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Posts Tagged ‘Signs’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 19th 2002:

[Following reviews of Reign of Fire and The Importance of Being Earnest.] 

And finally, we look at M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, aka ‘I See Dead Corn’. Now I’m a bit of a fan of this director, and long-time readers may recall his last film Unbreakable did rather well in the 2001 Lassie awards. This time round he’s dispensed with both Bruce Willis and the twist endings he’s famous for – well, sort of…

This is the story of Graham Hess (Mel Gibson, as monumentally smug as ever), a priest-turned-farmer who lives with his jock brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix from Gladiator) and his two children – one obsessive-compulsive, the other precocious, and both annoying – in a quiet farmhouse. Graham has packed in being a priest as his wife has been run over by local vet (Shymalan himself – yup, he’s going all Tarantino on us). But something’s afoot out in the corn, as crop circles start appearing, strange inhuman figures start creeping around the farm at night, and Graham’s dog becomes grumpy and incontinent.

Yes, that’s right, it’s aliens! Quite why they should want to cause any of these phenomena – particularly the one with the dog – is not explained. The crop circles are apparently convenient rendezvous points for their vast armada of starships, which suggests they can manage steering all the way from Tau Ceti or wherever only to get completely lost and require landmarks as soon as they reach Earth. It also means they can only launch invasions during the summer or early Autumn months when the crops are nearly grown, thus depriving them of the plum holiday period and perhaps explaining their generally cranky disposition. Graham and the family soon get very nervous indeed, especially when the TV reports that the invasion proper has begun…

As you can probably tell, I found a lot of Signs rather difficult to take seriously: but for all the logicalities and lack of explanation in the story, it’s still in many ways a highly impressive piece of film-making. It works on a number of levels, most obviously that of an alien-invasion suspense thriller, and it’s here that Shyamalan excels both as writer and director, as you might expect. Large chunks of the film are very creepy indeed, as Graham wanders around in the corn by torchlight with strange alien chitterings emanating from the crops all around him, and unearthly silhouettes crash unexpectedly into the frame. (The braying strings of James Newton Howard’s score aids Shymalan a lot.) However, towards the end the film adopts a (relatively) straightforward action-adventure style, with which the director seems a lot less comfortable: his enormous talent lies in his ability to lull the audience into an almost lucid dream-like state, not hit them over the head with CGI nasties.

This is certainly a different take on the venerable ‘alien invasion’ theme, and it’s interesting to see the story told from the perspective of ordinary people thousands of miles from the action, rather than that of the US President or a scientific genius. But Shyamalan acknowledges his predecessors, by explicitly name-checking the daddy of them all, War of the Worlds, and also by – whether consciously or not – pinching part of the climax from the (rubbish) movie version of another classic British SF novel.

Signs had the potential to be a truly nerve-shredding horror movie, but it’s prevented from being this by a couple of slightly odd creative decisions on Shyamalan’s part. The unsettling atmosphere he creates in the key sequences of the film is almost without fail diluted by moments of strange, deadpan comedy occurring throughout, as Graham and Merrill (both of whom come across as fairly dim bulbs) struggle to comprehend events around them and are generally hacked off by their smart-aleck younger relations and peculiar neighbours. It’s almost like some strange agrarian amalgam of Frasier and The Simpsons, and for a film that already has a credibility gap this is a serious mistake.

And then there’s the ending. Shyamalan eschews the plot twists he’s become famous for in favour of a deeply didactic and folksy conclusion, preaching that ‘hey, bad things happen for a reason, just have faith and keep on trucking’. It’s glib and cloying, and it isn’t even subtext: this is out there to be seen in the meat of the movie (Gibson’s total inability to portray self-doubt doesn’t help: Phoenix’s performance is better in nearly every way). It’s here that Signs‘ status as a post-September 11th movie becomes clear: in the movie, as in life, America is under a terrible, inexplicable attack, but it’s ultimately for the best and if everyone keeps believing it’ll all turn out okay in the end. Signs sets out to comfort its audience when it would have been much better off simply trying to scare them. Even so, it’s still accomplished, engaging stuff, and only really a disappointment when compared to M. Night Shymalan’s two previous films.

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