Movies by the Minute: Signs

An ongoing series with rapid reviews about great movies

 See end of review for assessment:

A must see on the big screen,
Good show, but matinee would suffice OR
Watch movie, but wait for DVD

I absolutely detest alien films, and my passing all these years on M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller Signs is directly linked to my lack of awareness that this film isn’t about these creatures at all. However, when plopping down on the sofa in the midst of my son’s recent viewing of it, and he insisting on returning to the start, I was once more drawn into the world of Shyamalan. Having experienced a similar draw to his more recent Split, I didn’t resist, and was not disappointed.

Graham Hess, a former reverend and recent widower, begins to find crop circles in his Pennsylvania farm fields. Television news reveals lights and circles are appearing in other parts of the world as well, and strange occurrences support the family’s growing belief that aliens are mapping out an attack plan. Hess’s brother Merrill, who moved in to help care for his niece and nephew, provides some of the glue needed to hold the usually close family together as events move quickly toward terror and catastrophe. But Morgan—protective and loving toward his small sister—and Bo—whose quirkiness is matched to her demeanor—contribute as well, each one a key component within the path the family must take if they are to survive their ordeal.

In the telling of the story, Shyamalan’s genius shines through in just about every angle, something I later found many reviewers to miss. For example, when the family’s dog begins to act strangely, Hess says he will take him to the doctor, a non-vet. Morgan questions this, the father gives a semi-pat response and Shyamalan later provides a very significant clue as to why it plays out this way. This provides a very solid foundation not only for his reluctance to go to the vet, but is also linked, like so much else, to a central theme within the story. Moreover, it establishes Shyamalan’s ability to equally distribute information: it is viewer friendly in that the director doesn’t withhold information, though neither is there any need for spoon feeding. Indeed, this strength exists within a holistic framework wholly visible: as far as I could see, there are no extraneous scenes or occurrences; everything means something, as it should.

Also key to Signs is that the tale is told from the family’s point of view: we only know as much as they do, and they experience it all through the lens of their own encounters with life. This brings everything to a personal level as we begin to appreciate that these few days in their lives are intimately linked to what it means to have meaningful connections to other people and something larger than ourselves.

In turn, Shyamalan achieves this with such techniques as allowing us to use our own imagination. We don’t see huge cities aflame from alien battles with any nation’s air force, or disgusting attacks on people, replete with what I have an awful aversion to and call “moist noises,” the duty of which is to replace thematic elements with horror. Shyamalan has no need for this, simply because that isn’t the story he is telling.

Instead, the director relates a much more personal one in which unadulterated fear—not a Hollywood hyped version of it—questions what we think we know, and he applies this reflectively, though variably, as it would be in real life. As a character engages in an action, we expect a reaction—and it doesn’t come. It doesn’t come yet again, and still not. Then: BOOM! It comes and even the most jaded or confident moviegoer jumps in his seat at the reality that our knowledge is faulty. This is confirmed by the director’s fluid application of that technique, which as a by-product keeps the scenes fresh and thrilling, the tension palpable and even raw.

Signs is, in short, a magnificent thriller that hosts various levels and themes, created by a master storyteller wholly adept at angle, plot distribution and character development. This particular film’s genius—especially as related to the alien angle—is its point of view, as it takes us in a different direction to focus on the heart of the tale and addresses relationships, forgiveness, faith and hope, as well as what it takes to mend and maintain any or all of those. An eternal tale told by an absolute master.

Assessment: A must-see on the big screen

(Also a must-own Blu Ray)

Click the title to see our previous

“Movies by the Minute” review for Split

See below trailer for more on Signs

Still to come:

There is so much I could and want to say about Signs, which is why discussion on it will continue another day with the very one who introduced me to the film as we discuss various aspects, people’s responses, scene analysis and more. It will be, by necessity, chock full of spoilers and I will naturally post an alert.

3 thoughts on “Movies by the Minute: Signs

  1. Pingback: Movies by the Minute: Molly’s Game – before the second sleep

  2. This is possibly the best movie review I have read. Not a media warm hand on the director’s nether regions but rather an honest appraisal of why Signs is a hugely overlooked movie.
    If nothing else it makes me want to see it with fresh eyes.

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