Signs (2002)

22 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Signs” is an unusual piece of work. It goes into the “science fiction” genre yet it features a limited arrangement of special effects, does not show any signs of authority such as the US Government, strays away from unnecessary explanations for these unusual occurrences, and focuses only on one family during one big event that could mean the end of the world—usually we go back and forth through different characters, but not here. Because “Signs” never takes the easy way out, it becomes one of the most intriguing science-fiction films I’ve ever seen. Produced, written, and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, the filmmaker best known for the 1999 hit “The Sixth Sense” (which also strayed away from the easy way out, in the sense of being a psychological thriller), “Signs” is quite extraordinary.

Mel Gibson stars as Graham Hess, a former minister who has lost his faith in God ever since his wife died in an accident. He lives with his more faithful brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and his even more faithful two kids, 10-year-old Morgan (Rory Culkin, Macaulay and Kieran’s youngest brother) and 5-year-old Bo (Abigail Breslin), in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, surrounded by a cornfield. As the movie opens, the family awakens to discover a series of crop circles in the field behind their house. You know what crop circles are—those geometric shapes drawn into cornfields in the 1970s that created paranoid proof of extraterrestrials, dismissed as hoaxes in the early 1990s. But now, there are crop circles all over the world. This cannot be a hoax. There is absolutely no way that so many people around the world would create such an elaborate prank. It could be real.

The crop circles are shown on the film’s poster and may be just the interpretation of the title. But there is much more to the title of “Signs” than just the crop circles and where they come from. The movie progresses into deep, dark material as it seems like something from the beyond is going to kill us all. The signs in the title refer to signs that maybe there is someone out there watching over us. Graham, however, is skeptical because of his wife’s tragic death—“There is no one watching over us. We are all on our own.” Then again, he is skeptical about the alien theory as well. But soon, nothing really matters except for the safety of his family. That’s one of many important points within this movie—whether or not aliens actually appear in this movie doesn’t matter all that much.

M. Night Shyamalan treats this science fiction story like a horror movie, even using the main element that made Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” effective. That element is silence. Shyamalan doesn’t rely on a heavy score to scare us. He frames shots exactly right, he lets his characters talk about dramatic subjects without even a subtle music score to keep the mood, and even the scariest moments are without music. Also borrowing from “Psycho,” the score from James Newton Howard that reminds us of the music in “Psycho” is there at the necessary points, such as the opening credits and moments of discovery and pain. But the best parts of the movie did not need that score and it isn’t used for those parts—it’s more frightening that way. Through the movie, we hear dogs barking, we jump at the sound of a phone ringing, and we fear during the moment when Graham encounters something (I will only say “something”). Also, an element from “Jaws” is used in the way that the family—these four central characters—is the only thing we care about during all this madness. We care and fear for them. And I also love how Shyamalan is able to use everyday objects for something more. A knife is used as a mirror, many glasses of water that Bo leaves behind because of her fear of water create an uneasy feeling, and then there’s a baseball bat.

In the second half, when everything supposedly pays off, nothing is predictable—you can’t tell what’s going to happen even for the slightest bit. What will become of Earth? What will happen with this family? Are there aliens? Are they friendly or hostile? On the night when “something” is supposed to happen, the bizarre alien theory is not the subject of fear because this family has been through enough already to be scared. “Signs” is thrilling, edgy, suspenseful, intelligent, attentive, and frightening with superb performances by Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, and those two talented child actors Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin, a nice blend of science fiction and thriller elements, big ideas, and masterful filmmaking.

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