Signs

Signs 2002

By popular demand, we delve once more into the back catalog of wunderkind-turned-byword-turned-mercenary director M. Night Shyamalan. 

This blog’s reviews of Sham’s Eastrail 177 Trilogy chronicled the rise of an earnest auteur, his fall to hubris, his delayed redemption, and his subsequent relapse. But twenty years ago, Shyamalan was riding high on a string of hits with Christian undertones. 
The Village presented those themes so subtly that many viewers missed them. Sham’s reasons for soft-pedaling the Village‘s Christian message almost certainly arose from reactions to its predecessor, 2002’s alien invasion thriller Signs.
M. Night Shyamalan film review ahead. That inevitably means spoilers. If you somehow missed this nineteen-year-old megahit, continue at your own risk.
As a screenwriter, Shyamalan is forthcoming about his liberal use of tropes. Most fans point to Unbreakable as the most trope-heavy Sham flick, but that distinction really goes to Signs. True, the main characters in Unbreakable are superhero archetypes. In Signs, every character is an archetype.
To prove my point, I’ll write this review without using a single character’s name, and you won’t be confused.
Ready? Here goes.
A Lapsed Pastor still grieving over his Lost Lenore manages a farm and the rearing of his two children–Waif Prophet boy and Oracular Urchin girl–with help from his Strong Silent Misfit brother. Their already upturned lives are further rocked when crop circles turn up in the cornfield.
Lapsed Pastor suspects Punk Kids at work. But escalating weirdness, culminating in videotaped proof, reveals the anomalies as reconnaissance performed in advance of an alien invasion.
With their world falling apart in a figurative and literal sense, the Pastor and the Misfit try to put the potentially apocalyptic events in context. Lapsed Pastor makes a speech wherein he divides people into two categories based on how they explain tragedy: Providence or dumb luck.
When the chips are down, Lapsed Pastor admits he hates God for taking his Lenore. All seems lost, but a whole arsenal of Chekhov’s guns strategically placed throughout the film–including Lost Lenore’s dying words and water glasses set up by Oracular Urchin–goes off, saving the day.
Tragedy turns out not to be senseless after all. God was working through secondary causes to bring good from evil the whole time.
Okay, unlike Shyamalan’s misunderstood masterpiece The Village, Signs deserves some of the grief it gets from critics. As a parable tackling the perennial dilemma of theodicy, it’s hamfisted and glaringly on the nose.
What’s more, Shyamalan rigs the game in his favor by giving multiple characters prophetic gifts on a one-off or ongoing basis. You show Providence by having a character suffer a broken leg which makes him miss his trip on the Titanic; not by putting a reminder to swing a baseball bat in six months on his dying wife’s lips.
The problem with Signs‘ Chekhov’s guns is that they serve no purpose other than their highly contrived role in the final act. In the original example, the gun isn’t hung on the wall just so the story’s specific murder victim can be shot. It needs a plausible reason to be there, like the owner being an avid hunter.
Those comments don’t break any new ground. Lots of critics made the same observations and panned Signs as a result. Writing off the whole movie due to one clumsy plot device isn’t fair, though. Critics eat up plenty of other films with even more overt messaging. I suspect much of their disdain for Signs springs from the fact that its message is explicitly Christian. At least one prominent review I remember from back in the day made no bones about the critic’s anti-Christian bias.
An honest take on Signs will acknowledge the all-around solid performances, pitch-perfect tone, expertly crafted mood, and flawlessly executed horror sequences. Sham has mentioned The Birds and Night of the Living Dead as influences on Signs, and he evokes the steadily heightening tension of both admirably.
These years later, Signs remains Shyamalan’s most explicitly Christian film. The backlash against it probably led to its successor being his most covertly Christian film. It’s worth watching, if only as an antidote to the oppressive Death Cult ethos trumpeted by most Hollywood pictures these days.
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