Welcome to Part 3 of the Man in Black Reviews M. Night Shyamalonathon, my version of a countdown to the coming release of The Last Airbender. If you missed them, the first two parts can be found here and here. For new and returning readers, welcome to the Man in Black Review of Signs, the first Shyamalan movie I ever saw growing up and (up to this point in the Marathon) my favorite film of his.
Mel Gibson is a former reverend living with his three kids- I mean, his brother, son, and daughter. Presumably, the family from Home Alone is involved in there somewhere as well. When Mel Gibson comes across crop circles on his farm, neither the police nor the standard culprits can offer any explanation- until reports from across national borders start to come in. The crop circles have become an international issue, and more than that, they are a threat.
I focused on crop circles in the summary with respect to the original advertisements- to quote a certain unhappy viewer, Signs was sold to us at the time as “The Crop Circle Movie”. Watching the movie without the hype, however, I can’t imagine why. The crop circles certainly could have played a larger part- they hold a couple of important scenes, but they’re not really essential to the film. Most distressing of all for a film named and marketed for said circles, they’re not really explained. I take it we’re supposed to believe the crop circles are the “footprints” left by cloaked UFO landings, but really, there’s no more reason to believe that than there is to believe that they’re actually an alien message saying “Watch Out, We Have Come to Conquer Earth!”
Now that that’s out of my system, and I’ve reviewed my own blurb, let’s get to Signs. After having watched four Shyamalan films- three recently, one other in past years- I hold that Signs is probably M. Night’s best movie. It holds similar weaknesses and strengths to his earlier films, but I intend to focus primarily on strengths and weaknesses that are most prominent or specific only to this film. The first thing you see when you start this movie is, well, a weakness that’s pretty specific to this film.
Remember the posters, with the crop circles, or even the box art with the unique font and the crop circle incorporated into the title of the film? Well, we don’t get that on the title screen. Nor does the title, which matches the credit sequence, display over a scene from the movie. No, instead we get a blue gradient background with black Times Roman text telling us what movie we’re watching. I’m pretty sure Mizz, my technical assistant, could have made them something a little more interesting if they had asked.
By the way, that is the last time that I plan to blatantly mention something from the Distressed Watcher’s review of Signs. This review is completely independent of that one, but I’d prefer not to overlap my comments if I can help it. The DW’s review was well done, and definitely worth a watch if you want some more commentary on the film.
Then we cut to a scene of dark playgrounds. On a bright, sunny day. Okay, then. The first scene quickly introduces us to Mel Gibson (who is just waking up), as well as Joaquin Phoenix, the younger brother of the kid from Home Alone, and Abigail Breslin, all four of whom are credited as the stars of this movie. I wouldn’t go quite so far, but that does sound like something M. Night Shyamalan would do. Apparently, Morgan and his little sister Bo were both scarred for life by watching The Sixth Sense at a young age, and can no longer show any emotion. That, or they were both miraculously unharmed by a train wreck. The same scene, just as abruptly, introduces us to another main member of the cast: the crop circles. I personally don’t have a problem with the crop circles here- yes, they’re a bit plain, but they are big, impressive and believable. Mel Gibson calls the police, but before they arrive, he also calls to check on the usual local culprits, who have an alibi (which we also find out via the So What You Are Saying law of on-screen phone calls).
When the police arrive, we’re treated to an emotional description of old lady Kindleman spitting on skateboards. In fact, this is the most interesting and emotional thing to happen yet! Wait, let me take that back. While Graham is talking to the police lady, we get it crammed down our throats just how precocious his children are. Rory Culkin tells us that what Graham is grilling is going to burn, and for the first of many times Bo complains about her water. The dog apparently agrees about the water, because he starts barking as soon as the kids give it to him. Or maybe not, because he’s barking at something off to the left. Supposedly the dog attacks the kids, but before suffering even a scratch, Rory Culkin manages to knock him out- possibly kill him, as they don’t name that dog by name again, despite continuing to have dogs. Even M. Night Shyamalan couldn’t figure out how to make this realistic, however, because by the time we cut back to the kids, the dog is lying on the ground and Rory Culkin is explaining to Mel Gibson what happened.
Not long after this, there’s yet another strange phenomenon- another scene about Bo and her water, and a strange, dark man outside the building at night. Mel Gibson wakes up Joaquin Phoenix to confront him, thinking he may be Lionel Richards (despite the fact that if anything, the trespasser looks like a dark skinned basketball player and is pretty much distinctive). Merrill comes up with a plan of attack, telling Graham to curse to indicate his anger. This leads to the signature line, “Well, it won’t be convincing. It doesn’t sound natural when I curse,” to which I replied, “it doesn’t sound natural when you speak, either”. Apparently, this does the trick, as Mel Gibson runs around the building, yelling and altogether making an ass of himself. What is it about M. Night Shyamalan that makes him take famous actors and squeeze every bit of acting out of them, putting only the dry husk on the big screen?
Most of the movie from here on is split into two equal parts. We get more scenes of character development- some of these could have easily been cut from the movie, although at only an hour and a half, these may even fall into the “filler” category. Most of these scenes focus on Bo and her water, and Graham and his past, although in town we also meet a pair of characters that exist solely for the purpose of expositing about Merrill’s history (one of whom. Learned to act. From 1960s’. Will Shatner).
