Worth A Look: 21.56%
Pretty Bad: 15.6%
Total Crap: 18.12%
13 reviews, 358 user ratings
by David Hollands
M. Night Shyamalan is a director who knows exactly what kind of film he wants to make, how he wants to make it, and what it should say. His previous works were strikingly beautiful and near-perfectly crafted. Could he possibly shoot three for three with Signs? The answer is a resounding yes.Graham Hess lives on a farm in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania with his two children Morgan and Bo, and his brother Merrill. Graham is a former reverend, having left the church after his wife was killed in a tragic car accident. One morning, he wakes up to the screams of his children, and promptly heads to see what’s going on. He discovers his children wandering around his corn crops, and asks what they are doing. Morgan comments that “he thinks God did it”. When Graham looks over, he discovers that something has left a huge crop sign in his corn fields, quite the huge one, and so perfect that it couldn’t possibly have been done by human beings. This is only the beginning of what will soon become a full-blown alien invasion, with the Hess family caught right in the middle.
"Signs of greatness fill this film."
Signs is a movie which wants to let its audience have a good time. Indeed it does, because it does not insult our intelligence with stupid characters and idiotic situations. The film tries different tones, which is possibly the most risky element of the movie. As anyone may know, trying to combine many different tones in one movie could become a huge disaster. Signs takes an even larger risk by trying to be a horror/comedy/drama. Three different genres, mostly uncommon and hardly ever used in the same sentence. The fact that it succeeds brilliantly is reason to get excited.
What filmmakers don’t realise is that comedy should be used lightly to keep the tone from becoming too oppressive for an audience member. By not having a break in the tension, the constant onslaught of terror becomes boring. Shyamalan is wise to include the different tones, and he is also wise to treat them with respect. Never does the drama or the comedy contradict the horror. Much of the humour is used wisely to break the tension. Many times there is a funny moment when a character says something indicating the ridiculousness of the situation, or another when a character says something amusing to calm down the children (and the audience). Little moments stick wonderfully, like when the kids don aluminium foil hats to prevent the aliens from reading their minds, little Morgan’s obsession with a baby monitor that picks up the sounds of the extra-terrestrials, and Merrill allowing himself to become the most affected by the situation.
This is a movie which feels real. In fact, Shyamalan stays with the family at all times, never going away to show us another part of the conflict. The paranoia aspect is shown how any individual would experience it, through televisions and radios. This increases the fear, as we watch this family becoming more and more afraid every day, and because these are such strong characters, the whole premise seems much more credible. Basically, this is a movie which feels completely real, even though the premise seems extremely outlandish.
There's no doubt that Shyamalan is one heck of a great director. Instead of having the aliens simply come to Earth and start blowing sh*t up, he restrains himself, and has them sneak around and remain in the shadows most of the time. There are moments in which Shyamalan uses subtle noises and shadows to increase the tension. This is always the best way to go, since it keeps the mystery of these creatures alive, and doesn’t spoil the film by having them shown too early on. Aside from his excellent scare sense, Shyamalan is possibly one of the best cinematic directors working today. Just as he had demonstrated with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, he prefers a calm camera, not one constantly moving with crack-addict subtlety. He stays on long takes, allowing maximum tension to immerge from any scene. It is his keen eye for visuals which makes Signs work far better than it has any right to. He never rushes anything, always keeping the exact same pace throughout.
James Newton Howard provides Signs with a score that has many different levels. Using three simple notes as the harmony, and creating different versions of those three notes, he has created a powerful score, full of tension and emotion. He is possibly one of the only composers out there who can create sugar-sweat music and not make it seem melodramatic. Many times throughout the film, there are moments which may have seemed overblown, being a part of the simple “feel-good” movie. They aren’t, because both Shyamalan and Howard show restraint to simply show children crying, and using sad music with the crying. In fact, there are many passages in the movie with no music at all, as Shyamalan likes using dead silence to force us to listen to every single little creak and groan.
