Produced by Blinding Edge and Touchstone Pictures
Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures
In his third commercial feature, Signs, M. Night Shyamalan seems to be delivering a belated riposte to those who lorded over his Indian ancestors. His movie concerns an invasion by extraterrestrials who have imperial designs on Earth. As the tension builds, Shyamalan has one of his protagonists remark that “It’s just like H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.” The comparison is apt, but only to a point. It would be more accurate to say that Shyamalan has created a revisionist adaptation of Wells’ story. While the novel and the film clearly share the same premise—superior beings come to Earth bug-eyed for our resources—their subtexts could not diverge more. Wells wanted to shake his readers from their theological lethargy. His novel rudely upends the warm, responsive cosmos in which his contemporaries cosseted themselves, as if it were an extension of their overstuffed Victorian parlors. Wells confronts them with a cold, indifferent universe inhabited by merciless beings who have no compunction about wiping out their intellectual inferiors. Then, with a Darwinian fillip, his narrator allows the invaders some slack. They should not be judged too harshly. After all, they are doing little worse than what the Brits themselves had done around the globe. Wells enjoyed discomfiting his pious countrymen, especially the astronomically challenged. God was not in His Heaven, he wanted them to understand, nor was much right with the world. Not only this, but the sun had more to do than serve their empire as a 24/7 lighting utility.
Now, a century later, Shyamalan means to contradict Wells’ tale. As in his other films, he is determined to restore divinity to our secularized empyrean.
On paper, his screenplay must have seemed a delightful rebuke of Wells’ smug atheism, especially given Shyamalan’s ancestry. What could be more satisfying than the spectacle of a native boy correcting the enlightened sahib? Sadly, Shyamalan fails to bring off this multicultural jujitsu. Like Wells, he is working in allegory; unlike sci-fi’s paterfamilias, however, he does not trust his tale to stand on its own. He cannot resist telegraphing his intentions at every turn. The result is an awkward blend of the fancifully figurative and the flat-footedly literal.
The film begins with a close-up of Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a Pennsylvania corn farmer, sleeping in his bed. Suddenly, he’s awakened by screams almost too faint to hear. His blue eyes pop open, and he stares at us roundly for a moment before jumping from bed and rushing into his cornfield with his younger brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), at his heels. The men’s near-hysterical urgency is puzzling until we see what they are after. Graham’s two children, five-year-old Bo (Abigail Breslin) and ten-year-old Morgan (Rory Culkin) are lost in the maze of seven-foot green stalks. When the men come upon them, Bo asks her father, “Are you having a nightmare, too?” More sensitive to these kinds of things, the kids and the farm animals have been spooked by the as-yet unseen aliens in their midst. But Bo’s question points to a different kind of spooking as well. Graham has a very real waking nightmare to deal with. His wife has recently died in a freak automobile accident. In the aftermath of this trauma, he has lost his faith. Unable to sustain belief in a God who permits such calamities, he feels compelled to resign his position as the community’s pastor. (He must have missed those seminary classes on the problem of evil.)
Graham’s personal nightmare is about to connect with something much larger. As he and his family walk through the cornstalks, they discover huge, perfectly shaped circles that someone or something has made by flattening selected portions of the field. Each circle is 50 or more yards in diameter and is reminiscent of the crop circles regularly featured in those avant-garde supermarket tabloids. Who could doubt their extraterrestrial purpose?
In no time at all, things are going bump in the night, leaving the townspeople wiggy with fear. When CNN starts reporting strange lights appearing over the world’s major cities, the Hesses are primed for the worst. Interestingly, the first large-scale sightings occur over Bangalore, India’s capital of software development, where more and more American and European companies are setting up their back-office operations: inventory, accounting, payroll, etc. Could Shyamalan be giving us another kind of sign? At any rate, back in Bucks County, it’s Martian time. A local Army recruiter, eyes wild with anticipation, talks about “probing.” The critters (still unseen) are conducting standard military reconnaissance, he reasons. It’s what we would do before sending in our forces. A girl at the local pharmacy begs a reluctant Graham to hear her confession: She doesn’t want to be zapped before making amends.
Strangely, Graham and Merrill decide to stay in their farmhouse, despite having already encountered what was, undoubtedly, one of the invaders scurrying across their roof. They sit nervously on their sofa, watching the interplanetary crisis unfold on television. As they do, they discuss—what else?—eschatology. Merrill asks, “Do you think it could be the end of the world?” His brother answers with a flat, uninflected “Yes.” Disturbed by his curtness, Merrill presses him on what that might mean, theologically speaking. In response, Graham gives a comfortless sermon, much in the Wellsian spirit. He explains that the world contains two kinds of people: those who believe in Providence and those who don’t. Take winning at a casino, for instance. One person will believe this means some force—God, luck, fate, whatever—has intervened on his behalf. Another will be content to chalk up his winnings to nothing more mysterious than chance. Then, taking an example painfully closer to home, he tells Merrill of his wife’s last words: “see” and “swing away.” What do they signify? Nothing. They were, he concludes, the result of a few stray electrical impulses firing in the neurons of her dying brain, triggering random memories from the past.
