One thing you can say for M. Night Shyamalan as a popular entertainer in a great tradition: he knows how to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. In a ghost story like The Sixth Sense, that was pretty much all he had to do. But with Signs, he has taken on what — for Americans, anyway — is a much bigger subject: our national obsession with extraterrestrials and the promise of more new worlds that they represent. With a ghost story you only have to skirt the edge of the greatest mysteries; with aliens you have to have a whole theology, and that’s one of the two major problems with Signs: the theology is confused and obscure and at times almost ridiculous, as his aliens prove to have rather too much in common with the wicked witches of The Wizard of Oz.
To me, however, the more serious problem is the film’s disregard for Occam’s Razor, or the principle that entities must not be multiplied unnecessarily. And Occam might have added, if he’d thought of it, that alien entities in particular must not be multiplied unnecessarily. In other words there is way too much going on here. With his customary skill in plotting, Shyamalan makes use of all, or nearly all, the details he picks up along the way, but there are still far too many of them. In fact, by my count, there are an even dozen separate movies compacted into Signs, which makes for cramped quarters (to say the least) for what I take to be the main one, which has to do with the loss of faith by Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) a widowed priest, presumably of the Episcopal denomination, and farmer from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, after the death of his wife in an accident.
Along with number one, however comes,
2. The story of the crop circles that appear in Graham Hess’s cornfield and elsewhere throughout the world and which prove to herald an alien presence, mapping some kind of world takeover. Number two movie should stop with that, otherwise the “signs” of the title are merely incidental and not the central focus, and the hints and forebodings could generate quite enough fright by themselves. Instead, Shyamalan goes on to. . .
3. The story of the alien invasion itself, which is defeated (or at least postponed) by an unexpected vulnerability in the aliens. Again, the War of the Worlds element is more than enough for a movie, but this one is spoiled by the feebleness of the device of the alien vulnerability when it is revealed. Shyamalan himself recognizes this implicitly when he has a news report tell us (and the main characters) that “the battle turned around in the Middle East where three small cities there found a way to defeat them. We have no further details at this time.” Of course, this is even feebler.
4. The story of the tension between such world-shaking events, the stuff that gets on the breaking news bulletins that interrupt regular programming, and one family’s closeness, memories and personal attachments. This movie is hinted at in Graham’s putting, in some sense, the importance of his dead wife above that of the fate of humanity. There is a nice counterpoint to it in his respect for the determination of his young daughter, Bo (Abigail Breslin), to preserve the videotape of her ballet recital though the world might depend on a willingness to record over it.
5. The story of Graham’s brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and his curious approach to baseball. As a minor league slugger who never quite made it to the big leagues he was always striking out because “It felt wrong not to swing.” There’s certainly a whole movie in that one sentence.
6. The story of the daughter, Bo, who turns out to be clairvoyant and whose startling abilities to see into the future may or may not guide her troubled parent through the dangers either to the family or to the world.
7. The story of the curious book by someone called Dr Bimboo, of which Graham’s son Morgan (Rory Culkin) appears to possess the unique copy and which proves accurately to foretell the behavior of the aliens.
8. The story of the guilty veterinarian, played by Mr. Shyamalan himself, who accidently killed the late Mrs Hess with his SUV when he fell asleep at the wheel. His own crisis of conscience and overwhelming sense of guilt which must finally seek a reconciliation with the neighbor he has injured is plenty of material for a movie by itself.
9. Even more ample material is provided by the theme of the world’s return to faith in response to (presumably) an apocalyptic feeling excited by the supposed alien invasion. Former parishioners seek Graham out for spiritual advice even though he tries to disown his priestly past. Wouldn’t this by itself, even if there were no actual aliens, make a potentially interesting movie as Graham had come to terms with the fact that his own pain could not be the sole datum on which his faith or lack of it might rest?
10.The story of how a piece of luck, first bad, then good, may or may not be coincidence. In other words, even apart from Graham’s crisis of faith, the movie could be said to make its own statement of faith or unbelief on the basis of the randomness or otherwise of fortune. A conversation between Graham and Merrill about the two kinds of people, those who believe in luck and those inclined to favor some kind of design, sets the stage for this movie, but it gets lost among all the rest.
11. The story of the boy Morgan and his anger against his father. “I hate you. You let mom die,” he says at one point — which is rather too interestingly close to the way that Graham feels about himself. But this resentment turns out to be just a bit of grit in the machinery, to disappear when the occasion suits, instead of being given the attention it deserves.
12. The story of the relationship between the brothers, Graham and Merrill, as suggested by the taciturn and brooding Merrill when he finally bursts into something like articulate speech: “There’s things I can take and things I can’t,” he says. And “one thing I can’t take is when my older brother, who’s everything I want to be, starts losing faith in things.” As with Merrill’s idiosyncratic approach to batting, there is way too much in this for it to be just dropped into the conversation and then forgotten.
In addition to these twelve, we might even add a thirteenth in the story of Graham getting his faith back. This would have been better as a separate movie from number one, which invests too much narrative energy in his loss of faith for this account of his regaining it to seem other than contrived. It turns out, that is, that his wife’s babbling last words contained a significant warning that would save the survivors from, well, something less earth-shaking than an alien invasion. In any case, the story of Graham’s anger at God and its final deflection by a sense of His presence could have been dealt with and, I think, much more effectively dealt with, without recourse to an exotic threat posed by aliens in the backyard.
But then it is undeniable that it is the aliens in the backyard and not crises of faith, however adroitly handled, that get the kids to come out to the multiplex.