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The thing with Signs, about an alien invasion coordinated through crop circles, is that it isn’t about that, despite how hard the film and the marketing try to make us believe it is. It’s about fear and expectation, facing a truth we are afraid to accept and while there are hints of destiny and belief at play for the audience to interpret on their own, ultimately, this is a movie about the strength to carry on.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who has gained a reputation of sorts for failing to live up to his debut films, Signs is arguably the best film he’s made, both technically and narratively. A master work of suspense and terror, Shymalan breaks with convention in surprising and clever ways, making us believe we are watching a standard sci-fi thriller but in fact taking it in a new direction right under our noses. The small-scale production and outright insistence on keeping this a local story while a global one is happening is genius. Devoid of big budget visual effects and bombastic set pieces that are the signature hallmark of alien invasion movies, this is one family’s experience in that larger tale and the choice to keep it there makes all the difference. That begins and ends with Shyamalan’s highly-skilled used of tension and build-up, his constant plucking on a single string that vibrates with sensational effect. While there are several excellent examples of how well this works, one moment in particular is especially good and reveals the key to the whole story.
Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) runs a large farm in Pennsylvania with his younger bother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). Graham has two young children and a dog and lives in the countryside. Of late, a series of odd occurrence are causing concern, including shadowy figures atop the barn, animals becoming unusually aggressive, his daughter Bo decorating the house in full glasses of water, and most importantly, the crop circles. News reports tell of strange lights in the sky around the world, until finally, there is video footage of a being, captured on film in Brazil, a creature that blends into the trees. We are being invaded.
Graham has not seen the footage. He is experiencing a personal trauma, which I won’t reveal here, and it has him questioning his faith and finding reason for having hope. He visits a neighbor, played by Shyamalan, who has a significant part in this grief, and discovers him in his truck sitting in the drive. He is bleeding. They share a revealing moment and the man tells Graham ‘they’ don’t like water and so is heading to the lake. He has caught ‘one’ in his house. What that one is piques Graham’s interest and he goes inside alone, still not convinced that what’s happening is real. That’s about to change. There is an alien in the pantry.
It starts with a shot of Graham facing the front door to the neighbor’s house, itself now representative of fear and the unknown. Does one enter and face these horrors or simply choose to turn away. It’s a classic plot device seen in numerous films, most famously in Star Wars as young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), under training from Yoda, enters the dark forest to face what unknowns he must. Inside the house, Graham approaches the kitchen where he sees overturned chairs. There has been a scuffle. Across the way is the pantry door. It is blocked by a large wooden table and a chair stacked on top. A light from beneath the door shines in the otherwise darkened room. A shadow crosses the light.
Graham, clearly anxious, utters a “hello” toward the door. When he speaks, the shadow stops. Nervously, Graham then lies and says he is with the police and that they only want to talk with him and they know about the hoax. He is met with silence. Graham is speaking in wishes, of course, hoping that his hoax theory is true, but there is a lingering, nagging shred of foreboding to it all that lends him to think otherwise. He kneels and lays his head upon the floor to see into the pantry but there is nothing. He then spots on the counter beside him, freshly cut vegetables and a large kitchen knife.
Pay attention here because Shyamalan leads you on one path but travels another. Every single person watching sees the knife as a weapon and what every single person would grab and use to start fighting. Even the way Graham grips it off the shelf feels aggressive (Shyamalan adds a distinctive ‘blade’ sound that harkens to countless movies of men unsheathing swords). In the knife’s clean broadside, we see Graham’s reflection, and are given a clue to his intent. Rather than start swinging, he presses the blade to the floor under the door and uses it as a mirror. Graham isn’t thinking weapon. He’s thinking tool. It’s an important distinction. We are scared because the story, the framing, and the tone–all perfectly constructed by Shyamalan–make us so. Graham however, is not. For him, this is about something different. He’s confronting demons (the fact that Graham is a preacher might be another clue, metaphorically or not, that the ‘aliens’ themselves are demonic in nature).
In the blade’s mirror finish, we see bottles of condiments and soups but no alien, and suddenly, Graham pulls the knife back, sets it on the counter again, stands up and walks quickly out of the room. This is crucial as it reflects his hesitation to fully face what lies right at his feet. It mirrors, for lack of a better word, his same attitude toward the crisis in his heart and the truth about his pain. Shyamalan handles this with brilliance, never moving the camera from the fixed position on the floor, essentially a view from under the pantry door out.
This is also the turning point. For a moment, Graham stops in the hall and ponders, then with extreme conviction, returns to the kitchen, wields the knife again, and gets down on the floor. This time though, as he looks to see under the door, a hand reaches out from the light; four spindly, gray-ish fingers emerge and appear like a claw. He reacts with a single hack of the blade. With the echo of both man and alien screaming, it cuts to a shot of a cornfield with a swarm of birds taking flight.
Before I discuss the birds, let’s briefly breakdown what the alien hand represents. You’ll notice that Graham actually doesn’t see the creature in the knife as he (and we) are expecting. Instead, this time, the alien reaches out, forcing Graham to react. We learn later that from the hand, these aliens can secret a toxic vapor that subdues (or possibly kills) its victims. It is by the hand of fear that the victim falls. Fear is coming for him. Graham literally strikes at that hand, removing two digits and thus starting his defense and beginning his empowerment.
Birds in film often represent something ominous, harbingers of an approaching doom or disaster but here, represent something more. The cut from Grahams’s discovery to the chaotic flush of birds taking to the sky express the character’s absolute and irrefutable acceptance of the truth. Once nestled in the safety and obscuring shadows of the corn, the birds are now in the open, able to see and be seen. This is a significant metaphor as Graham moves forward, a shift in his attitude and approach. This has bearing on not just the truth about the aliens but his feelings toward the tragedy that befell him and how that moment will shape the fate of the story. Freed of the burden of cynicism, he suddenly can see the ‘signs’ all around him, and how they lead him to the right path.
M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan
Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin