An original summer blockbuster told on a personal scale that explicitly challenges a nihilistic worldview while delivering genuine thrills and conveying a singular directorial vision is nearly nonexistent in today’s cinema. The rise of the global box office and the astronomical escalation of production and marketing costs have impelled studios toward excessive risk aversion. Personal, intimate films, lacking eye-straining special effects and cacophonous third acts of mayhem and destruction apparently don’t play well in overseas markets. Or so goes the conventional wisdom.
Director M. Night Shyamalan’s early work upturned that conventional wisdom and led to his being hailed as the most promising filmmaker of his generation. His masterpiece, The Sixth Sense, was a small midsummer release in 1999 that was not expected to do anything at the box office and instead became a runaway cultural phenomenon. He then produced two genre-bending, highly personal films, Unbreakable, which reinterpreted the superhero mythos years before the current comic book craze, and Signs, which presented an alien invasion story as an allegory for faith. Although in recent years he has weathered the disappointment of several misfires, he’s been steadily mounting a comeback and rediscovering his rhythm through “micro budget” thrillers, such as The Visit, Split, and the upcoming Glass.
Although these new thrillers may be effective in delivering jolts of adrenaline, what they lack is the depth of emotion and tender profundity of his initial hits. Take, for example, Signs, starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. Released fifteen years ago at the height of summer, the movie tells the story of Graham Hess (Gibson), an ex-reverend who has lost his faith after the death of his wife in a freak car accident. One morning, crop circles appear in Graham’s cornfield, the opening salvo in a worldwide alien invasion. But Shyamalan never shows the invasion. He sets the film entirely in Graham’s farmhouse and only hints at the invasion through snippets of TV and radio broadcasts. He does this for two reasons. First, keeping the aliens offscreen effectively heightens the suspense. Second, the movie is not about aliens; it’s about Graham’s search for meaning.
A critical dialogue occurs mid-way through the film that cuts to the story’s thematic heart. Graham is watching a news report with his brother Merrill (Phoenix) about mysterious lights that have appeared in the sky. Looking at the lights, Graham explains that people break down into two groups. Group number one feels that some higher power is guiding them in their lives, showing them signs that they are not alone, that “whatever’s going to happen, there’s someone there to help them.” Group number two, on the other hand, sees only randomness, only chance. “They feel that whatever happens, they are on their own.” Graham goes on to ask Merrill to reflect on which of the two groups he belongs to, leaving him to wonder, “Is it possible that there are no coincidences?”
Shortly thereafter, Graham tells Merrill in no uncertain terms that he is a member of group number two. Explaining why, he relates the inscrutable last words of his wife Colleen: “She said ‘see’. Then her eyes glazed a bit, and then she said ‘swing away’. You know why she said that? Because the nerve endings in her brain were firing as she died, and some random memory of us at one of your baseball games just popped into her head.” Graham lets that sink in for a moment, then he adds: “There is no one watching out for us, Merrill. We are all on our own.”
As paranoia mounts about the impending invasion, Graham struggles to keep his family calm. They continue their daily routines. Bo, his youngest child, has the odd habit of leaving half-filled water glasses around the house, never drinking them completely for fear that the water has become contaminated. Morgan, nearly a teenager, suffers from asthma and must always have his inhaler close at hand. Merrill is fully grown, but ever since Colleen’s death, he lives with Graham to help raise Bo and Morgan. He’s also a former baseball star with five minor league homerun records; one of his record-setting bats hangs in the family room of the farmhouse.
None of this means anything until the climax of the movie, when an alien creature infiltrates the farmhouse and attempts to kill Morgan with airborne poison. In a moment of revelation, Graham reconsiders the words of his dying wife: “Tell Graham… see. Tell him to see. And tell Merrill to swing away.” Frozen in terror as the alien accosts Morgan, Graham notices that Merrill’s mounted baseball bat is within arm’s reach of his brother. “Merrill,” he says. “Swing away.” Merrill understands, grabs the bat, and unleashes his overwhelming power as a hitter in direct combat with the alien. After absorbing several crushing blows, the alien collapses and knocks over a collection of Bo’s water glasses. The water burns the alien’s skin, revealing its fatal weakness. Meanwhile, Graham rushes to save Morgan, who has stopped breathing, and administers his asthma injection. With a rush of elation, Graham finally hears Morgan take a breath. The boy’s lungs were closed because of his asthma; none of the alien’s poison got in. “Did someone save me?” Morgan asks in a daze. “Yeah,” Graham answers, fighting back tears. “I think someone did.”
Shallow critics of the film complained that aliens allergic to water would never invade a planet whose surface area is composed of three-quarters of the stuff. This utterly misses the point. The movie is called Signs because it deals in symbols, metaphor, and allegory. The aliens aren’t aliens. They represent Graham’s personal demons—his fear and doubt and hate. The water isn’t mere water. It’s Holy Water, baptismal water, that cleanses his vision, helps him to see, and purifies him of his demons.
Even Graham’s farmhouse is a symbol. Brightly painted red, white, and blue, it indicates the commonality of his struggle, since everyone has wondered if life has meaning and direction or if it is simply random and chaotic. Even the most hardened skeptic, for instance, has looked over certain events in his or her life and entertained the possibility that a larger pattern was unfolding: “If that didn’t happen, then this wouldn’t have happened, which means I never would have met that person, who introduced me to this person” etc. We’ve all thought this way at some point, but the question is how much validity should we give it? This is the question Shyamalan is asking in Signs.
A superficial reading of the film might conclude that it advocates superstition and magical thinking. In fact, it’s using the phenomenon of pattern recognition to contrast two opposing worldviews. Perhaps we are nothing but the determined effect of atoms knocking about in the void, briefly awake in a universe running down toward chaos, lacking all intrinsic worth, where nothing ultimately matters. Or, perhaps we are players in a grand game, the rules of which we have yet to fully comprehend. Perhaps all the moments of our lives are connected at some deep level of reality that we can’t yet fathom, weaving together in a complex tapestry that we might recognize if we would only, like Graham Hess, learn “to see.” Plenty of evidence exists to support either point of view. In Signs, Shyamalan is challenging us to pick one.
Signs grossed sixty million dollars on its opening weekend, and went on to earn $408 million worldwide, on a relatively modest budget of seventy-two million dollars. That would be a stunning success for any film, let alone a film about aliens that’s not really about aliens but about an ex-reverend’s journey through an existential crisis. As Shyamalan continues his comeback, let’s hope he returns to the warm humanity of his early work, where the big questions of life are wrapped in slick summer entertainment. If he can do that, he will once again show Hollywood that what audiences truly crave are not noisy, safe, repetitive franchises, but meaning.
Image: Touchstone Pictures