Thursday, September 03, 2015

The Shyamalan Series: Signs (2002)

M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002) is a science-fiction movie that concerns a very human, very grounded subject: perceptual sets. 

That’s a fancy way of describing sight, you might say.

We all choose, based on our perceptual baggage or sets, how we interpret events in life, and then we see and comprehend life according to the limits or boundaries of that particular perceptual set. 

At times, we actually erect perceptual barriers that preclude us from clear vision, either out of fear, suspicion, or even grief. In some cases, that perceptual set is dictated by selective exposure, the common tendency to expose one’s self to information that merely reaffirms existing attitudes, even if the data contradicts the facts.

Accordingly, a key moment in the Shyamalan film involves a lengthy monologue by the protagonist, who describes two kind of people in this world, and their particular perceptual sets.  One brand of people doesn’t have faith, and believes he is alone in the world…that there is no help when danger arrives.

The other sort of people have faith, and view their lives through that perceptual set. These folks believe that when push comes to shove, they are not alone. They are loved and looked after. Someone stands beside them; perhaps God.

The key protagonist in Signs is Father Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), and he is a typical M. Night Shyamalan protagonist in the sense that -- much like Malcolm Crowe, David Dunn, Elijah Price or Mr. Heep -- he has fallen off the intended trajectory of his life. He is off-course from his true destiny.  Because of this, he is both sad and rudderless. He faces each day with despair and emptiness instead of hope and promise.

Specifically, Hess is a man who has lost his faith because of the tragic death of his wife in a meaningless car accident.. He can no longer bring himself to believe in a kind, loving, shepherd-like God.  All he sees is a universe that rolls the dice. The film’s narrative drags Hess from this starting point of despair and nihilism -- because he can’t see his purpose anymore -- to a point where he can, finally, “see” a form of universal order again. 

Thus Graham overcomes, at great difficulty, the perceptual barriers that he has erected.  But he does so only when he recognizes the “signs” that a greater force is looking out for him; only when aliens arrive on Earth to threaten the human race, not to mention his family. At this juncture, Graham finally sees the world beyond the barriers he has created; when he chooses to acknowledge a perceptual set, a way of seeing that changes his mind (and restores his faith) about God.

Signs features a number of images that reinforce the notion of perceptual sets or baggage, and the barriers they can create for the percipient. In short, those barriers prevent us from seeing important things.  For example, the film features a preponderance of shots involving windows on the Hess farmhouse. 

The book-end visuals of the film feature a window too (facing the backyard and corn field). The inaugural shot of the film focuses on this portal, specifically.  It is a barrier of wavy glass; distorting the imagery beyond. The picnic table, hearth (a symbol of family) and other objects appear wrinkled, unreal, untrue to what they should be when viewed through this pane.  This portal is a direct metaphor for Graham's sight at this point in the film. He is seeing the world, but in a twisted way.

Then, at the end of the film -- after Graham’s awakening -- that same window is seen once more.  

This time, however, it is broken, meaning that life can be seen accurately “through” without distortion.  The waviness is gone.  Notice also the darkness/light differences of these book-end shots. Early on, Graham is aimless in gloomy night.  By the film's end, it's a new day.

Another way to put it: Hess has metaphorically punched through that window pane, overcome his perceptual baggage, and found his true meaning or destiny once more.  The windows and other barriers in the film serve as our “tell” that this story concerns the distance Graham has created from his true self, and the impediments he, himself, has created to seeing things in the way that, perhaps, he should.

As I’ve written before, I generally find critics unduly harsh to M. Night Shyamalan and his films. Why? They tend to nitpick every little thing in each story.  And even the best storytellers are hard-pressed to explain everything that occurs in their stories.  Many critics, then, you might say, have erected their own perceptual barriers when it comes to a film like Signs.

They ask questions about the nature of the aliens and their invasion, instead of focusing on M. Night Shyamalan’s visual expression of his theme; that our “truth” is dictated, in large part, by our perceptual sets and barriers; by what we select to see and acknowledge. We all look out on the world through windows, both invisible and not, and they don’t show us the truth; they show us our interpretation of it; what we have already chosen to “see.”

I won’t mince words about Signs, or the high regard I carry for the film. I believe the highest aesthetic in film is to match a good theme (like the one noted above), with a trenchant, reinforcing visualization of it.  That’s my own perceptual baggage, you can conclude. A film’s imagery or symbolism must reflect or augment that which the story tells us. Signs absolutely achieves this apotheosis, and more than that, is a beautiful and arresting film -- visually and narratively -- about opening oneself up to a new or different way of seeing. 

