In this week’s re-view, Stevi Costa addresses her shifts in faith, reassesses M. Night Shyamalan’s insistence on casting himself in his films, and scolds the film for a particular thematic inconsistency.
I want to believe in a lot of things: in extraterrestrial life, in the paranormal, in magic. I want to believe in all of those things because Fox Mulder believes in those things, in the search for unattainable truths. I, too, want to adorn my basement office with a poster of a UFO bearing that phrase: “I want to believe.”
But a thing I gave up on believing in around the same time that I fell in love with David Duchovny was organized religion. At the time, I don’t think I recognized the potential contradiction in my willingness to believe in the existence of aliens, but not in the existence of god. I remember a religious retreat we had to attend in 8th grade when I admitted to my classmates that I wasn’t sure I believed that there was a god because the evidence simply wasn’t there. Despite the support of the retreat leader (who was probably some 16-year-old altar boy from a local high school), I was certainly told some awful things by my classmates for sharing my lack of faith. So, you know, that whole “love thy neighbor” thing was obviously working out really well for them. What seemed different to me about religion was that it was so immaterial. I felt certain that the paranormal existed because I had seen it and experienced it, as had other members of my family. (Ghosts I’ve seen/heard/felt: my grandfather, my first dog Trixie. Ghosts my grandmother has seen/heard/felt: her mother Anna, her aunt, her second husband Ed.) I had never experienced god in the same way, and so it was more difficult to believe. My loss of faith was gradual, not sudden.
But a gradual loss of faith does not a good movie make. And so M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 Hitchcockian alien invasion thriller Signs investigates the Mulder-Scully crisis of “where do I put my faith” through Mel Gibson’s widowed preacher, Graham, who abandons his faith in God and leaves the church after the death of his wife. The plot of the film is simple: crop circles mysteriously appear in rural Pennsylvania (and, we’re told, all over the world); aliens arrive; Gibson’s family is threatened; One kid almost dies, one dog actually does; Gibson figures out aliens are allergic to water due only by sheer coincidence; aliens leave; Mel Gibson learns to be a better father to his children and returns to the church. There is, of course, character tension between Gibson’s Graham and his brother Merrill (played by Joaquin Phoenix at his hunkiest) regarding the possibility of alien life, and Graham’s decision to leave the church. In spite of the horrible thing that happened to Graham’s wife, Merrill still believes in God — and apparently everything else. For Merrill, having faith in one inexplicable thing means it’s necessary to have faith in all inexplicable things.
I like Signs as a personal story about a man’s loss of faith and the journey he takes to find it. Shyamalan’s writing is so abundantly obvious that there is no mistaking the purpose of chance/coincidence in the film: it’s the work of God. Of course little Rory Culkin’s Morgan is asthmatic and Graham and Merrill forget to bring his inhaler to the basement when the aliens enter their home: how else would his airways be blocked enough to keep the vengeful alien (angry that Mel Gibson severed two of his fingers when M. Night Shyamalan locked it in a pantry) from murdering the innocent child with its poisonous gas emissions? Of course little Abigail Breslin’s Bo has an obsession with drinking clean water so that the house is laden with nearly-full glasses of water: how else could the water get knocked onto an alien and harm him, thus causing Graham and Merrill to uncover the secret to alien destruction? Of course the only thing Graham’s wife could say to him while she was dying was, “Swing away, Merrill”: how else would Joaquin Phoenix know to grab his baseball bat and dramatically break glasses of water with it to squelch the alien invader? The narrative of Signs tells us that none of these things are sheer coincidence. They are, in fact, signs from God that signal our fate. The trial and tribulation of battling an alien invader in his own home is enough to convince Graham that Things Happen for a Reason (which I guess includes M. Night Shyamalan’s drunk-driving veterinarian killing Graham’s wife, because that whole, “Swing away, Merrill” thing couldn’t have been figured out any other way), and at the end of the film, he happily dons his collar again and returns to the church a new man.
