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Signs, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, 2002, 120 min.

Expectations ran fairly high for the release of Signs, the third big budget movie from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. After the breakthrough success of The Sixth Sense, a decent ghost story with a powerful/irritating ending, and the surprisingly off-centre superhero-as-ordinary-guy movie Unbreakable, what would the man hailed as the next Spielberg do for a follow-up? A movie about crop circles starring Mel Gibson as it turns out. And for the most part, Signs works, unexpectedly well, riffing on Close Encounters and Hitchcock and numerous other references, but somehow wringing out intense emotional reactions from an audience who has seen most of this before. The movie struggles to keep its focus small, with a few problems, but mostly this is the story of a man and his troubled family against the backdrop of ominous events. That’s a wise choice, and an admirable one; the lives of the little people have been the subject of some of the best-written science fiction. But as the story progresses, the movie gets into plot difficulties and by the end, things are complete derailed. This happens largely because of Shyamalan’s thematic ambitions. More on that in a minute, after some extensive spoilers.

My basic peeve: Signs misunderstands science fiction at the most fundamental level possible. The movie is reasonably successful along the way if you want some scares and to see Mel Gibson pontificating about the meaning of life and faith and tragedy. For myself, I can’t help but get annoyed by the way the basic modus operandi of science fiction is violated here. Yes, aliens are coming, spooky things are happening, and Mel’s family is struggling to stay together. But what happens when the aliens arrive? For one thing, aliens can’t break through wooden doors. This leads to several spooky scenes, one in which Mel has an alien trapped in a pantry and he cuts off one of its fingers or claws poking under the door. Later, when he and his family are trapped in their basement, as the aliens try to break in, once again mostly failing when faced with wooden doors. And as if this were not bad enough, aliens leave Earth because a problem with water!

Aliens, by definition, have gotten here by travelling interstellar distances, and barring some weird religious prohibitions, would likely have the technology to break into houses made out of wood. Consider the flexibility and level of knowledge of current human civilization; multiply that by some unknown factor to support a civilization capable of sustained spaceflight. Consider how much we know about our own globe and surveillance and analysis of its different areas and substances; multiply that by some unknown factor for a race that could get here across interstellar distances and presumably discover from orbit what water is and how much of the globe is covered by it. To say that aliens would be unable to get through a wooden door or be surprised by their own intolerance of water are both ridiculous statements of almost unimaginable scale. But Shyamalan throws them both into the mix, pretending that they are reasonable outcomes of an alien invasion.

In some senses, there has never been an acceptable answer to the problem of how humans would fight back against aliens. The original story of such alien invasions, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds used this exact issue to put humanity in its place; the invaders were defeated by the terrestrial bacteria. Most other alien invasion stories that have humans successfully fighting off aliens are made up of the exact jingoistic nonsense that Wells was protesting, and such stories are usually just as callow in their extrapolation of what such sophisticated technology might mean (Independence Day stands as the prime example). Those plucky humans, defeating invaders orders of magnitude more advanced. Possible? Of course. But never plausibly told as far as I can tell.

I’m aware that this review sounds incredibly nitpicky. I make these points not to insist that science fiction needs to be held to some insanely strict standard; I’m more concerned that Shyamalan’s plot handling demonstrates his clear interest in something else entirely. The alien invasion is a bit of a bait-and-switch in fact, and the movie becomes more about Mel’s faith-based dilemmas than what an alien invasion might mean. That’s fine, I suppose, except that if the alien aspect was not the point, then why couldn’t Shyamalan use some other random menace, like, say, zombies? Most of my objections to Signs boil down to this one point: the best science fiction literalizes metaphors, but it’s a tricky process. The alien is the Other, the menace, or alternately, the Other, the challenge to our understanding and tolerance and in the case of Signs, our sense of faith and the universe. But once a metaphor is literalized, it takes on a life of its own and doesn’t always suit the creator’s allegorical needs. Some of the best stories are the ones that got away, the author or director losing the figurative in the literal and coming away much enriched for it. I’m thinking of anything from the HAL sequences in 2001 to Kim Stanley Robinson’s A Short, Sharp Shock. Shyamalan’s wrap-up here feels intrusive, interfering, as if he had a good thing going and then “squander[ed] it all in promiscuous geysers of sentimentality and random New Age brain fog” (as the review on Salon.com by Andrew O’Hehir puts it so memorably). The literal resists the allegorical, but the two are always in the mix when life is depicted in art; Shyamalan’s balance of the two is definitely not to my taste.

However, Signs is to be admired at least for this: Shyamalan has talent to burn, he’s one of the few writer-directors who is working in the field of science fiction, and any credit or blame for Signs comes squarely on his shoulders. Despite the ending, and all of previous complaining, I’m still quite interested in whatever Shyamalan does next. My expectations just might not be as high.


Last modified: May 6, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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