Coincidence. Purpose. Faith. Is somebody out there or are we alone? Either each detail in life is a sign of something higher or it just is with nothing else symbolized by its existence. The world, as former pastor Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) sees it, is defined by these two sides. Belief or non-belief. Signs and miracles or luck of the draw. Comfort or fear. When mysterious crop circles begin appearing on farms across the world followed by lights in the sky at night and an apparent force field in the day, the world is divided on how to react. Is it a hoax or for real? Are they hostile or friendly? An alien invasion film that pays homage to classics such as The War of the Worlds while capturing the feeling of 1950s science fiction classics set in small-towns, M. Night Shyamalan‘s Signs is as nerve-wracking and frightening as it is moving.
Perhaps it is due to the present coronavirus pandemic, but there is something about watching Graham and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) watching television in horror as news reports come in from the world over that strikes a chord. The look of shock in their face, a knowing look in their eye that says their life will forever be altered by these events. The establishment of a “new normal” and fear over what could be coming next, especially if the aliens prove to be hostile. Locals such as police officer Caroline Paski (Cherry Jones) or Ray Reddy (Shyamalan) discussing bits of information they have heard that could help the fight against the aliens or be entirely false, added in with horrifying reports about sightings of aliens in India or Brazil, have a clear connection to modern times. Maybe that is what makes it so horrifying, but there is something special about Signs. A slow, unraveling terror where one has no idea how to react or what to do next. This is a story seen in cinema dating back to those 1950s classics, a feeling that Shyamalan cultivates in spades as they move from awe to anxiety watching the news. As opposed to those classics, there is no action. The government is not brought in nor are neighbors rallying to get to the bottom of this mystery. Instead, they are left to sit and wait.
Maybe that is why it feels so connected to modern events – we experience a perpetual feeling of unease and a desire to do something, but are left so helpless with just preventive measures left to hopefully stave off disaster. For the Hess family, this means boarding up their home and hiding in the basement, planning, and reacting to the aliens bumps on their door or footsteps outside. The excellent score from James Newton Howard as well as the expressive performances of Gibson and Phoenix keep the film at a perpetual fever pitch. For some, Signs is all build up with minimal pay-off, but it is in that build-up that Shyamalan does his best work. Every beat of this film is filled with a lingering suspense, a thickness in the air that can hardly be explained with each rustle of the crop outside carrying with it the weight of danger. Maybe they mean no harm. Maybe they do. By the time the television cuts out and the radio stops working, plunging the Hess family in a media blackout to endure a night of alien knocking and footsteps, Signs has worked its way into one’s heartbeat and nerves. There is always an entry point to their home that could be used to get inside. The photo in a book about aliens of a home that looks very much like their own burning during an invasion may be a small detail, but it is exactly the kind of thing Shyamalan uses to build dread for this climax. It lingers in the mind of Graham, even if he does not say as much. It hangs over the film as a whole, as do every little horrific detail of what life could be if they attack and, God forbid, win. Their hearts are in their throats and Shyamalan with Howard’s eerie score, the realistic sound effects, and emotionally involving family setup, puts the audience right alongside them; waiting through the darkness of night to experience an uncertain morning.
Signs is a deeply spiritual film, very outwardly so as Graham fights with God over the loss of his wife and experiences a crisis of faith. Even if one does not ascribe to religion, Shyamalan infuses the film with details that cannot be mere coincidence. Whether it is a boy’s asthma, a little girl’s obsession with getting new glasses of water to drink, a wife’s final words, a young man’s baseball success, or a father’s belief (despite his denial of such), everything in Signs means something. This is a strength of any film, one that allows each detail to carry weight and spare no moment in building up to its eventual climax. This is a masterpiece of writing and foreshadowing, piecing everything together even if characters like Graham initially try to write off these details to pure chance. It also allows the film to not just frighten, but have a deep emotional impact. Manipulative to a degree, yes, but including flashbacks to the night Colleen Hess (Patricia Kalember) died and showing Graham’s crisis of faith coinciding with that tragedy gives the film considerable power. Signs’ terror puts one on edge, but it is the faith that everything will be alright – whether the aliens attack or not – and that every detail in one’s life will somehow mean something gives it staying power. It is a faithful, sentimental work that is so in touch with mood and feeling that it benefits every facet of the viewing experience. As the family jumps back in terror at a reflection in the corner of the room, the viewer jumps too. As the family hugs while in tears, the viewer tries to hold in the same.
Having seen Signs for the first time a few years ago, I was left impressed but not floored. Revisiting it now, it skyrocketed past my prior estimation of the film. An excellent score and terrific performances are some of its technical merits, but there is something else about Signs. There is an authenticity, a realistic human reaction to an alien invasion as people around the world just sit back in horror, do nothing, and wait to see what the next steps are as the aliens dictate them. As opposed to those classic science fiction films that Shyamalan is influenced by, the military is not blasting away at them nor are neighbors gathering to fight together. Every family is left to respond in their own way, resting on their faith in a higher power or facing it as if only they can influence what will happen to their home. Uniting these two and coupling it with the film’s unnerving and emotional arcs, Signs is a film of considerable power that does what all great films do: it makes you feel. One is left frightened, on the verge of tears, relieved, and yet uncertain. They may leave now, but they could come back. Or, worse, they could still be there and this is just the beginning. No matter what, those coincidences that make up daily existence are not unexplainable. One just does not know the “why” right away, but it will all come together in due time at a moment no one expects.