Monday Movie: Signs, by David Bax
It’s often said that a director is only as good as her or his last film. In the case of M. Night Shyamalan, though, it seems we can’t stop judging him and all of his work by comparing it to his first film (or the first one anyone saw, at least; no one ever talks about Praying with Anger or Wide Awake). The Sixth Sense was a juggernaut and the narrative that Shyamalan is unable to match it has dogged him for over fifteen years now. At least, in recent times, we’ve started reevaluating just which of his movies was the last good one. Especially in the light of superhero fatigue, the mature and grounded Unbreakable has been rediscovered and rightly praised. While it may still be a while before people come around on the gob-smacking magical idiosyncrasy of Lady in the Water, I do at least hope that people who dismissed 2002’s Signs will take a second look.
Mel Gibson (whose presence is probably not helping people take a clearer-eyed view of the film) stars as a widower and father of two who has given up his life as an Episcopal priest following the senseless accident that killed his wife. He – and the viewer – must reconsider his views about the purpose of life and the usefulness of belief when creepy, tall, skinny aliens who do not come in peace start showing up all over the world. Faith and religion are common elements in Shyamalan’s work but Signs has to be the most overt examination.
As an expert visual storyteller who locates the wondrous in the mundane, Shyamalan has occasionally been likened to Steven Spielberg. It’s a well-earned comparison but it usually leaves out another trait the two directors share, a warm and latitudinarian eye and ear for humor. Signs could not correctly be described as a horror/comedy but it uses the same techniques of that subgenre to balance its tone and deepen empathy for the characters before putting them in harm’s way.
Most detractors of the film gripe loudest about the ending. It’s hard to deny that, as the internet likes to say, your mileage may vary. You may very well feel that it is cloying and manipulative as well as far too convenient and reductive to continue suspending your disbelief. Personally, I’ve found that, after having driven its characters to the depth of despair and dread (literalized in a pitch black cellar), Signs emerges with an optimism about both God and people that is bold enough to soar.