I liked this film ten years ago because that’s a very tight, clean narrative that makes its point without being too preachy about it. And the fact that it made a point about God via aliens was certainly a big selling point for me back in 2002. I still admire the conviction with which Shyamalan pursues that narrative, and it remains one of the stronger, more cohesive pieces in his filmography.
In 2002, the chief complaints about Signs were the extreme logical flaws and the design of the aliens. These things do not improve over time, but I’ve come to understand them more in the 10 years since I first saw this film. Regarding the logic, the question that’s often been raised about Signs is this: why would an alien species intelligent enough to invent space craft, and skilled in enough in cartography to map out landing areas on the group for their comrades to see from space, not have realized that Earth is 70% water — especially given that water is the fatal flaw? Logically, there is no good answer to this question. But Signs isn’t a film about logic, so I’ve been wrong to hold it to logical standards for the past ten years. The films only logic is Things Happen for a Reason, so I have to assume that this critical oversight happened because the aliens were not meant to take up residence on Earth. It simply was not Meant To Be. Alternatively, the logic of Signs is also about finding God in the everyday (in a misplaced inhaler, in a toppled glass of water, in a baseball bat), so the solution to the alien problem being in something that is within the protagonists’ grasp is nothing short of a miracle that proves the existence of a higher power.
The aliens in Signs are crafted out of some of the shoddiest CGI available in 2002. I would have rather these aliens been actors in monster suits like the actors who played any number of ghastly creatures on The X-Files in the early seasons. Seriously, Flukeman is far more frightening than these aliens are, and Flukeman was created out of rubber in 1993. Their presence is laughable and jarring against the realism of the film’s settings, and shitty CGI from 2002 really does not hold up well against contemporary standards. But I have to admit that even in 2002, I found the shoddiness of the aliens in Signs to be mildly effective. These aliens were aesthetic nightmares who, in their formlessness, were actually very affective. Sometimes, when I would talk to my best friend late at night on the phone, I would see the shape of those aliens in the darkness — and that was far more frightening than the appearance of the aliens in the film. The image haunted me. I actually think of these shoddy aliens quite often because their lack of crisp, CGI definition makes them more comparable to ghosts. They’re more like specters of what aliens could be, which is what makes them frightening. But that’s also where they fail: the aliens in Signs are supposed to be embodied presences, corporeal threats that could kill, maim, destroy, capture, probe or whatever aliens actually do. But even when the alien is holding little Rory Culkin in his arms, threatening to gas him, it’s not very threatening at all because there’s nothing bodily about them. Think about the way they walk in the film. We don’t see it much, but their footfall appears less like a stride and more like a glide or a float. Considering this, Signs could easily substitute a ghost for an alien to tell its story about how Mel Gibson got his religious groove back. So why tell a story about aliens at all?
In a post-9/11 USA, the alien from outer space invading the heartland/homeland is an analog for the alien from outside the USA causing terror within. But as if that weren’t enough, Signs makes it clear that outsiders of any kind aren’t welcome within the world of the film. Cherry Jones’s police chief suggests that the crop circles in Gibson’s cornfield might be the work of someone not from the town because some outsiders had been “causing a ruckus” at a local restaurant a few days prior. Later, Jones’s character suggests that the presence of non-locals within the town has started to change the character of the town, as evidenced by a sweet old woman suddenly spitting on people who anger her, which Jones explicitly blames on outside forces. Then, of course, there’s Shamalyan himself, who once again takes his ambition to be like Alfred Hitchcock a bit too far when he takes the director’s cameo and turns it into an acting role for himself. Shyamalan is the one brown body that appears in the film, playing the town veterinarian who, as it happens, is also responsible for the car accident that killed Gibson’s wife. If the theme of suspicion of outsiders wasn’t palpable enough from the presence of crop circles and Cherry Jones’s comments, it’s crystal clear when Gibson, Phoenix, Breslin and Culkin stare at Shyamalan from inside a restaurant as he drives by. The director’s character is villainized because he’s a drunk driver, but his skin color adds some additional layers of meaning to his villainy. Yes, he killed a woman, and that’s wrong, but the film also codes his brownness as wrong: for rural Pennsylvania, and for “America.” Shyamalan’s “out-of-placeness” was not lost on me ten years ago, but back then I thought of it as a casting misstep that disrupted the realness of the town. In other words, I’m a better close reader now than I was in high school.
