The Welcome Nuance of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs

Jordan Peele’s Nope opened to strong reviews and the expected flurry of discourse. His UFO comedy-horror has proven to be somewhat more divisive than his prior work, and one name has been evoked several times in both positive and negative ways: M. Night Shyamalan, another horror director who arrived on the scene with an explosion of hype and made an alien invasion movie with his third major release. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a compliment to Peele or an insult. 

People love to dunk on M. Night Shyamalan. After being hailed as the 21st century Hitchcock with the one-two punch of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, audience and critical responses soon shifted towards a more mocking tone. The backlash was swift and the jokes plentiful. Even now, as Shyamalan carves out a unique spot in genre filmmaking as a fully independent director making low-to-mid budget horror to increased success, it’s pathetically easy to find dismissive snark of Shyamalan’s work. He’s positioned as a kind of cautionary tale rather than a director doing his own thing and taking big swings at a time when IPs and franchise filmmaking on rails are the default mode of Hollywood. Old may have proven divisive, but you can’t deny that it was thoroughly the work of Shyamalan, free of producer restraints and the thematic demands of the era. 

2002’s Signs brought Shyamalan to the much-plundered field of the alien invasion genre and compacted it into a deeply human-focused story wherein the tall green ETs were almost incidental to their struggles. The Hess family are bound together by grief, lost opportunities, and a sense of all-too-familiar hopelessness. Former Episcopal priest Graham (Mel Gibson at his most believably humane) has abandoned the church after the death of his wife. His children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin) are clearly struggling with the silence surrounding their mother’s passing. Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix in a rare bro role) is a failed minor league baseball player who the local community views as a has-been. The appearance of crop circles on their land feels like just another problem to ignore, right up until they start appearing worldwide and the existence of intruders becomes deeply personal.

We see very little of the world outside the family farm throughout Signs. Merrill obsessively watches TV reports of the impending invasion, but the audience isn’t privy to the vast majority of this. The exception makes for the scariest moment in the film, a shockingly simple found footage moment where one of the aliens walks, almost casually, into the shot of a video camera. This almost mundane intrusion into humanity by an outside force is a wake-up call. But it’s not the real problem. The Hess family’s loss of faith is. 

Graham has gone from being a shepherd of faith for the community to a lost soul, one who has stripped his home of all symbols of his former occupation. When Merrill asks his brother for comfort, as he used to offer to his congregation, Graham’s advice soon takes a dark turn. There are no signs or miracles, not even those from outer space can convince him until it’s too late. Death comes for us all and then it’s darkness. Whenever someone tries to ease his fury by invoking the adage that “everything happens for a reason”, he just gets angrier (the five stages of grief are ever-present throughout). It’s only when Graham actually sees an alien, trapped in the house of the man who accidentally killed his wife (another one of the film’s scariest moments), that any semblance of healing can begin for him. 

Many critics lambasted Signs for having a “weak twist”, with the aliens being allergic to water and the seemingly contrived coincidences set-up throughout the film paying off in the face-to-face encounter with the alien. Yet it’s as much a satisfying anti-climax as the ending to War of the Worlds, with the cold virus extinguishing the aliens with ease. Aliens are seldom just aliens in pop culture. They’re the ultimate metaphor for our own mortality, figures of unknowable power who view humans as inconsequential bystanders in their mysterious missions. Here, the aliens are more like demons. They’re merciless, seem able to penetrate our thoughts, and prey upon the fears and weaknesses of the Hess family. What stops them isn’t just water (possibly holy water given the potentially sacred ground of a former preacher’s home) but faith. If everything has been leading to this moment then the power that imbues Graham with is rooted in the strongest of foundations, the most well fought for. It’s not simply that Graham must regain his faith to save his family: he must recover his sense of self. In the face of oblivion, you must leap with full force into the light, whatever shape it may take.

Faith-based films in the 21st century tend to be trite right-wing misinformation that positions the most narrow-minded definition of Christianity as an almighty powerhouse that’s constantly at threat by atheism, liberals, and scientists. The Kirk Cameron/God’s Not Dead assembly line of ineptly made propaganda seldom has anything truly interesting to say about what it means to believe. For Shyamalan, Signs was an opportunity to show the emotional risk of daring to believe in a higher power, one that can hurt us or leave us as bereft of answers as believing in nothing at all. Being forced to confront that is a terrifying prospect, an often troubling one. You have to fight for it, as ferociously as you would tackle invaders to your home, your psyche, your very humanity. Our belief in Shyamalan hasn’t always paid off but when it does, he taps into something earnestly, painfully, real.

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