SIGNS. Shyamalan, Gibson, Phoenix, corn and aliens

Of all his films, the director remembers Signs as the film that was the easiest for him to write and shoot.

Lukasz Budnik

4 June 2023

How to tell about aliens to intrigue, but not to fall into ridicule? M. Night Shyamalan must have asked himself this question when preparing for Signs. Of all his films, the director remembers Signs as the film that was the easiest for him to write and shoot. The script was created in six months. The proven cinematographer Tak Fujimoto was again behind the camera, while Shyamalan again did not refuse a guest appearance in front of her. It was supposed to be a typical Shyamalan film, but about unusual things. The creator clung to a specific concept, according to which he wanted to show the alien invasion from the perspective of the family. What came out of it? A very clever film and certainly one of the best films in the career of this Indian director.

Shyamalan used to joke that it was his most popcorn movie. For once, it’s a classic summer blockbuster that met the needs of the audience, eager for interesting, shocking and, above all, exciting cinema entertainment experienced in the company of popcorn. Two, that the signs are close to the corn. The story takes place on a family farm. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a former pastor experiencing a crisis of faith, and his younger brother (Joaquin Phoenix) find mysterious signs in a field. What at first resembles the work of a vandal, in its genesis begins to go beyond the borders of this world. All signs in the sky and earth point to aliens. So it’s time to prepare for the invasion.

Although the subject matter of the film clearly refers to the tradition of contact fantasy, including, above all, the famous War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (bacteria harmful to aliens were replaced with water), for Shyamalan, however, the greatest inspiration was Hitchock and how he was able to instill anxiety in the viewer. In this respect, Signs was supposed to be close to The Birds. The director even recommended his cast to watch the film several times so that they could better understand how they should convey the atmosphere of danger. However, there is one more significant connection between the 2002 film and The Birds. The heroes are confronted with a threat that defies rational judgment. Suspense develops very slowly here, at first the events do not bear the hallmarks of anything special. Only when aliens enter the scene does it become legitimate to ask the key question: what do I believe?

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The character played by Mel Gibson is struggling with this question. Due to the experience of the tragic death of a loved one, he ceased to consider wearing a clerical collar and preaching the Word of God as legitimate. The drama written on the actor’s face is interesting and poignant when you consider that he has not often had the opportunity to play this kind of depressed and confused fathers. Supposedly, Shyamalan hired Gibson because, as he says himself, he is a guy we immediately believe would defend his family at any cost. This effect, in my humble opinion, was rendered in the form of Hess. It is also worth paying attention to the acting of Phoenix, who both here and in The Village showed a completely different side than in Gladiator two years earlier. Just as the famous Commodus became the harbinger of the actor’s very expressive creations (see Joker), so in Shyamalan’s Phoenix, he played the less expansive and socially withdrawn characters with great freedom.

An interesting fact is that Shyamalan insisted that Mel Gibson’s face should not be on the poster. In this way, he wanted to dissociate himself from the success of The Sixth Sense, which, as we know, was promoted with the face of Bruce Willis. Gibson was entrusted with the role of an ordinary man who was placed in a very unusual situation. It’s the theme, its mystery was supposed to attract viewers to the screens. However, Gibson put the most important point in understanding the meaning of this story in Gibson’s mouth. There is an endearing scene of two brothers talking in front of the TV in the film. The elder brother outlines the dualism functioning in culture. Events like the appearance of mysterious signs in a field, a UFO visit or an attack by bloodthirsty birds can be interpreted in two ways – rationally and magically. The first approach assumes that no matter how strange the cases walking around people are, they can be explained in a logical way. This approach therefore precludes the intervention of superhuman strength. It denies the existence of God.

The second approach, in turn, advocates that nothing in life happens without a reason. No matter how difficult life situation we find ourselves in, there will always be someone or something who will extend an umbrella of care over us. The main character, due to the trauma of this second approach to life, almost completely renounced it, recognizing that he was on his own. And here we come to the clou. The director himself once emphasized that, according to him, what scares the most about the Signs is not so much the unknown intentions of the aliens, but the fact that it shows that a good person can lose faith in God and communication with him. Only the plot twist creates an opportunity for enlightenment, showing how many small cases in our lives are able to meticulously build a grand plan.

Therefore, the title of the film should be understood in two ways. A sign is what is visible to the naked eye, a tangible reflection of reason. A sign is also a signal sent to us by fate, a blink of an eye, a suggestion that something like destiny really exists. Regardless of the cliché, I was captivated by this metaphor.

Łukasz Budnik

Lukasz Budnik

He loves both silent cinema and contemporary blockbusters based on comic books. He looks forward to watching movie with his growing son.

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