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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Signs (2002) - Horror Aliens

Signs (2002) - *Spoilers* In case you have been living under a rock for years and have yet to see this film, know that I am going to break it down all the way to scenes and dialog thus giving away any mystery it may contain. If you do not want to know this information please stop reading.

Rachel at The Zombiegrrlz Podcast was talking about how much she liked the film and I thought I would have some fun to feed back to her some thoughts. So I wrote this in an email to her.
Lets start with the idea that Rachel can defend Signs, really? I suppose
if you can suspend disbelief enough that you believe an intelligent race
from from another planet. A race that has mastered the ability to travel
vast distances through space, they see this little planet out on the
outer edge of the galaxy and then decide conquering it is a good idea.
Now I know in their meetings someone brought up the fact that water
burns them like fucking acid and it would be stupid to conquer a planet
that was 70% water, they are intelligent after all. Sure the next
available planet to conquer is like 3 times as far away but water burns
them like fucking acid. So maybe lets not conquer Earth. Okay so if that
logic in its simplest form isn't enough lets look at the spiritual side
of the movie.
We have a minister who has lost faith in his beliefs after his wife was
cut in half by a drunk driver. Lucky for him that she lay pinned between
the car and the tree enough so she can say goodbye. In this goodbye we
get the idea that all things happen for a reason. She wants Graham to
see (the signs) she wants the son to be able to be silly and the little
girl to listen to her brother and for Merrill to swing away. Everything
is built in so that they can perfectly protect themselves from the
aliens, by Merrill swinging away. So really this is God's way of getting
Graham back into his beliefs, kill his wife, invade the planet with
intelligent, not really, aliens, having a little girl leave water
around, almost kill his son and then have the home run and strikeout
leaders for the minor leagues swing away. Good thing his home run
instinct took over, it would not have been such a nice ending if he
swung over and over at the water glasses only to repeatedly miss. It is
just so believable.
Now to give credit where it is due, M. Night is not a bad movie maker,
even when the story is ridiculous he knows how to build tension create
useful beats and film scenes. Technically the movie does a lot of things
right. This is not a hard to watch movie, it is just the story arc is
Bhah Humbug.

Now I was only half serious about disliking the film, I was trying to be witty in an email to my favorite horror podcast. I had not even seen the film in several years so was not even sure I was correct in what I was saying, and indeed after re watching it see a couple errors I made. What will follow here is a more in depth review of the film.
Signs is at its heart a story about a man and his family who have had an incredibly painful loss. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) lost his wife in a car accident and his faith in God. He was the small Pennsylvanian town minister and the horrible loss has left him feeling God can not care what happens to him. Because no man is an island his family must now suffer through their pain with a father (and brother to the Merrill character (Joaquin Phoenix)) who is no longer able to offer them the emotional strength he once did. A global crisis of an alien invasion becomes a very personal story of how this man finds his faith again and in so doing regains a healthy life for himself and his family.
Director M. Night Shyamalan really shows his chops in the technical choices he makes in this film. What strikes you early in the film is the quiet, after the suspenseful music of the opening credits the film is quiet for quite a while, no music or sound effects. This gets the audience that they think they are going to get one kind of movie, a suspenseful thriller only to then really have to wait as the film builds slowly. Framed in close up we see the smiling Hess family portrait and then in close up Graham startling awake. He is alone in his bed so we know that the wife from the picture is missing. Graham wakes and listens at his kids bedroom door before going about his morning routine. Then the silence is pierced by a small girl screech, Bo (Abigail Breslin) is is probably 5 years old in the film. The scream is off in the distance and then repeats waking uncle Merrill also. They run out into the cornfield surrounded yard and can hear the dogs off in the distance barking, the son Morgan (Rory Culkin) about 12 years old, yells for his father from in the corn. The adults run out to them and we have a slow reveal of staring faces for the reaction prior to the revealing of a crop circle which as the camera climbs into the sky is seen to be several in a pattern.
Another interesting thing you will notice early in the film is that you do not see what did happening but instead the reactions of characters away from the action. The first scene is an example with the adults hearing the kids in the field instead of starting by following the children out into the corn. A couple scenes later when Graham is out at the crop circle speaking with Officer Caroline Paski (Cherry Jones)about how strange the animals are acting in the county. He stops and comes towards the camera in close up and says "I don't hear my children." When Graham and Caroline rush back to the yard they find that Morgan has had to kill on of the dogs while protecting his sister. Again the consequences of the action is seen we never see or hear the action of the dog attack on the kids. Another early technique of note is shooting from low angles. Many shots are very composed with creative fore and background layering of characters and objects and many shot from low angles. In fact throughout the film there are many examples of this and they seem to create a small town portrait album of life on a rural farm. The technique is really well done and because most of the shots are stationary is adds to the quiet creepiness of the film's mood.
Graham's story is that his wife has been tragically killed by a man who fell asleep at the wheel. The film makes a point to say he was not drinking, one of the errors in my missive. So we have Graham, who is just not the same in as he was before the accident. He used to be a minister in the town and now he does not want to talk about God. There are several places where his behavior is odd. His son Morgan says of his Dad as he tends the abandoned grilling food, that his Dad is going to burn them again. This initiates letting us know Graham is not a totally together guy, seeming to lack the attention span to get dinner cooked and that it is not the first time this has happened. Later when he comes up to Morgan and the dead dog his affect is flat as he gets the story of what happens. He is slow to go and comfort his daughter like he is emotionally a step behind where he should be. The kids in this scene are the same instead of being hysterical at the dog attack and death they are both withdrawn. Even Caroline the cop who is behind Graham when he sees the dead dog does nothing to assist or comfort the children. If the flat affect and behavior that is exhibited by everyone in the family was a directorial choice then I think I know what he was going for. Make Graham a man at the start of the film who is completely incapable of caring for his family. It explains the Merrill being there to help and the family. Because he is going through the motions, they family is subconsciously mimicking him. It establishes just how broken this family is.
The alien invasion story picks up quickly in this film and there are scene specifically to set up the big showdown at the end. Bo wakes Graham in the night to say there was a monster in her room, as Graham talks to her he looks out the window behind her where we get our first view of the creature out on the barn roof. Thinking the crop circle from earlier and the alien on the barn is some local kids he and Merrill have a funny enough scene racing around the house to scare them off. We see though that the thing on the barn was not the right shape to be a teenager. The next day when Caroline is back to hear about it we have an decently constructed scene where we hear on the television that crop circles are everywhere. They are not ready yet to believe in spacemen and Graham since he is so emotionally unavailable decides to take the family into town to get their minds off the happenings at the farm. This was probably not the best idea because in town the crop circle activity is all anyone can talk about. Although at this point the film has been very quiet there is a pacing to the plot that really keeps you interested. We have had several interaction that really bring home the small town feel and to get little plot points in play for later, Caroline's stories, Tracey at the pharmacy wanting to confess her sins to Graham her former reverend, the interaction Merrill has at the recruiting office, The quirky book owners, so all combine for that down home feel. M. Night Shalaman does a nice job after these lighter moments to bring us back to the serious state of the family. In this case after visiting the town folk the Hess family is having pizza when Ray the driving when Graham's wife Colleen died passes by them at the pizzeria. It is a good counter point after the last few minutes.
There are some very effective scary scenes in this movie, the best and probably most remembered is Graham going out into the cornfield at night with a flashlight. He is feeding the remaining dog and hears a clicking all too alien sound in the corn. He moves out not seeing anything until he feels silly, then the sound again but in his rush to turn towards it he drops the light and it goes out. He scrambles for the light and bangs it the light shines upon an alien leg as it moves away in the corn. Graham panics and runs full tilt for the house. The payoff is there in this scene. At this point Graham changes from someone who does not want to know what is happening in the world to someone personally interested.
That night after learning about lights in the sky over Mexico city the kids are asleep and Graham and Merrill have the talk that defines the entire movie. Merrill asks Graham about the possibility that this is the end of the world.
"Do you think it could be?"
Graham says "Yes"
"How can you say that?"

"That wasn't the answer you wanted?"

Merrill comments on Grahams change which at this point has been well established.

"Couldn't you pretend to be like you used to be? Give me some comfort."

Graham replies, "People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence, they see it as a sign. Evidence that there is someone out there watching out for them. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. A happy turn of chance. I'm sure the people in group number two are looking at those 14 lights in a very suspicious way, for them this situations a 50/50, could be bad , could be good, but deep down they feel that whatever happens, they're on their own and that fills them with fear. Yeah there are those people, but there's a whole lot of people in group number one. They see those 14 lights, their looking at a miracle, and deep down they feel that whatever is going to happen, there will be someone there to help them, and that fills them with hope; so what you have to ask yourself is what kind of a person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, sees miracles or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or look at the question this way, is it possible that there are no coincidences?"

Now the interpersonal comments that come after this speech are wonderfully telling about where both men are. Graham is about to launch on his journey to move from a person in group one, back to a group two, he was in that group before his wife died but he is not there at this point and it is poignantly sad. He closes the scene talking about the theme by saying this to Merrill, "There is no one watching out for us Merrill, we are all on our own." At this point interspersed with the plot are flashbacks so we the audience can see why this broken man is so alone in his world.

Ray calls but does not say much but Graham recognizes it is him and heads over to his house. Ray apologizes and also talks about how it have happened for a reason, that it is the only explanation. The film you see needs to start exploring the idea that everything that happens does so for a reason. A clumsy piece of info about the aliens not liking water is thrown out. An alien is also locked in Ray's cupboard and there is another cool scene with Graham using a knife to try to see under the door to see the creature. It stabs its fingers out at him and gets a couple cut off for its trouble. Again very exciting and the classic monster movie trope of not showing the creature in full too early in the film. There is a shift in the film after this point, the wind starts blowing making the wind chimes sound. The family watches reports of what is now looked at as Merrill says "War of the Worlds" and the television makes a point that hundreds of thousands are flocking to churches. Again this is the filmmaker purposely avoiding showing any action in the outside world. We here this is what is happening but we stay firmly based on the farm. There are no reports of what the military are doing against the aliens.

