“See what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky?”
In August 2002, American audiences arrived in droves to behold the new film by director M. Night Shyamalan, Signs. During it’s opening weekend, Signs crushed the competition, bringing in a swaggering $60M+ in ticket receipts. Still riding (somewhat) high from his success with The Sixth Sense several years before, Shyamalan’s vision of an alien invasion didn’t span the globe, a country, or even a state. Instead, Shyamalan throws us down in a rural farming community where life happens at a different pace.
Signs gives us an intimate vision of two brothers, Graham (Mel Gibson) and Merrill Hess (Joaquin Phoenix) who, in the wake of Graham’s wife’s untimely hit-and-run-death, are still struggling to put life back together for Graham’s two children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). It’s been just six months since the tragedy befell their family, and in the quiet farming area of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, life is about to throw them another curve ball.
When a crop circle appears on the Hess corn farm, Graham, his two children and his brother, are confused and maybe even a little worried. So is the audience at this point, as Graham begins to mention some concern that Lionel Pritchard and his gang of friends, are potentially harassing his family (again? why?).
That night, Bo wakes her father and asks for a glass of water. Oh, yeah, and by the way, there’s a monster outside her window. When Graham looks, he sees a shadowy figure on the roof of his barn.
Collecting his brother, Graham and Merrill run around the house screaming and shouting – apparently in a manly attempt to throw a little fear into Lionel Pritchard and the Wolfington brothers, should it be them again. Whatever it is Graham saw, whatever it is they brothers were chasing around the house, it’s too fast. It easily eludes them and makes off into the corn fields.
The next day, Graham places a call to the local sheriff’s department and Sheriff Paski (out actress Cherry Jones) arrives several hours later. After the two speak, it’s clear there are no easy answers. Bo interrupts their conversation to ask Graham for the television remote, that every channel is playing the same show. Cut to the television where reports are coming in about the appearance of crop circles around the globe.
Unable to suitably resolve the questions of who and how and why, Sheriff Paski promises to make some calls and do some research into the crop circles. She advises him to take the family into town, to get their minds on “every day things.”
As soon as they arrive in town, everyone goes their separate ways. The kids go to a bookstore where Morgan immediately asks for a book on extraterrestrials and Bo asks for water that she ultimately refuses to finish (again) because she thinks it to be contaminated (again). Merrill, the holder of 5 Minor League Baseball records, goes to the Army recruiting office. And Graham heads to the pharmacy to pick up Morgan’s asthma medication.
Later, the family is shown sharing a pizza and we get our first glance at Ray Reddy (played by M. Night himself), the man responsible for the death of Graham’s wife and the children’s mother.
On the way home, using an old baby monitor, Morgan picks up what they first write off as only static. It becomes quickly clear that the clicking noises are structured, like a language. Morgan suggests that it’s two of “them” having a conversation.
Fearing his kids are becoming obsessed, Graham says no television, no radio. At least, not for a while. This doesn’t stop his children from hunkering down upstairs with aluminum foil caps (so “they” can’t read their thoughts) and consuming Morgan’s new book on UFOs and aliens.
Events continue to intensify, including Graham’s personal close encounter. There seems to be no other option than to accept that what’s happening is real. As the broadcast signal is eventually lost and they are no longer able to receive information from the outside world, the family chooses to bunker in the house, to board up the windows and doors and make a stand.
What is unique, and I believe ultimately appealing about the work of Shyamalan, is the manner in which he frames his story. He paints the scene and then places the viewer inside of it. We are no longer just an outside observer, looking at his painting, simply watching events unfold. In a way, we become the fifth member of the Hess family, with them from the beginning, watching how world-changing events could/would actually play out – slowly, with information coming in spurts surrounded in a haze of doubt, with everyone huddled together around a television or radio (or, the Internet).
We feel as though we are it, that no one is coming to help us. We’re on our own. All of this adds to the intensity of our emotions – whatever that may be for you when you’re watching Signs. For me, there are some tense moments – the sound of the invaders outside, walking on the porch, brushing against the wind chimes, trying to open door knobs. It’s embarrassing, but I still cry when Graham speaks for the last time with his wife. For others, maybe there is a sense of terror when, at last, the invaders are revealed.
Do I think Signs is a true horror film? No. Certainly not. Even with the sheer terror/anxiety you will undoubtedly feel when the Brazilian birthday party footage begins to play, Signs is a sci-fi thriller if ever there was one. Either way you slice it, Signs easily meets the three criteria laid out by Boston.com, securing its place on the list at #38.
Wiki facts: Signs
Is Signs rotten or fresh?
How did Signs do at the Box Office?
Signs on TUMBLR
Watch or buy Signs now from Amazon
The Art of the Title: Signs
Interesting trivia about Signs