Most of Signs doesn’t look like an alien invasion movie. Rather than presenting climactic battles or fearsome big-eyed creatures, it focuses instead on establishing particular “moods.” While these include familiar responses within the genre (wonder, dread, anticipation), they are also remarkable, in that, at least initially, they are predicated on not knowing and not seeing exactly what’s going on. Indeed, for about 90 minutes, M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie resists showing much of anything, relying instead on not-so-informative tv news reports and reaction shots to convey the scary business.
The movie’s initial image lays out what’s at stake. The camera looks out over a yard — swing set, picnic bench, cornfield in the background — then pulls back slightly, its focus turning wavy to indicate that it’s shooting through a bedroom windowpane. Here distortion provides clarification, exposes a frame and a context for what had seemed an unobstructed view. The idea is abstract but also directly affects your understanding of all that follows, not inviting you inside a particular character’s perspective as much as it underlines that seeing in itself is limited, uncertain and subjective.
Thus disoriented, you meet the bedroom’s occupant, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson). As the movie begins, he’s waking with a start. And you soon learn, in deft little flicks of characterization, that he has good reason to be sleeping badly: the death of his beloved wife (Patricia Kalember, who appears in flashbacks) in a terrible car accident six months ago led this former Episcopalian minister to leave the church. In something of a rescue effort, his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) has moved in over the garage, and together they are raising corn and Graham’s two young children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin).
As if all this isn’t enough trauma, within minutes of waking, Graham hears his kids calling him. He and Merrill run from the house, following the sound out to the middle of the cornfield, where Morgan and Bo stand stunned. “I think God did it,” says Rory, turning his dad’s head with his hand, so he sees this stunning sight, an elaborate and huge crop sign. The camera pulls far out and up, to show the vast and awesome truth that Graham and his kids can’t possibly see, that there are multiple signs, all enormous, all precise.
The Hess family only glimpse this scope after they get inside and turn on the television, which is broadcasting hovering helicopter shots of similar crop signs that have appeared overnight in fields all over the world. A talking head observes that either the hoax is very sophisticated, or everyone’s in a lot of trouble. Graham, being an adamant former believer in a force greater than himself, initially opts for the hoax; the others adopt a less skeptical, more easily terrorized attitude (and given Graham’s propensity to handle matters with a “vote,” his position as family doubter doesn’t hold up for long). Morgan finds a book on “aliens,” and he and Bo start wearing tin-foil caps so the “aliens can’t read our thoughts.”
The situation is undeniably compelling: how might you explain what’s happening to children who watch tv and have access to pop-psych books? How might you tell them about an imminent end of the world, one without apparent reason, no ethical scaffolding, no enemy that might be comprehended? Still, even Graham’s skepticism gets a run for its money when the practical-minded Officer Paski (Cherry Jones) drops by to check out the crop signs, and later, an apparent nighttime visitation (the cornfield parting like someone’s running through it, a figure visible on the roof, for a split second). She sees what Graham does not, initially, that the Hesses are traumatized. She advises Graham to take his kids into town for pizza: “Get their minds, and your mind, on everyday things.”
Graham’s mind is something of a mess, understandably. And the fact that he is unheroic makes him a white guy you might appreciate rather than revere or celebrate. While the film piles up spooky details against diurnal ones — shadowy figures, anxious dogs, tippy-tappy footsteps on the roof at night, faint screeches on a baby monitor (Morgan wisely describes these as “code”) — it doesn’t quite take one “side” or the other. This despite the fact that it leaves little doubt that aliens are coming. What remains unknown, and occupies the movie’s attention, is how anyone might deal with such a drastic occurrence. The film’s interest is not in what aliens will do, but in how Graham and his family interpret experience and manage responsibilities to one another, when all ostensible knowledge is uncertain.
The fact that the movie began production (in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia) two days after 9-11 makes this uncertainty especially resonant. And its significance seems compounded again by the fact that such uncertainty is essentially represented as television (one home video of an alien resembles the famously scritchy “Bigfoot” tape, as if they’re watching some When Aliens Attack reality show). At the same time, Signs includes other familiar images, from movies, particularly those in which characters are trapped and isolated (most obviously, The Birds, Night of the Living Dead, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, even Panic Room). Graham, Merrill, and the kids are forced into the dark basement, where they struggle to keep the door closed; creatures pound against the farmhouse; Morgan has an asthma attack and they’ve (oddly and conveniently) left behind his inhaler, which necessitates their getting out as soon as possible, etc.
In such liftings (call them homages), but even more poignantly, in its more original mutings of character affects and “signs” of what’s happening, Signs offers intelligent commentary on contemporary existence, on the ways you process extraordinary events and desires, but also how you might handle the mundane, the events that shouldn’t upset or surprise you, but do. In its exploration of daily details — conversations between the children, Graham’s efforts to break through his own doubts and fears — the film becomes so quietly mesmerizing that even the melodrama of his struggle over his loss of faith feels subdued.
During one late-night conversation on the sofa, Graham and Merrill start taking measure: who has faith and who believes in luck, which might be more comforting, how their belief structures have been tested, undone or confirmed. It’s a moving moment, with the light of the tv playing on their faces and the children slumbering up against them. Their exchange lays their emotional and moral selves bare, while maintaining a wry comic tone and inviting your identification with them, all without slamming you over the head with An Insight or losing any of its developing tension.
It’s moments like these that make Manoj Night Shyamalan appear to be, as Newsweek calls him, “the next Spielberg,” that is, a filmmaker who understands and deftly manipulates sentimentality, is fascinated by the “American family,” and how works well with kids. He might become a blockbuster director, but let’s hope not. All his films so far are at once ambitious and flawed — The Sixth Sense is too enamored of its trick, Unbreakable too schematic (though this film, of all of them, is easily the most profound in its focus, adding race and morality to the “American family” mix), and now, Signs, as accomplished as it is for so long, collapses at the end, when it reveals, literalizes, and defeats its monsters (to be fair, the defeat takes place off screen, as another cryptic report on tv). With this turn, the film abandons its delicate ambiguities, its focus on everyday things, to deliver a resolution whose structure can only look contrived and reductive.