How Signs is Both Awesome and Misunderstood
I turned on the TV on Saturday night to see that Signs was about ten minutes from being over on TNT. I was so disappointed at having missed the thing that I threw the DVD on, utterly spur-of-the-moment. I LOVE Signs.
And yet, many people are frustrated with or critical of this movie. I remember when it came out, people in my college dorms were complaining about it and people in the breakroom at the department store where I worked were complaining about it. It suffered from comparisons to The Sixth Sense, the movie its writer/director, M. Night Shyamalan, made first, although I think it’s at least as accomplished as that one. Here, then, is my answer to the common criticisms of Signs.
The alien looked fake, or its critical soul mate, Aliens aren't scary because they don’t really exist. I found it very strange that the same people who embraced The Sixth Sense were unwilling to go that same journey with Signs. “Do you believe in ghosts?” I always asked them, and usually they said no. Ghosts onscreen are seemingly more believable because they are people and look like people; aliens are CGI or puppets or people in costumes. We don’t see aliens walking down the street; it’s an unfamiliar sight, it doesn’t fit the naturalistic surroundings of live people in a farmhouse, thus it looks fake. That’s my explanation; my response is, “Get over it! It’s a movie.”
The movie relies too much on coincidence. I remember reading this in a professional review when this movie came out, as the major reason the reviewer felt that the movie didn’t come together. I don’t remember who the reviewer was, but if he or she considered this a problem, he or she fundamentally misunderstood the film.
Coincidence in this movie—the fact that the boy has asthma, and the little girl leaves glasses of water everywhere, and that the wife, just before dying, gives cryptic advice that will ultimately save them—is not coincidence, get it? Coincidence is revealed to be the hand of God, the plan of God. It could not have been made simpler. “That’s why he had asthma,” a line spoken by Mel Gibson near the end of the movie, means “that’s how he was saved by God, through what we originally believed was an arbitrary medical condition, but what we now know was a gift that would pay off when it was needed.” He even says, in the middle of the film, and it’s repeated at the climactic moment: “What if there are no coincidences?” Exactly.
I don’t buy movies where God plays a role like that. If that’s too stupid for you, well… Sorry. See above, re: the alien looks fake. Not being able to suspend disbelief for the purposes of enjoying a movie is a different problem. Thousands of ghost movies, alien movies, angel movies (It’s a Wonderful Life season has just concluded), mermaid movies (who loves Splash?), hobbit movies (the Lord of the Rings franchise did pretty well, no?), and even other God movies (Dogma, Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty) are out there to be experienced. Accepting one premise and not another just seems silly; refusing to engage with any movie that portrays events that couldn’t literally happen is preposterous.
If the wife knew the aliens were coming, why didn’t she just say, ‘aliens are coming—you can kill them with water’? Entertainment Weekly said this, I remember vividly. Again, an insane oversimplification of what actually happens. The wife doesn’t know aliens are coming, and she doesn’t know that what she’s saying will eventually save them. In fact, that moment is probably just as Mel Gibson’s character later describes it: “nerve endings in her brain firing randomly.” Except, randomness, like coincidence—in this movie, at least—is God. Signs from God.
Mel Gibson just made this movie so he could push his conservative religious views on me—I didn’t know it for another few years, but we eventually found out that that’s what it was! Uh, yeah, maybe it was? Who cares?
Oh, OK, I’ll give this a real answer. Yes, movies with stealth agendas—especially those with which I disagree—are incredibly annoying. But the message of this movie is a basic and inoffensive one: “there’s a God, and He has a plan.” Gibson’s character was a minister, but had given it up once his wife was killed, either because he didn’t believe in God anymore, or because he didn’t want to serve a God who would take away his wife in such a disturbing manner. (Seriously, it’s disturbing. She dies horribly because she takes a walk.) When Gibson recognizes God’s plan, he has his faith restored and returns to his calling. It’s touching! Regardless of your views on organized religion, it’s touching.
Here’s what the movie doesn’t do: suggest that Gibson and his children are saved because they believe in God, or because they have been specially chosen by God. There are also no non-believing characters in the movie who are there just to be killed, which is usually how the stealth agenda presents itself. The religious belief of the central family is just incidental. They’re not meant to be compared to anybody because people outside the immediate family unit are really not important at all to the movie. The film represents a global crisis, but we only see the experiences within the walls of one family home. This movie was made almost immediately after 9/11 and, for that reason, it had a lot of resonance: how the familial ties (or community ties) can be strengthened by a mutually shared tragedy. In 2002, Shyamalan took the country’s pulse, and built a tense, pristine, awesome monster movie out of it. How often does something like that happen?
This movie began M. Night Shyamalan’s descent into suckage. Clearly not. His next movie did.