Now, some viewers might see the film as something else: a story explicitly re-affirming the mystery of faith. That’s fine too, if that's how you lean.  Yet I view Signs primarily as a film about finding your purpose, and overcoming the perceptual luggage you haul around with you on a daily basis.  It’s not so much that you must have“faith,” it’s that you open your eyes to the “signs” the universe is putting out. If you're closed down, shut-off, lost in your own anguish, you are not open to such signs.

In my reviews of the films of M. Night Shyamalan, I have focused largely on two ideas. 

The first involves protagonists bereft of purpose; seeking their place in an unsettled or disordered universe.  The second quality is some commentary on the art of storytelling itself.  Although the latter factor is less pronounced here than in other Shyamalan films, Signs makes a point about it too. 

At various points in the story, the Reverend Graham stops to tell his beloved children stories about how they were born; their origin stories, as it were.  “Tell me the story of when I was born,” Morgan says at the height of the movie’s alien invasion. 

Why does he ask for this?  

Because there is predictability and comfort in a story you know well; in a story you’ve been told many times.  We may see the world through a set of perceptual baggage, but sometimes that baggage also fulfills a purpose.  It grounds us.  It humbles us. It tells us who we are, or who we can be.  And Graham, certainly, must undertake the task of remembering who he really is, in the course of the film. He remembers Morgan's story, but he has forgotten his own.

In his stories, Graham contextualizes the children -- Bo and Morgan -- in terms of their beginnings on this mortal coil. Stories are another way that we, as human beings, get to know people, or, oppositely, pigeonhole them.

Stories tell people where they come from, and who they are; or who we think they are. So our perceptual sets include the stories we have heard all our lives, and Signs plays delicately with this idea.  At one point in the film, we even see a drawing of a farmhouse much like Graham’s in a UFO book…as it comes under attack from alien ships in that illustration.  This drawing suggests another important “sign” to interpret, a story of “truth” outside the selective exposure (self-reinforcing ideas) I mentioned above in regards to Graham’s world view. He comes out of his bubble of longenough to realize, "gee, that looks a lot like our house..."

Dazzling, scary and affecting on a pure human level, Signs is the third straight Shyamalan cinematic home run in my book, and mostly because it pinpoints a symbolic way to help us experience and understand Reverend Hess’s journey.  We all peer through our individual windows and judge life in our own way.

What if that way is wrong?  What if we're missing signs all around us?

“We should keep all possibilities available.”

In Pennsylvania, an ex-reverend, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) mourns the death of his wife in a meaningless accident.  

Six months have passed, and he feels alone, and confused, much to the sadness of his brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and children, Bo (Abigail Breslin) and Morgan (Rory Culkin).

Soon, however, Hess must attempt to shake off his pain, because something strange occurs.  In the corn field behind his farmhouse, a strange crop-circle has been carved by unknown and possibly malevolent forces. 

As TV news reports soon indicate, such crop circles -- navigational aids, seen from space? -- are being detected all over the planet.  Before long, a fleet of strange lights are detect in the sky over Mexico City.

Is Earth being invaded by aliens?  

And if so, how can a despondent Graham summon the inspiration and strength to save his family when he can't even save himself?

“There’s no one watching out for us, Merrill. We are all alone.”

When I consider Signs, I think of two things: windows and the television sets.  

In a way, they’re the same thing; they're connected.  A TV set is actually a window of sorts, isn’t it? Much of Signs involves the idea of seeing through distorted lens, and that’s what the aforementioned “wavy” window to the backyard represents. 

But that’s what the TV is too.  

Throughout the film, we see the family’s TV set in close-up, insert shots as news breaks of strange crop circles, lights in the sky, aliens, and alien invasion.  In the post-9/11 world, how we relate to images on TV is a significant idea.

Are the aliens a hoax?  Can we trust our eyes?  That’s a key question in the film, because Graham clearly does not trust his eyes.  He knows of Bo’s obsession with water glasses, for example, but doesn’t see how it is relevant.  He also knows of Merrill’s success in baseball, but doesn’t understand his wife’s comment to “see” and for Merrill to “swing away.”  

These are, in a way, perceptual clues like those featured on the TV; ones that can initially be dismissed or judged a hoax, or even unimportant.  To put it another way, Graham has some evidence of signs throughout the film (like the familiar farmhouse in the UFO Book…) that there is a kind of synchronicity occurring in his life, but he writes it off as unimportant, or as fake. He has selected the idea that life is meaningless, so he omits from his view anything that could be meaningful. He selects not to believe.  It’s a very complex equation, and yet consistently applied throughout the film.