But if the extra terrestrial is an analog for the extra-American, this leads me to a newfound problem with Signs: the way the film attempts to situate a deeply personal narrative within the context of global crisis. We learn early on through news reports that the crop circles are happening all over the world, and we are fed news footage of the growing alien invasion at key points throughout the film. It is clear that the threat of the alien is a problem on a global scale, and yet the world of the film is intensely small: there are four major characters and two minor characters, and all of the action takes place in a single home, save for two trips to other locations. Signs is, first and foremost, a film about one man’s search for faith amid a crisis, but for Graham, the crisis in which he lost his faith and the crisis through which he found it are both personal ones. Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix aren’t out trying to save their neighbors from aliens, or helping the little Brazilian children they see on the news. They’re protecting their homestead, their personal property and the people they love. There is no greater concern for our main characters than their immediate surroundings, and the emphasis on global crisis suggested by the news footage seems extraneous matter in an otherwise tight story. This, too, seems to problematize the film’s construction of the alien-as-other: how are we to read the presence of extraterrestrials, who are coded as non-native and racialized in the rural Pennsylvania context, when their ships are hovering above Bangalore or Mexico City? Is the point to say that we’re all alien others? If so, that erasure of difference is intensely problematic. Is the point to draw out the 9/11 allusion and say that the US isn’t the only place that experiences catastrophes? If so, that’s definitely true, but then why tell the story in rural Pennsylvania? Why make a movie that’s so American? The tension between the homefront and the global front interested me the most on this viewing, because I can’t quite figure out what it’s meant to do for the film. As a viewer who has invested a lot in the main narrative, in the small world of the family home in rural Pennsylvania, I am immediately distrustful of the intrusion of a global world view on my neat American story. But perhaps that’s what Shyamalan wanted me to think all along.
Swing away, Merrill. Swing away.
The foley effect of people running through corn will always remind me of The X-Files: Fight the Future.
Cherry Jones gets a great line that has many valences for this film. I’ll let you choose the ones you like best: ““You can’t describe it at all. Don’t you think that’s kind of odd?”
So, Mel Gibson is in this. And his public breakdowns make this film hard to watch — especially the scene at the dinner table where he screams at his children during their last meal together. Back in 2002, I would have called this a moment of “Capital A Acting” (a term I use when someone is giving a really powerful performance, which I apply to both intensely real scenes and scenery chewing alike). But now it reads as though it were a place where he began to slip from 90s action star/everyman/heartthrob into crazy/sexist/anti-Semite. I call these moments where an actor’s public life overshadows their ability to do their job to the point where you only see the actor in the role and not the character the “Actor-Function.” Gibson’s Actor-Function definitely overtakes him in this dinner scene, but otherwise, he’s actually pretty good in this film.
When Gibson and Phoenix try to scare the assumed “out-of-towners” off their roof, they run around the house screaming. Phoenix’s character screams about beating the shit out of bitches, while Gibson’s announces in a monotone yell that he’s “insane with anger” and “losing my mind.” Switch their lines, and they’re detailing their own public breakdowns. Creepy. Prescient. Everything Happens for a Reason.
Michael Showalter is in this. Unexpected joy.
I really love the pantry scene. That’s a great Hitchcockian moment of suspense.
There’s some nice design work on the house set in this film. A lot of the glasses Abigail Breslin leaves strewn about the house have circular patterns on them, which are echoed in the window treatments and, obviously, the crop circles in the corn field.
Wrote this in my notes, verbatim: “Alien skin is reflective . . . is that because we see ourselves in the alien other? Derpaderp!”