Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan || Produced by: M. Night Shyamalan, Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy, Sam Mercer
Screenplay by: M. Night Shyamalan || Starring: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin
Music by: James Newton Howard || Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto || Edited by: Barbara Tulliver || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 106 minutes
The first M. Night Shyamalan picture I saw in theatres was the one about crop circles, aliens, and Mel Gibson starring as a Pennsylvania farmer. To be specific, Mel Gibson played a middle-class father, farmer, and former reverend from Bucks County, Pennsylvania who had abandoned his faith after the recent death of his wife. Crop circles appear in his cornfields around the same time, along with international rumors they may be of extraterrestrial origin, though Gibson’s family (Rory Caulkin, Abigail Breslin, and Joaquin Phoenix as Gibson’s son, daughter, and younger brother, respectively) believe these “signs” may have spiritual connotations.
If that’s not an intriguing setup for a thriller, I don’t know what is. 2002’s Signs showcased the still young Indian-American filmmaker at the height of his powers, his second feature after his breakout supernatural drama, The Sixth Sense (1999), and the superhero-deconstruction film, Unbreakable (2000). His films that followed Signs, The Village (2004) and Lady in the Water (2006), began a downturn in his career, financially and critically, from which he would not recover until 2016’s Split. Indeed, many of the limitations of Shyamalan’s broader filmmaking style are present in Signs, if only in small doses that would grow in magnitude with each additional film over the next decade: Signs embraces its titular spiritual/supernatural/science-fiction symbolism to a fault, the story emphasizes its major characters’ insecurities the way most horror movies love to do, and the film combines all this heady thematic content in a conclusion that intercuts an emotional flashback with Phoenix beating an extraterrestrial with a baseball bat.
In absolute terms, much of what occurs in Signs reads like nonsense, but what makes this and all of Shyamalan’s better films work is the writer-director’s emotional, stylized execution of this eclectic material. His composed, powerful framing of his actors, his exceptional direction of those actors’ performances, his limited use of digital FX with stylized camera movement, and his brilliant nighttime-cinematography produce order out of chaos. The film teases a near apocalyptic alien threat that feels as grounded yet “classical” as a John Carpenter thriller (see The Apocalypse Trilogy [1982, 1987,1995]); the small-town setting of the film, shot on-location in eastern rural Pennsylvania, adds to the warm, homey, relatable tone of the story, while also making the extraterrestrial antagonists feel more plausible.
In between these emotional extremes of sci-fi horror and close-knit familial drama lie the movie’s great sense of humor. Shyamalan incorporates everything from awkward blocking at flat-angles (e.g. Gibson standing to attention outside his bathroom with a toothbrush sticking out of his mouth after hearing his kids scream, a hard cut to Phoenix, Breslin, and Caulkin sitting in their living room with tinfoil hats, pharmacy customers lining up behind Gibson after he’s forced to listen to the confessions of a guilt-ridden churchgoer behind the desk, etc.), to lighthearted anecdotal monologues (e.g. Phoenix recalling almost kissing a girl at a high-school party as she vomited to illustrate why he believes in miracles), to wonderful deadpan lines like Breslin telling her father, “There’s a monster outside my room. Can I have a glass of water?” Signs‘ humor is so understated, both in blocking format and with regards to actor chemistry, that its jokes have stood the test of time despite the movie’s throwback tone.
All in all, Shyamalan’s visuals and production design cannot be criticized in Signs, as the film looks, sounds, and feels as thrilling as anything the man has produced over his roller-coaster of a career. I would go so far as to call Signs his best directorial effort yet, if not his best screenplay; then again, Signs portrays so many likable, memorable characters in such tense, creative situations without pandering to a convenient ending nor depending on a narrative twist. Perhaps the most shocking thing about Signs‘ script is how it has no plot twist, at least in the traditional Sixth Sense (pun intended). The reality of the movie’s covert alien invaders is the most startling “reveal,” if one can even call it that, but this information is relayed to the audience in such a casual, straightforward manner that it feels more X-Files (1993-2002, 2016, 2018) than Alien (1979), let alone Independence Day (1996).
One final aspect of the film worth complementing is James Newton Howard’s score. The textured, non-melodic, background function of modern film scores has been explained by numerous critics before me, but Signs being produced around the tail-end of the analog film era may explain its soundtrack’s unforgettable presence. Both its main theme and climatic resolution, “The Hand of Fate,” are standout tracks that transform the emotion within each scene. I get chills numerous times throughout the movie whenever its principle melodies creep into the foreground, accentuating the narrative on-screen with purpose and precision.
Signs is perhaps best summarized as M. Night Shyamalan’s least ambitious but most consistent thriller. It’s my personal favorite work of his for its confident, grounded approach to a classical science-fiction premise, a global extraterrestrial invasion, encapsulated in the auteur’s signature thriller style and commitment to visual suspense. Its few goofy sequences should undercut its tense, emotional narrative, but they don’t thanks to the film’s organic sense of humor, great cast, and unforgettable soundtrack. Signs is so composed in its blocking, restrained special FX, and creepy lighting that it will make a believer out of any viewer who gives the film a chance on its own terms. Whether you’re the type of cinephile who sees miracles or only believes in coincidence, Signs has more than enough cinematic merit to win you over.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Melding his identifiable thriller tropes with a classical science-fiction premise, M. Night Shyamalan crafts an emotional story about a family falling apart and coming together in the face of compelling cinematic imagery, patient editing, synergistic music, and a unique sense of humor.
— However… Signs doubles-down on the thriller/horror cliche of physical, real-world threats conveniently intertwining with its main characters’ personal fears and tragic backstory. I’d argue Shyamalan’s execution of this story elevates these cliches, but I’ve known multiple peers whose knowledge of cinema I respect who disagree.
? Aaahh, I’m insane with anger!