Instead we get the last supper scene where Graham is trying to deal with the growing unease of the situation by finally taking steps to distract the kids. In this case to create a meal where everyone can have exactly what they want. The scene again does not show the activity of the making of the meal but instead we start a scene where everyone is sitting silently around the table the food in full display. Graham and his son have an argument about saying a prayer. Graham is very clear that he will not spend one more minute of his life in prayer. I think the idea was to reiterate that Graham is incapable of comforting his family but I really don't think the scene is very good. It is a bit unclear why the scene went the way it did and it added nothing new. I think it was supposed to be a turning point where Graham starts to come back but not really his change only happens in the last ten minutes of the movie so it really is just more confirmation of his state. Reports on the television let us know the invasion is on and the family is going to secure the house and sit it out. The film picks up its pace in the third section, music is more prominent and the family is actually doing things instead of just sitting around. Boarding the house and getting ready to go to the cellar because they know the aliens are coming. Graham gets some time to connect a bit better with the kids telling them their birth stories, then the last movement starts. The house is boarded and the family begins to hear the sounds of aliens trying to get in. They all head down to the cellar. There is a deleted scene from this film where Merrill is saying the cellar is a bad idea. You could be trapped with only one way out. It could have been a nice nod at Night of the Living Dead and he was right. The suspense is there in the cellar as the aliens try to find a way in. They fail to get in but do give young Morgan an asthma attack. The inhaler unfortunately is upstairs and in a pivotal scene Graham comforts his son and shouts at the heavens for the horrible luck of possibly losing another family member. In what is the most remarkable turnaround in spiritual life history Graham goes from hating God to doing a very effective comforting of his son while at the same time convincing of himself that you have to believe. Like Abraham and Issac in the bible the father needs to trust Gods will and be someone who believes in miracles. When they make it through the night there is a different Graham who climbs out of the cellar. On the radio they hear that the invasion was actually raiding parties and that the aliens were taking humans but that they seem to be leaving. Needing medicine for poor closed lungs Morgan they head upstairs.

This next scene ties together the "Signs" aspect of the film. While Graham is taking the television out of the closet we see the reflection of an alien in it. The alien has Morgan and we see it is the alien Graham injured at Ray's. Now instead of staying with this seen we move to the scene of Colleen's death and her final words. Graham now somehow connects everything she said to him to his current crisis. He tells Merrill who has entered the room to "Swing Away" and the alien gets defeated because the glasses of water the girl has left around the house are the perfect weapon for the bat swinging home run king. The water burns the alien like, well like fucking acid.The fact that the asthma attack that Morgan had has closed his lungs enough that the alien gas that was sprayed in his face does not kill him is yet another sign that everything is happening for a reason and Graham should be a believer in miracles. So nicely tied in a bow. Now I have some problems with this film and besides the main one that the characters are all affect deficient, sure this could have been to set the mood that the family was damaged but I think it also made for really unnatural behavior. The children were way too independent of the Father and Uncle, I know for a fact that in dangerous times kids are clingy not on their own hiding in corners watching. Graham and Merrill would never have been able to pry Bo off them if this had been played straight. Another problem could have been a choice. Most scenes started with the characters sitting or standing silently. It was off putting to me that they didn't seem to have any interactions until the director yelled "action" seldom do you come into a scene where people are already doing something or interacting with each other. It made the film a bit too mechanical for my liking.

I found the very premise of the movie hard to swallow. In the scene where Grahan is telling Merrill about the kinds of people in the world, I just reject the idea that he is relaying. It could be the Non believer in me but I do not think there are two kinds of people in the world. The people of faith and those without. Does belief really mean you are hopeful when you see those lights in the sky? I don't think so particularly in this country some of the most fearful and harmful people in our politic claim to be steeped in their faith. Will athiests really have fear if the aliens appear in the sky? From my own non-believer position I can tell you no. In fact the change that would happen if we were to find other life forms in the universe could be wonderous, not scary. I think more that life beyond our planet would transform our societies and belief system in what I hope would be positive ways. I get that the film is looking at Grahams story and his journey back to faith but it is really sad that he is such a primitive that he can only see belief in a black and white way. His belief system leaves out so many possible ways at looking at the situation. It is so Christian centric ignoring that a large part of the population doesn't believe in "heaven" and so would not see the events the way he does. I am sure christains really dug this film as it plays to their way of looking at things. Still signs is not a bad film, it creates a smaller story in the scope of world events and effectively plays that story out. You may not buy everything it is saying but the film is done with enough skill that it earns this blogs recommendation.

Rating (6.1) 5.0 and up are recommended, The Zombiegrrlz would say Buy it!

1 comment:

  1. Well, for one, Morgan is about 8-9 & Bo is about 5-6. Little kids tend to be clingy at that age. Also, when Bo was in the corner 'watching', Merill or Graham had smashed the light & nobody could see anything, hence why Morgan backed up against the old fireplace thing & Bo backed into the corner