Even when the alien first invades Graham’s house, the being is first seen as a reflection on a television, as a view through a portal or window of sorts. I suspect this  visualization occurs because of the film’s ultimate viewpoint that we all “see” the world through windows, accurate or false (like the wavy bedroom window pane). Before we face the alien -- who has chameleon-like qualities and thus deceive sight -- we see him on the TV...the box through which we look out to see the whole, wide world.  

Why introduce the alien in the house in this way?  Perhaps because this image is a reflection of how we see everything, through a particular lens.  And perhaps to remind audiences that TV is not an honest narrator. We think what we see on TV is real, but news programs don't always have all the facts, or have all the facts right.

In some way, Graham’s journeyin Signs is about acknowledging the interconnection of his family, too.  He has retreated into isolation and despair, and isn’t really “present” for his children when they need him.  There are many shots included in the film where wein witness this separation in terms of visualization. 

At one point, Graham sits on a staircase, separated from his brother and children and neaby the bannisters.  They might as well be prison bars. They visually acknowledge the distance he feels from his loved ones, and that they feel from him.

Oppositely, Graham and his family get closer to the truth, it appears, when they are close; when they are connected and work together towards common cause. '

There’s an immensely creepy scene in the film early on during which Graham, Merrill, Bo, and Morgan form a human chain -- touching hands and arms -- and it is only then, when they are as one, that they get a clear signal on the baby monitor of the alien speaking.  

Again, the visuals enhance the film’s story in a remarkably deep way here.  Graham thinks he’s alone, and wallows in despair, and when he is separated from his family, they feel it too.  But when the family works together -- when it toils towards common goals -- pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place.

Critics who dismiss Signs outright are simply not acknowledging or reading the visuals, not understanding how this story of overcoming perceptual baggage or barriers is imagined in terms of how Shymalan sees, and asks us to see.  

Everything we need to know about Graham’s heroic journey is encompassed in the pictures, in the visuals of the film.  We see his distorted vision. We register his separation. And we see our resolution, his rejoining with his family.

I know why people complain about Signs.  I do. I hear it and read it from sources I respect and like all the time.  Apparently, these good folks are disturbed by the fact that the aliens don’t have technology, are stopped by wooden barricades and doors, and choose to attack a planet rich with water. 

Most of this criticism is hooey. 

We never truly get into an examination of the alien culture in the film. Indeed, that would be a different story all together.  We do know that the aliens want to take humans, and preserve the planet itself so its resources are available to them.  These points of exposition explain the simple reason they attack us without technology, or even wearing armor.  They land on Earth and use only “ground tactics,” according to the film’s dialogue, fearing a nuclear reprisal.  Is it so hard to believe that aliens would be blocked by the same conventions that block us, another form of biped? We also can’t break through wooden doors and locks, right?

The silliest complaint about the film involves water.  Why would the aliens come to Earth, a planet rich in water, if it is harmful to them?  

Well, again, the answer is the same: they’ve come to take humans. Humans live on Earth, both far and near water.  One might similarly ask of War of the Worlds, why would aliens invade a planet with so many germs that might kill them? Why didn't the Martians pick a different planet, either?

Well, in both cases Earth is available and valuable. It possesses life and resources.  That is why it is a point of ambush and siege in both stories.  

Similarly, we never see the aliens invade near bodies of water in the film.  A graphic on television actually reveals the opposite, actually. We see a map of India, and the crop-circle locations are pinpointed.  Notice that the marking are all inland, miles from water. It’s true that India is surrounded by water on three sides, but those pinpointed locations have no bodies of water near them.  

So the aliens know that water harms them, but that they can still attack humans in place not near bodies of water, especially population centers. Why didn’t they factor running water into their equation?   

Again, tell me why the Martians didn’t count on germs in War of the Worlds?  Aliens are from a different place, and understand us, perhaps, as well as we understand them. Why do all movie aliens have to be omnipotent?  Where is it written that this must be the case?

These criticisms represent the kind of selective elitism that infects so much science fiction fandom and film criticism.  We instnatly accept the idea of vulnerable invaders in War of the Worlds who succumb to germs, but in Signs?  Suddenly it’s death by a thousand nitpicks. 

Signs succeeds as a work of art in another significant way as well.  It builds suspense efficiently and relentlessly.  

Some folks will tell you the moment of highest suspense fails because of the whole aliens-getting-killed-by-water idea is a no-bo, but few will state that the film doesn’t flawlessly, brilliantly build suspense towards that finale.  This movie is scary, and tense to the extreme.

