hess (Joaquin Phoenix) tumbles out of bed when he hears the same scream. The two brothers run to meet each other in between houses, staring wildly around for the source of the cry.
“DAD! UNCLE MERRIL!”
Without a word, the two men sprint for the huge corn field just outside of their houses. As they run between the huge stalks of corn, they see a tiny nightgown-clad figure wandering through the crops. Bo Hess (Abigail Breslin) looks up at her father in a daze, asking him “Are you in my dream, too?”
“Dad!” Another yell. Merril picks up Bo as Graham takes off in the direction of the cry, and they find Morgan Hess (Rory Culkin) staring fixedly at something we can’t see.
“Morgan? What’s happening?”
Morgan does not look at his father. “The dogs were barking. They woke us up.”
Graham carefully pulls his son’s face towards him until they are looking each other in the eyes. “Are you hurt?” he says slowly.
Morgan stares at him. “I think God did it.”
“Did what, Morgan?”
Morgan turns Graham’s face away, towards what he had been staring at before. Graham’s expression turns to shock as he slowly stands up and moves forward, followed by his family. With unsteady strides, Graham steps onto the bent stalks of corn; two German Shepherds bound about in front of him barking furiously at the surrounding corn crop; and as we pull away we finally see what they are seeing.
The Hess family is standing on the edge of a crop circle.
Just like that you are clued in to the story. You know that there are four family members; that there are two children, Bo, a 4-or-5-year-old girl, and Morgan, a 9-or-10-year-old boy; you know that Merril will supply a tiny bit of comic relief; that Graham is fiercely protective of his kids but not great at communicating with them; that there is no mother; and that something very, very strange has just happened that suggests the presence of beings from another planet. Just like that, the story takes off, and yet so little has been said, so little has happened.
As a sucker for good visuals, one of my top things-a-movie-needs-to-be-good is the ability to communicate with pictures. Movies are, after all, a visual medium — the term “movie” is actually short for “moving picture”. It’s all about what the audience sees. We’re smart. We don’t need to be told through exposition dialogue what we can find out for ourselves through the use of clever camera work and a facial expression. And one of my favorite things about this film is its distinct lack of exposition dialogue. Oh, the back stories are told — Graham is a former pastor who has abandoned the faith, Merril is a retired Minor League Baseball player who apparently doesn’t know when to quit, Morgan has asthma, doesn’t like his dad and is very affectionate towards his little sister, Bo refuses to ever finish a glass of water, and their mom was killed in a car accident — and yes, some of it is told through exposition dialogue. But none of it is rushed, and my intelligence never felt insulted as I watched this movie.
For instance, we learn about Bo’s problem with water through a conversation she has with her father:
GRAHAM: *gestures to a collection of half-full water glasses on top of the TV* “You’re too old to still be doing this. You take a glass of water and you finish it. Now what’s wrong with this one?”
BO: “It has dust in it.”
GRAHAM: “This one?”
BO: “A hair.”
GRAHAM: “This one?”
BO: “Morgan took a sip and it has his amoebas in it.”
As Graham walks to the kitchen to put the glasses of water in the sink, he sees yet another pile of half-drunk cups of water resting on a bookshelf. With an exasperated sigh, he puts down the cups he’s holding and gives up.
From the conversation and accompanying visuals, we now know that Bo has a bad habit of starting cups of water and not finishing them; we also know that this has been a continuous problem and has been going on for a while.
The death of Graham’s wife, Colleen (Patricia Kalember), we see only in flashbacks to the moment when Graham arrived at the scene of the car crash. In the first flashback, we see Officer Caroline Paski (Cherry Jones) waving Graham as he drives. She stands in front of flashing police car lights. Graham gets out of the car, concealing his fear; Caroline tells him that Ray, who we haven’t met yet, fell asleep at the wheel, and it is established that Colleen is not in an ambulance. However, it is implied through Caroline’s facial expressions that she is very badly hurt.
In the second flashback we are back where we left off: Caroline tells Graham that Ray, after falling asleep, swerved off the road and hit Colleen and a tree, respectively, and Colleen was pinned between the car and tree. This means that the truck has “severed most of her lower half”, and there is no way to save her. They haven’t moved the truck; it is holding her together when nothing else is. It is implied that they are going to move the truck soon; this is Graham’s last chance to ever talk with his wife. As Graham slowly walks towards the truck that has basically killed his wife, we see things from his point of view: we see the police officers and paramedics staring at him with pity; we see a man huddled on the ground, refusing to look up who can only be Ray; and finally we see the truck, smashed against the tree, and the paramedics looking up from someone we cannot see. Graham stops and watched the paramedics notice him and move out of the way.
In the third and final flashback, we see Graham kneeling down to talk to his wife.
While there is, as I said, exposition dialogue used in this film, it is used very rarely, and very subtly. What we are told verbally is said in such a subtle way that we have to think to figure it out, which is refreshing — the movie knows that we have brains and wants us to use them. The visuals are striking and tell most of the story.
