Make no mistake; Signs was a huge movie back in 2002. In fact, it was the biggest original/non-sequel of that year (notwithstanding Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man if you count that as “original”). It was writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s third picture, who was looking to score a hat-trick after the overwhelming positivity that welcomed his first two movies, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. And even though Signs was undeniably a smash-hit, how much of that was down to the adulation lavished over The Sixth Sense? Or the allure generated from the (then) A-list pairing of Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix?
It seems in the 15 years that have passed, everyone has all but forgotten Signs. I don’t hear any murmurings of special commemorative editions or see it place on any top-100, let alone top-10 lists. So the question I pose to the jury is, is Signs worth another look?
I may speak alone, but I think not only is Signs worthy of your reconsideration – but also your consideration – when it comes to discussing the greatest sci-fi films of all time. We praise the vision of 2001: A Space Odyssey; the unrelenting isolation of Alien and the poetic film-noir of Blade Runner, but whereas they are praised for having the foresight to depict their stories in visually arresting futures, Signs literal down-to-earth approach to storytelling seems like a weight stopping it from lifting off with the greats.
It’s easy to forget Signs is becoming a bit of an oldie now (it celebrates its 15-year anniversary today,in fact), so for those reading who may not have seen it, here is a brief run-through of the premise; the film focuses on Graham Hess (Gibson) and his family – consisting of his two children and brother – who live in a farm house in a rural spot in America. We learn Graham is a beleaguered man-of-faith, nursing the loss of his wife which has shattered his beliefs. When mysterious circles appear in his crops and later in fields all over the world, Graham must protect his family from the growing reality they’re a doormat for a hostile extra-terrestrial invasion.
Right from the title cards, Signs is creepy as hell. The score by James Newton Howard is so unnerving in how it transcends from subtle/ominous strings to a full-fledged attack on the senses which literally had the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end as a kid 15 years ago. I think the only opening credits that have shook me this way since were for Insidious, which I would not be surprised to learn may have been inspired by Signs due to their similarly simplistic but highly effective nature.
But Signs is supremely chilling in the absence of James Newton Howard’s huge orchestra as well. M. Night Shyamalan is right at the top of his game here as he builds dread so slowly, demonstrated in such a scene that sees Mel Gibson’s character investigate his crops with nothing but a torch under some faint moonlight. Shyamalan relies on nothing but the sound effects from bristling crops in the wind and some odd noises that may or may not be something, yet the suspense is palpable. Countless scenes are drenched in build-up (Joaquin Phoenix’s Merrill Hess watching a disturbing birthday party video on a portable TV and Mel Gibson playing good cop/bad cop in a neighbour’s pantry are two that come to mind) and always have a pay-off. Jump-scares have bagged a disconcerting reputation in movies these days, but the ones in Signs are gloriously earned by Shyamalan’s highly susceptible film-making.
With Signs you really sense this family are in peril. And you care. I’ve read a lot of reviews through the years that criticise the core theme of faith as being contrived or pretentious yet with a title as metaphorical as “Signs”, what do you expect? I find the film to be, from the very beginning, unashamedly wearing faith on its sleeve. It’s the intimate story of a family overcoming the odds – and an alien invasion just so happens to play some part in that. I rank the scene at the dinner table in the film’s third act – a last supper of sorts if you will – as among the best acted in the sci-fi genre. Mel Gibson who is so understated up until this point just turns into an emotional powerhouse and the way he embraces his children, whom are stricken by grief and fear, is genuinely moving. The scene relaxes for a moment when Gibson pulls in his on-screen brother Joaquin Phoenix for a hug; but not allowing you to enjoy the heart-warming moment for too long, Shyamalan cranks the dial up to 11 again as the baby monitor starts blaring Alien chit-chatter…
Signs has it all for me. Where do you stand on it? Let us know in the comments. Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or are you that kind that would have had Bo adopted for leaving so many damn cups of water all over the house?