Culture > Movies

Signs of meaning

Movies | It's not Providence, but director M. Night Shyamalan seems intent on convincing us that everything has a purpose

Issue: "Ghost busting," Aug. 24, 2002

M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN LIKES to flout convention. The first of his string of recent hit films, The Sixth Sense, was a horror film/ghost story, without any haunted mansions, decapitations, or even, in the traditional sense, any ghosts. The director followed this breakout hit with a movie about comic books and the birth of a superhero. Yet Unbreakable, which, like the first film, starred Bruce Willis, didn't have any big explosions, flashy villains, or men in tights. Now, with the release of Signs, Mr. Shyamalan is asking his audience to buy an alien invasion movie in the vein of War of the Worlds that's almost completely lacking in ... aliens.

And, judging from the roughly $120 million Signs (rated PG-13 for frightening moments and some bad language) has grossed in its first two weeks of release, Mr. Shyamalan's audience is buying it. This may be partially the result of star Mel Gibson's appeal and Mr. Shyamalan's reputation for surprise endings, which began with the highly publicized twist at the end of The Sixth Sense. But it's also due to Mr. Shyamalan's undeniable skill. He is building for himself a canon of supernatural genre films that root the fantastic in the ordinary, and, despite their effective suspense, always have something beyond simple entertainment in mind.

Like all of Mr. Shyamalan's films, most of Signs' plotting and suspense depends on the element of surprise, so it's unkind to go into too much detail here. The basic plot revolves almost entirely around a single farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania. Mr. Gibson plays a former Episcopal minister who left the clergy after the death of his wife in a tragic car accident. He lives with his two young children-a son and a daughter-and his younger brother, played by Joaquin Phoenix. One morning Mr. Gibson awakes to find a mysterious pattern stamped into his cornfield-the apparent "signs" of the film's title.

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As the story moves forward, Mr. Gibson and his family learn that these crop circles are appearing in other parts of the globe, and world attention begins to focus on their significance. Other strange events begin to suggest that humans did not create these patterns-and that they might signify some impending doom. However, the family's connection to the outside world is limited to television. Mr. Shyamalan forcefully keeps the focus of his story on Mr. Gibson and his farmhouse.

Signs is certainly hokey, but Mr. Shyamalan is so clever about not showing his audience too much, and pulling back at just the right time, that the film never approaches the laughable level of a typical summer event movie. For one thing, Signs takes itself much more seriously than most such films. In many ways, it has more in common with 1950s B-grade alien-invasion movies than more recent, ironically detached films like Independence Day. As a result, a surprising number of scenes in the film are genuinely frightening (making the movie too intense for younger kids).

But the really interesting thing about Signs is the way it fits into Mr. Shyamalan's filmography thematically. It is becoming increasingly clear that his films are elaborate puzzles designed to convince Mr. Shyamalan-and his audience-that life has meaning: that some overarching plan guides everything that happens to us. The two earlier films mentioned above were more limited in this respect, content to find a single justification for existence amid the chaos of the unknown.

Signs goes further, pushing the ideas of purpose and meaning into the realm of an organized worldview. Mr. Gibson's tormented priest has lost his faith in a God who could with apparent cruelty take his wife's life. He no longer believes in "signs"-the other obvious meaning for the film's title-that point directly to a power and a plan higher than him.

So Mr. Shyamalan sets out to prove Mr. Gibson (a believable Everyman whose performance anchors the film) wrong. Although much of his "spiritual" plotting is heavy-handed, it is intriguing to see such a focus brought to this type of film. And it is certainly remarkable to see the idea of faith upheld as an indication of strength, not a mark of weakness. Of course, there's no biblical God here, so it is important not to give Mr. Shyamalan too much credit. Spirituality, in the generic sense, is in no way synonymous with Christian faith.

It's fascinating, however, that Mr. Shyamalan feels so compelled to "prove" the idea of the spiritual. Mr. Shyamalan's dependence on the supernatural, and on puzzle-driven plots that so neatly fit together, may expose his desire to do on film what he is unable to do in real life.


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