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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Signs (review)

Points of View

[very important: no spoilers!]

Depending on your particular point of view, Signs is either a celebration of the redemptive power of religious faith or a condemnation of the magic-obsessed mindset and childish wishful thinking (that is to say, religious faith). I’m inclined to take it as the latter, because that’s my particular point of view. But the really brilliant thing about Signs — okay, one of the really brilliant things — is that it may indeed be all things to all people. It may be the perfect movie in that everyone who sees it will find their own particular point of view validated.

Or else it’s being really wishy-washy and can’t take a stand on anything.
I suspect it’s brilliant, though, partly because if I myself find anything worth worshipping, it’s the creative genius of people like M. Night Shyamalan, at whose feet I am not worthy to grovel. He finds the groove in stories that have seemingly been told a million times by Hollywood alone in just the past few years — the ghost story (The Sixth Sense), the superhero story (Unbreakable). He finds the new thing to say, and the new way to say it, or the old way that feels new if only because everyone else seems to have forgotten the old way.

So if your particular point of view involves just going to the movies to have a good time, and never mind all this blather about Important Ideas, then you will find this particular point of view validated by Signs. This is science fiction like no one tells it, not onscreen, not anymore (except maybe by Andrew Niccol, but I’ve done enough groveling for now). This is a small, contained tale about a big, big thing happening to the entire planet Earth, a tale about just a handful of people — a widower and his two small children and his brother — in small, contained places that keep getting smaller and more contained. This is the flip side of Independence Day or even a flick like Eight Legged Freaks. This is not the whole town or the whole planet pulling together to battle the big bad whatevers in the face of certain extinction. It’s one little and broken but good* family retreating into itself when the going gets tough.

I can’t tell you much more than you’ve already gathered from TV ads and theatrical trailers. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson: Chicken Run, The Patriot) lives with his kids, 12ish Morgan (Rory Culkin: You Can Count on Me) and 6ish Bo (Abigail Breslin), and his brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix: Quills, Gladiator) on a farm in rural Pennsylvania. His wife died six months earlier, and this caused the then-reverend Hess to turn away from his faith — not that he stopped believing in his god, he just hates the bastard. Now, an enormous crop circle appears in his cornfield, the first indication of Something Weird Going On.

I can’t tell you much more because if you’re just out for fun, you’ll find it in Signs, but it depends almost entirely on not knowing what to expect. Shyamalan — who wrote and directed, as he does all his movies — draws out the revelation of what’s behind the crop circles, appearing all over the world, in the most deliciously agonizing ways. He knows that by far the specialest effects are in our imaginations and more fun is in the anticipation than in the divulging. He so teases us — ya wanna see, huh? do ya? do ya? do ya? maybe I’ll show ya just a little BOO! — and gets away with it, that Signs is almost unbearably suspenseful, wherein you’re crawling up onto your theater seat with your hands over your mouth and you just know that the most horrible thing is about to happen and you can’t stop it and you wanna cover your eyes but then you’ll miss it and OHMIGOD what was that?!

Shyamalan is channeling Hitchcock and Spielberg and every SF B-movie director of the 1950s, and if your particular point of view is tickled by that idea, then you will come away very, very validated, and with more than a few good scary laughs and good ironic laughs to your name.

If my particular point of view requires seeing Mel Gibson’s naked butt and/or chest regularly onscreen, this will not be validated by Signs. But I’ll always have Lethal Weapon.

But I will get my particular atheistic, skeptical point of view validated, and maybe a little more validated than the faith point of view is — then again, of course I’d think that. But there’s an awful lot of illogical and highly coincidental things going on here, way too many for the rational mind to accept. And that could be seen as a bad thing, as a black mark against the film, unless you take that atheistic, skeptical point of view, too. Signs started shooting on September 12, 2001, and while it was obviously written prior to last fall’s terrorist attacks, those events also just as obviously informed the production of that script. It seems silly to me that anyone could believe that a deity granted the prayers of some people on 9/11, saving their lives by the seeming luck of missing a train or the idea to stop for breakfast before heading to the office, and ignored the prayers of others, who surely asked for rescue and were ignored. And so maybe Signs wants to say: Look, would ya, at all the absurd, illogical things that must be true for Graham’s god to exist. The world would have to be this unbelievable a place… and it isn’t.

On the other hand, my particular point of view, which also involves worshipping Shyamalan as a genius, may be suspect and not at all reliable.

*Thank you, Stitch.


Watch Signs online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.


MPAA: rated PG-13 for some frightening moments

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

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