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.

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2 Responses

  1. Max says:

    I accept Tyler’s invitation to comment on a film review.

    Is a film review a discussion of the film or a discussion of its components? I can’t tell which model David is advocating here.

    David seems to be advocating for the report card model of film review. To wit, you grade the discrete parts to demonstrate that the overall film should pass the grade (get a second look). Using “Signs” as an example, it has great editing for most of the film (B+), competent cinematography (B-), competent art direction and costumes (B-), and decent acting (B+). Thus, it should pass despite the (D+) third act. Under David’s model, a passing GPA warrants another look. (Note: David does not analyze all these elements explicitly, he seems to focus on the director’s handling of theme, acting, and script.)

    This is a useful model for academic settings and when you are comparing films (e.g., comparing films in the same genre, etc.). The weakness with this model is that, as art, a film is the sum of its parts. One bad element can ruin an entire film emotionally (e.g., off-putting acting) or intellectually (e.g., plot holes).

    Ultimately, I have no idea what David is advocating here. Is he arguing that the film’s strengths overcome its weakness? Or, is he arguing that the film as a whole works because the theme is well executed throughout?

    It would seem to me that any retrospective review such as this must begin by staking a claim: “Those folks who criticize the ending of Signs and, therefore, argue it is a bad movie are wrong because ….” Or, “those folks who criticize the end of Signs miss all the good parts of the movie ….”

    Because I don’t know what David is claiming here, all I can say is that the end of Signs makes it a middling film, at best. There is no organic reason for most of the plot elements that culminate at the end of the movie and the flashback at the climax of the film deflates the suspense that the director spent almost two hours deftly building. It is unfair that all of Shyamalan’s films get judged against his masterpiece. Then again, Shyamalan’s sins seem to be repeatedly forgiven because everybody knows that he is capable of a masterpiece.

  2. Lance says:

    This film is a damn masterpiece.

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