Signs also features two of the greatest jump scares of the early 2000s.  

In one (the first) Graham looks out Bo’s window at night, and is surprised to see a monster of some sort staring back at him.  The sudden appearance of that thing will send cold shivers down your back. But the view is so quick and startling that it fits in well with the movie's theme of sight.  Suddenly, we're not so sure of our eyes.  Did we really see that?

The second scene is truly terrifying too, though in a more overt way. We watch news footage on TV, captured at a birthday party in Mexico City, of an alien stepping out into plain view.  This shot that is beautifully set-up and executed. Shyamalan films it found-footage style, meaning it feels immediate and real. Yet the effects also hold up incredibly well.  

There is a malevolence and character in the stride of that monstrous thing as it comes into view, and lingers there.  I swear I see disdain on its features as it pauses to acknowledge it has been seen.

It just doesn't care. 

In an under-cover way, the alien appearance and personal also fits in with the fallible alien theory I stated above. Overconfidence and superiority-- hubris -- might be a quality of these beings, at least based on the way they attack the Earth, and venture into populated territories.  

Regardless, I get an electric jolt of terror every time I watch these two scenes. They work on me every time. 

Moments such as these are orchestrated with an eye towards maximum impact, and prove -- again -- that if M. Night Shymalan wanted to operate on the simple basis of jump scares or rollercoaster ride-style horror storytelling, he could easily choose to do so.

But pretty clearly, that kind of superficial terror doesn’t interest him.  

What does interest him? 

Lost souls.  

People who have wandered off the path, and can’t find their way back. These poor wretches are trapped in the metaphorical woods by their perceptual baggage, and that’s the key point to understand.  They can’t see beyond a narrow viewpoint to realize they can achieve their destiny. The assumptions they carry with them are wrong, and they don't find out this fact until the denouement and the pieces come together.

Signs doesn’t have a trick ending in my book, either. For the duration of the picture, Graham Hess sees through a barrier of wavy glass. He can’t see the whole picture. Then, when the signs are acknowledged, he punches through that window, that perception of reality, and in floods the sunlight of belonging and meaning and hope.

So Signs is really the story of a man stepping into a larger world than the one he believed he existed in, told in unimpeachable visual style.

There are two kinds of people, as Graham would tell us at this juncture.

You can be the person who sees this movie, and decides that it's simply about aliens who can't open doors, and get hurt by water.  

Or you can be the kind of person who opens himself up to the storytelling and symbolic imagery. You can register the movie as a deep and often profound look at the way humans see and don't see the important things around them

As always, it's your choice. But I'm in the second group.

Tomorrow: The Village (2004).

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this great review. It seems whenever I tell people how much I love this film, I get shouted down about the aliens, the technology they don't have, and the water. In one particular case, I was at a business lunch where a salesman was attempting to peddle his wares. One of the guys on my team broke the ice talking about movies and I mentioned that I had recently seen "Signs" and simply recommended it. The salesman blew his stack and started railing on me about how stupid he thought the aliens being affected adversely by water was and why would they bother coming to a planet where water is so prevalent. Needless to say, he didn't make a sale. I can't figure out the near anger that "Signs" brings out in those who dislike it. Do they really believe they have found some huge plot hole?!?

    I wrote this a few years ago on a blog. It''s not as eloquent as what you wrote, but I'm pleased that I was on the same track...

    This M. Night Shyamalan effort centers on the Hess family, who's lives are shaken by an alien invasion. The best thing about "Signs" is the dialogue between Graham and Merrill Hess, played by Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. The lessons each of them have learned about life, and how an alien invasion brings out their emotions and their opinions, is well done. "Signs" manages to be funny and quite frightening, as well. There is some truly scary imagery, both on the Hess farm and on TV news reports.

    The biggest knock on this movie is the problem many viewers have with how the aliens are fought. Many viewers leap to the conclusion that because the aliens have invaded Earth, they must be so technologically advanced that they couldn't have made a miscalculation. This sounds like spin but I actually enjoy the movie immensely for the idea that the aliens have gotten in over their heads. And what if the aliens gathered up humans for consumption and not to conquer the earth? Perhaps they were quickly harvesting people for food and sent down workers to gather them up. Maybe they knew they had a very limited time to loot the earth. They got what they needed knowing they would suffer casualties and then left. The key here is that nothing is known about the aliens so why do people jump to the conclusion that the goal was for the aliens to take over the earth?

    Regardless, the movie is about destiny and faith, and the alien invasion is a tool used to present them.