Howard scores the horror scenes with a frightening violin attack. His work here recalls the best of Bernard Herrman, and reminds somewhat of the piercing strings during Psycho’s shower scene. The musical stingers here come hard and fierce, and are sure to inspire quite a few jumps. But Signs isn’t only about jump scares and stinger attacks; it is about establishing a mood, and Howard does this with extreme grace. He understands Shyamalan’s visuals, and writes music which is just creepy as Hell. Never does he get into useless Scream-like stuff with loud crescendos that try to be scary by being as loud as they can. Simple is truly terrifying, and Howard has done something nearly impossible here: he has actually created a horror film that can truly be described as beautiful.
Performances are the most important aspect of a movie, and Signs features another typical Shyamalan ensemble cast. Rory Culkin as Morgan, Graham’s suffering son, is magnificent, giving one of the most emotional performances of the year. Along side him is cuddly little Abigail Breslin, who really seems to be able to put herself into a scene. She certainly follows direction very well, and it is surprising that she is able to cry so well. On the adult side, we have Mel Gibson and Joaquin Pheonix. I must admit to not liking Gibson’s performance as Graham Hess that much when I first saw the film. I found it very low-key, and Gibson didn’t seem to be able to get into a scene. But then I understood why Gibson played his role in such a fashion. Graham is a man who lost his wife, and is in the process of losing the respect of his family as well. His son doesn’t really like him that much, and his daughter constantly annoys him with her peculiar water habits. It would be natural for him to be a bit low-key, and possibly even cynical, towards life. And it was only on my second viewing that I realised that had Gibson given us a performance filled with cinematic theatrics, the whole film would have failed, for it would have felt like a performance and would have completely shattered the atmosphere Shyamalan had set up so successfully.
Joaquin Pheonix redeems himself for Gladiator with a performance that is a lot of fun. Much of the humour comes from this character, though it is never so noticeable that it makes the film look like some sort of bad slapstick comedy. Pheonix’s performance is very emotional, and he has a great ability to put himself into a scene. When watching him onscreen, I get the sense that there isn’t much ego present. He’s not trying to steal the film away from Gibson, he is trying to improve it, and he does so in expert fashion.
This movie was undoubtedly a disappointment to some because of its main plot, which does not actually concern aliens that much. In fact, the creatures are re-located to an almost sub-plot like role. Indeed, the main message to be found in Signs is one of faith. I have a thought that perhaps these aliens came to Earth in order to help reinstate Hess as a Reverend. Hess recently lost his wife to an accident, and he is a man who believes that there are no coincidences, that everything is a part of some larger plan. This idea is brought to the surface many times throughout, especially in the conclusion, where certain traits of the family will end up saving their lives. The death of Hess’ wife also plays a huge factor in the conclusion, in which it is revealed that she may have died as a warning of the invasion. The invasion itself appears to be something that was carefully prepared. The aliens are defeated in the end, almost proving the idea that God or some higher form of being caused the whole thing, only to have the creatures beaten in the end, which would restore many peoples' faith.
There is also element to Signs which seems like a flaw. For example, the aliens have a weakness towards water, so why would they come to a planet that is 70% water? In the film, the aliens leave the planet at some point because the news casters report that people in the Middle East found a primitive way to defeat them. That could mean that the aliens were un-aware that water was, in fact, damaging to them. This fact is later proven when a glass of water falls on an alien’s shoulder. The alien reacts to it in a surprised manner, and was already aware of the water in the room, meaning that he had no idea that water could harm him.
****END OF SPOILER WARNING****Signs was easily the best film of 2002, and it will remain as such until the day I die. The acting was perfect, the direction sublime, and the music was heartbreaking. The film is pure enjoyment all the way with humour, wonderful drama, and stuff that really makes one think. And unlike so many modern horror films, it is actually scary.
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originally posted: 01/06/04 12:15:19