The rest of the body of the movie is finding out more about the aliens. Rory Culkin picks up a book about aliens, which seems to exist for the purpose of explaining to the audience why the aliens act the way they do, thereby conveniently explaining the plot so that the action doesn’t need to. (Idea: this is where an explanation of the crop circles should have been!) We also have family news sessions and personal ones with Joaquin Phoenix, where we learn more about the aliens and the world’s reaction to them. This is necessary because apparently, after going to town that one time, the family no longer has any sort of contact with the world around them. They haven’t boarded up their house yet, but as their mind state gets closer to panic, they may as well have. There is one hilarious scene, just after before they stop coming out of their houses, where Graham meets an alien whom one of his neighbors has locked in a cabinet. He pulls a knife off the top of the cabinet, and right next to it is a stack of several chopped vegetables. They look too prop-like for me to want to eat them, but if you watch what Graham does to the alien and rewind, their placement there becomes utterly hilarious.
Before we climax, let’s take a look at the characters. It’s always good to know about the person you’re climaxing with, right? Especially if they have some kind of disease. Of character, I mean. Obviously. What else could I mean?
Youngest first. Bo is pretty much what you see on the surface, which is why every aspect of her character is constantly beat into our heads. She’s a little girl, meaning she cries, gets scared of things, and follows her brother. She doesn’t emote otherwise, she tells us about her dreams and she has a thing with her water. Yes, water again. Of course, there has to be a purpose for this, because why develop a character without it playing an integral part in the climax? That would be stupid.
Then we get to Morgan. He also does not emote- he’s probably the one who convinced his sister to watch The Sixth Sense with him as a child. He sometimes seems the most mature member of the family, such as when he told his father “you had a tone”, and generally acts like a child only when he’s blindly following his book on aliens. He also acts like a teenager- he’s got that “I hate you” thing down pretty well. Finally, Morgan has asthma- again, why develop a character if this isn’t going to be beat into our head repeatedly in preparation for its major role in the climax?
While I was preparing for this review, my father stopped by one day and, watching a scene where Merril was sitting alone in a closet, watching the news about the invasion. Having seen parts of the movie before, my father stopped and asked me, “Is he supposed to be retarded or something?” It took careful consideration for me to answer. Sometimes, he seems to be a regular person, except with a whole lot of overacting, while sometimes, I’m convinced that this character belongs on the short bus. It doesn’t really matter, though, because Merril’s primary purpose is to swing away.
As for Mel Gibson… well, Mel Gibson is a dick. He abandoned his faith in God and his life as a Reverend when his wife died (Gee, a man who should be married but is single. No, I couldn’t have anticipated that in an M. Night movie either), but that’s not what makes him a dick. The thing is, Mel Gibson spends the entire movie trying to act like a hardcore cynic of the sort that will yet at his children for daring to believe in something that he himself taught and promoted for their entire lives up until six months prior to the start of the movie. And yell at his daughter for crying after he yells at her for wanting to have a prayer during a freaking invasion. When Rory Culkin tells him “I hate you”, Mel Gibson says “that’s fine”. He then turns around and starts to tell them about when they were born.
Mel Gibson has been known to utter such endearing lines as “I hate you” (while looking in the general assumed direction of God) as well as having split second changes in faith, like when a flashback during the middle of the climax causes him to completely change his mind and decide that everything is, in fact, pre-ordained. For some reason, this fact is completely true, which just makes Mel Gibson even more the asshole when he starts praying for his son to have an asthma attack mere minutes after telling God how much he hates him. I should also point out that Mel Gibson is about as much of a believable reverend as Bruce Willis is a believable psychiatrist.
As for the visuals, this is the first M. Night Shyamalan movie to make obvious use of CGI, and I have to say it does not disappoint as far as CGI goes. I actually don’t mind the look of the aliens in this movie- they’re just similar enough and different enough from humans to be realistic, but still scary. Anything more would have been superfluous, and probably detracted from the effect these creatures had. My one complaint in this area is that the lighting is just unnecessarily dreary. I’m sure a small amount of this was due to the fact that I was watching Signs on a VHS, but definitely not all of it. You can’t build up tension if every scene looks the same.
What is Signs? Signs is a deeply flawed movie with too many contrivances, barely likable or unlikeable characters, and a primary selling point that is just dropped from the movie. Signs is also an effective emotional film that really gets you feeling the helplessness of the main characters, even if you never truly believe that any of them are not going to make it. It’s a movie where a wooden door can hold interstellar invaders- and the logic behind this is that they seem to have trouble breaking out of a cabinet, when locked in there with no maneuvering space or access to help or weapons- but it’s also a movie where the aliens really do look badass (even if trying to avoid seeing them leads to some ludicrous situations) and the scenes have real drama. Signs is a movie that is far better, and far worse, than The Sixth Sense or anything in Unbreakable. I do tend to prefer the extremes over the boring, so that makes this movie the top scoring film in the Shyamalonathon so far.