Following the immensely successful films The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, director M. Night Shyamalan released Signs in 2002. There have been numerous opinions about the film over the past two decades — some call it overrated, some may call it underrated. However, to many, Signs is Shyamalan’s undisputed masterpiece. Out of his diverse and controversial filmography, Signs is a film that’s actually aided by nostalgia and improves with hindsight. Signs stands apart from Syamalan’s other films that rely on a major narrative shift, such as his near perfect The Sixth Sense, where the famous twist has become so well known it does not have the same impact on the viewing experience all these years later.
Signs stars Mel Gibson as Reverend Graham Hess who has abandoned his faith after the death of his wife at the hands of a drunk driver. He and his brother Merrill (a great, young Joaquin Phoenix) discover strange, otherworldly occurrences near their Pennsylvania farmhouse. They take shelter and prepare for the inevitable with young Bo (Abigail Breslin) and Morgan (Rory Culkin), Graham’s children. While the film showcases the extraterrestrial and invites our eyes to the screen with some magnificently directed sequences, the characters are really why we stay and keep coming back.
The Characters in Signs
Signs does not showcase the aliens invading, destroying monuments and wiping out civilizations to no end. In fact, we spend most of the runtime on the small farm, and the majority of the movie is dedicated to Graham and his family trying to survive through this terrifying occurrence.
Shyamalan does a great job of setting their motivations and developing their story in just the first few minutes. There is no excess exposition and unnecessarily dialogue to fill in the gaps of the story. In just the first few shots, our protagonist and his arc is established with just a photograph and an empty and faded spot on the wall where a crucifix once sat. With our relatable protagonist established, the rest of the characters fall into place in clever and unique ways that all align with the film’s conclusion.
Signs is Pure Suspense
The suspense in Signs is established through Shyamalan’s intense attention and care to the details. Creating actual, full sized crop circles near this small farm house establishes the scale and potential for the rest of the film. Seeing these crop circles in the very beginning of the film also casts this shadow of tension that does not cease for the entire runtime. The film also pays homage to classic films such as Night of the Living Dead according to an interview with Shyamalan for The Ringer:
“Signs came from two ideas: One was a family finds a crop circle in their backyard, and then a kind of end-of-the-world movie, à la Night of the Living Dead, where it’s from the perspective of a house.”
Shyamalan also showcases the theme of faith and how it has been lost in a former man of God. This comes as a fresh reminder of the classic 1973 horror film The Exorcist (not to mention Bergman’s Winter Light). In the William Friedkin-directed masterpiece, we see a man of God struggling to find his faith when coming face to face with the supernatural. In The Exorcist and Signs alike, both characters are forced to come to terms with their own faith at the most despairing moments where they have embraced the otherworldly horror.
Shyamalan uses a Hitchcockian style of suspense that slowly builds throughout each sequence. In addition to the little bits of extraterrestrial tension, we are also given little pieces of Graham’s traumatic past as told through flashbacks in the form of dream sequences. While dream sequences are sometimes used as a trope and a cheap gimmick, Shyamalan uses them at very specific points that almost mirror the beats of the main plot. The realization of what happened to Graham’s wife comes at the same time we are face to face with the alien holding Morgan. With a culmination of brilliant visual effects, and an enticing score, Shyamalan brings the suspense to its highest and most terrifying peak in the living room confrontation.
A Well Crafted Score In Signs
James Newton Howard’s score is brilliantly crafted to build just as the tension gets more intense. Moments of suspense and horror are not accompanied by an explosive sound effect meant to force the audience to have a reaction. Instead, moments like the first time Graham sees the alien in the cornfield is paired with a subtle melody that bridges one scene to the next. It allows the gut-wrenching tension to follow the characters and not relieve the audience from that fear for a while.
As the film gets to its climactic point, the music starts to get more intense. The classic “disturbing television broadcast” and the close encounter in the living room has the scariest and most intense accompanying score because the film has established real tension previously, and it has earned those moments of release; it never feels cheap. It also allows the audience to feel what the characters are feeling. In the moments where Graham is uncertain, which is mirrored by the subtle score, which isn’t necessarily scary nor comforting. However, when we as the audience have the assurance that what we are seeing is real and in the flesh, the music has the horrifying assurance as well.
The Aliens in Signs Are Meant to Be Flawed
Critics of the film have famously pointed out the aliens’ lack of proactivity and action in Signs. However, one small and subtle radio broadcast heard in the third act assures the audience of the alien’s intentions. They want to harvest humanity and not the planet, therefore, one could speculate they did not take the time to establish the surrounding bodies of water on the planet they invaded. This could explain why this broadcast also states that the aliens have fled, leaving their wounded behind. The wounded aliens, including the one that infiltrates Graham’s home, were stranded. The alien in the famous living room scene uses the innocent Morgan as leverage to hide its fear and pain, as it recoils back and forth from the terrified family.
Most of the aliens we see fully are either hiding in the shadows or moving from one place to another. In perhaps the most famous sequence that Merrill sees on the news, the alien revealing itself to the terrified children spent most of the time camouflaged in the trees. The alien makes a move when it knows it is being watched by the terrified children, and on camera for the entire world to eventually see.
Signs 20 Years Later
Signs has maintained immense popularity over the past two decades. It is at the top of Shyamalan’s filmography and is one of the most suspenseful films ever made, and certainly explores a different aspect of sci-fi. Blockbusters like Independence Day show a more theatrical and explosive side to an alien invasion, and other great sci-fi films are intellectual or more terrifying with their aliens (like Arrival and The Thing, respectively).
While aliens are the villainous force in Signs and play as the antagonist to our human characters, Shyamalan’s film isn’t necessarily about them, the same way that Jaws isn’t really about the shark. One could argue that the film is about one family. However, what the film is truly about is… signs. Meaning, the signs represent something miraculous and force the characters (especially Graham) to accept that there are no coincidences. Shyamalan doesn’t shy away from the horror of a miracle, and how amazement in something otherworldly can also be shown through terror.
The ending of this film leaves the audience on a hopeful note, where Graham has returned to his faithful roots. There is a fresh blanket of snow washing away any and all impurities the aliens may have left behind. However, there is a darker thought the film ends upon. Upon its final moments, even in an uplifting conclusion, we are left with the idea that we are not alone, accompanied perhaps by God or aliens. The acceptance of that truth, along with the acceptance of faith, is enough for Shyamalan to close the book and fade to black.