What’s funny about this movie is how little happens in it. The family finds a crop circle and sees what they think is a human intruder on the roof of Merril’s house, they call in Caroline to investigate, she says they’re over-reacting and tells them to go to town, they go and we get some back story on each character, they return home and hear an alien conversation on Bo’s old baby monitor, Graham sees an alien in his backyard, the family turns on the TV to see over fifty hovering lights in the sky above a city, the kids and Merril freak out, Graham tries not to, Graham gets a phone call from Ray (M Night Shyamalan in an impressive cameo), goes over to investigate and ends up finding an alien locked up in Ray’s pantry, goes home, the family boards up the house in anticipation of the attack, and the aliens invade. The climax of the movie takes place in a basement and the living room. The whole story plays out over the course of two or three days. And yet every single thing that happens is in some way important. Graham’s encounter with Ray allows him to forgive and release the man who killed his wife; Merril’s conversation with a man from the town establishes him as a retired baseball player and as someone who doesn’t give up easily, as well as the fact that he keeps the bat he used to break a Minor League record on his wall at home; even seemingly mundane things, like dogs barking and peeing inside, Graham going to the pharmacy to get asthma medicine to Morgan, and Bo leaving her unfinished water all over the house, very subtly let us know that there is a predator around, Morgan has bad asthma, and that somehow the water is a big plot point in the story. Even Graham’s conversation with the girl running the pharmacy counter, which on the surface may seem to be only comic relief, lets us know that Graham used to be a reverend and for some reason left the church.
One particular reason why some don’t consider this film a “sci-fi” is because of the aliens’ lack of screen time. We see hints and shadows of them at first — the vague shape of one standing on a roof-top, a strange, inhuman leg ducking behind the corn crops. Then we see one’s shadow as it paces around and around Ray’s pantry. A few minutes later, Graham’s curiosity overcomes him and we see the thing’s fingers as it reaches beneath the door in an attempt to attack him. Finally, we see one of the things in full figure in what can only be described as one of the most startling clips I’ve ever seen, possibly even in all of film history.
It’s easier to watch now, but the first time I saw it I jumped about a foot.
Now, I’m not the kind of person who enjoys being scared. I love roller coasters, but that’s more for the adrenaline — I hate the minutes spent waiting in the line beforehand as apprehension eats up your insides. I don’t like blood and gore. When I read scary stories it’s because I dare myself to, and then I’m awake for nights on end, scared to fall asleep, and then I swear never to read another one again. There are certain movies I can’t even watch the commercials for (“Sweeney Todd”, “Nightmare on Elm Street”, I’m looking at you), because I’m so scared of being scared. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy having my heart race, and it’s always fun to look back on moments of fear and laugh. But I just don’t like things to jump out at me, especially things that looks scary.
(Incidentally, this is one of the main reasons I don’t surf YouTube. One time when my geek side took over and I was researching UFO sightings, I watched a video entitled “Try to Spot The Monster in This Video”. DON’T LOOK IT UP, unless you like scary ugly bloody things popping up on the screen with a shriek when you thought that all you were watching was a car driving down a road. My response to video: “*scream* OH MY GOSH!!!! *hyperventilate for a few seconds* *catch breath slowly* *pause to collect thoughts*… I found it…”)
All this to say that I really, really, REALLY don’t like horror movies. They freak me out. But if this movie is at its core a horror, it’s one horror film that I will watch. Again. And again. And again.
Another possible genre label for this move is “character study”. This makes sense. The movie at times seems to be far more about a man and his search for answers than anything else. Or perhaps it’s a father-figure story. Merril and Morgan both look up to Graham as a father, and both struggle with the idea that Graham may have fallen from his pedestal. Morgan tells Merril, “I wish you were my dad…” and Merril, watching Graham tell God furiously how much he hates Him (for the first time acknowledging God’s existence since his wife’s death), looks at his brother and says, “I never want to see that look in your eyes again, okay?”
Or maybe it’s a psychological thriller. Maybe it’s a movie solely created to keep the audience in suspense, to make them ask questions. My favorite line in the film contains a huge theme in this film:
GRAHAM: “See, what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind of person 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?”
Is it possible that there are no coincidences? A huge part of this plot is devoted to making you question the universe: What’s out there? Is Someone really watching over us? Are we alone? Is this all chaos, or in the end will this all make sense?
Or perhaps it is, after all, just a sci-fi. For while the aliens are rarely on-screen, their presence is always felt. At first, just Lionel Pritchard and the Wolfingham brothers. Then a female Scandinavian Olympian. Then a bunch of “nerds” (I take offense at that) trying to get attention. But in the end they are extraterrestrials, hostile beings from another planet bent on harvesting us and our planet, and you realize that you knew they were all along.
So which is it? A horror, a character study, a psychological thriller, or just a plain old sci-fi?
Well, I think it’s all of them. It’s scary. The characters are fully fleshed and almost real. It makes you ask questions and keeps you on the edge of your seat. And there are aliens.
It isn’t easy to mix genres like that. It isn’t easy to make a good film in any genre, but to mix four of them together? It must have been tough. But the result is a work of beauty. Four characters, each with his (or her) own very important role to play in the story. It’s amazing.
My favorite part of this movie is that there’s no obvious pay-off. Once again, Shyamalan makes you put two and two together. But when you do, you see Graham step out of his room, silently buttoning the collar of his preacher’s garb. In the background, you can hear Morgan, Bo, and Merril laughing, something they haven’t really done up till now. And we fade to black.