Or were they? There hangs Shyamalan’s allegorical tale and also the problem with his film.
In our era, we expect allegories to have a seamless surface, a cover story that stands convincingly and gracefully on its own. The visible plot is the outward sign of the thematic interior. The strategy is to let the double story percolate within our minds so that its meanings will surface after we close the book or leave the theater. Shyamalan is too impatient for this. He cannot resist making everything explicit. In doing so, he creates a muddle. At key moments in the tale of the Hesses’ struggle to defend themselves against the aliens, the film cuts to discussions concerning the injustice of loss, the nature of evil, and the meaning of life. In the clumsiest manner imaginable, Shyamalan calls attention to his double plot, all but openly acknowledging that the aliens are merely a metaphor signifying the sudden, unpredictable descent of evil into our lives. This may explain why the creatures barely register on the screen. We catch a grainy glimpse of a seven-foot tall, olive-green humanoid on a news report; another passes a television set and is reflected in its screen; later, some bony fingers poke from under a locked door. As for their mode of transport, Shyamalan makes do with clusters of lights in the night skies over Bangalore and Mexico City. Perhaps this reticence is one more sign: Let the fiction take a backseat to the metaphysical essentials. Question: If the tale doesn’t matter, why tell it? Shyamalan almost makes you sympathize with that old vulgarian, Samuel Goldwyn, who famously remarked, “Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.”
Signs may be a failure, but it’s not an insignificant film. Shyamalan remains a director of unusual ambition; even when he stumbles, he is worth watching. He’s a young man who wants to reinvent commercial film, and he may have the art to do so. He understands how the medium affects its audience, how subtle montages, vivid compositions, apt color choices, and strategic lighting can move us to fear and trembling one moment and to wry laughter the next. Watch the scene in which Gibson approaches a door behind which lurks one of the aliens: It’s a lesson in how to build suspense. Shyamalan sets his camera ever-so-slightly off-kilter and shoots Gibson crawling on hands and knees in the bottom third of the frame. With a shadowy kitchen looming above him and the floor seemingly slipping away from under him, he hesitantly creeps toward a flickering bar of light beneath the closed door. The composition visually and viscerally renders what it means to be unnerved, while the sequence slowly, almost unendurably, builds to its climax without a special effect in sight.
Shyamalan must learn how to harness his manifest cinematic gifts to narratives that walk on their own legs. He managed to succeed in The Sixth Sense despite several plot lapses. His second feature, Unbreakable, however, showed the same strains as Signs: Credibility was sacrificed to the big message. Shyamalan shares Merrill’s failing, and he probably knows it. Merrill, we learn, had once been a promising minor-league baseball player. He consistently broke home-run records; he also broke strike-out records. He swung at every pitch for all he was worth. When asked why, he shrugs and says, “It felt wrong not to swing.” That’s Shyamalan. He swings for the metaphysical bleachers each time at bat. He’s so anxious to score that he fails to see the game as a whole and too often fans the air when a base hit would do. Take two small instances. In order to remind us how the seemingly domesticated world can turn treacherous in a moment, Shyamalan has one of the Hesses’ trusted German shepherds suddenly attack the children without provocation. We don’t see the assault, only its aftermath. The dog lies dead on the ground as Morgan weeps over its limp carcass. When his father comes upon this scene, the boy explains that the animal was about to attack his sister. He had no choice but to kill it with a handy barbecue fork. Think about that for a moment: a ten-year-old impaling a full-grown German shepherd with a meat fork? Without a scratch or a bite to show for the contest? Hasn’t Shyamalan ever seen a cornered animal? Perhaps not. He seems equally unfamiliar with rural life. When the Hesses find themselves under siege, they board up their windows and doors. Then, with no other means of defense, they wait for what seems inevitable. But this is a large farm in the middle of nowhere. Wouldn’t there be a rifle or a shotgun to ward off varmints? If not, what about scythes, knives, axes, or sledgehammers? I’m ready to believe in just about anything for the sake of a story, but lapses like these make it all but impossible to suspend disbelief. If you want your audience to accept a fantastic premise, you must get the small matters right.
Shyamalan should study Don Siegel’s 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s a casebook study of how to use allegory on screen. With the smallest of budgets, pitiful special effects, and a scant 80 minutes, Siegel convinces us we’re watching vegetable-based life-forms from interstellar space take over the earth. Siegel and Jack Finney (author of The Body Snatchers, on which the film is based) never once let on that they were spinning an allegory of communist subversion, and the film was all the more effective for their silence. It certainly scared the bejesus out of my 14-year-old self. Just as importantly, it lodged itself permanently in my imagination so that, when I was ready, Siegel’s and Finney’s political agenda came across loud and clear.