About two-thirds of the way through Signs, I dejectedly realized my mistake. I had expected to be scared and thrilled, in spite of the little voice that says “it’s only a movie.” My mistake was to allow that voice to be heard at all, because Shyamalan’s script doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. There are plot and logic holes in Signs, and being only a semi-willing participant in the story that unfolds, I found the holes to be unforgivably large.
(There are spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk.)
Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a former Episcopalian priest. When he lost his wife, he lost his religion, and he resigned his post. Now he’s just a farmer, sad and somber, trying to raise his young son (Rory Culkin) and daughter (Abigail Breslin). His much-younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with them as well.
The Hess household is surprised one day by some damaged crops. Their corn has been bent over at ground level in the pattern of a giant circle. The local sheriff (Cherry Jones, who warms up a merely functional role) investigates, but there is nothing she can do. The incident is dismissed as the work of bored teenagers.
The mystery deepens, though, when similar crop circles are found all over the world at the same time. As one TV announcer says, “either this is one of the most elaborate hoaxes, or basically, it’s for real,” (whatever that means).
If your little voice is on, you will recognize what the announcer says — what Shyamalan wrote — as a logical fallacy. There aren’t only two explanations; there could be many others. In fact, although creating simultaneous worldwide crop circles might require a lot of planning, it wouldn’t be very difficult. Matt Ridley, one of the many creators of crop circles, says it takes him less than an hour to make one.
There are other false dilemmas in Signs. Life is either random chance, or else everything is a sign. Either you’re a reverend or you curse God’s name. Either Rory Culkin’s UFO book is complete junk, or else it’s an invaluable desk reference on alien invasion. In a bit of thematically important dialogue between Graham and his brother, Shyamalan includes an either/or that I couldn’t even make sense of: either you think the lights in the sky are a miracle, or else you must be afraid.
If the little voice is talking to you, it will be quick to point out that things are not so simplistic as Shyamalan tries to make them. His insistence that you choose between black and white is bullying, not storytelling.
There are other problems with the script as well. The dialogue is distractingly off-key. It sounds like it was written by someone whose knowledge of small towns is limited to TV sitcoms. Everyone calls the Hess’ corn “crops.” Nobody ever just calls it corn. And when young Morgan (Culkin) asks the local booksellers for a book on UFOs, the proprietors say they keep one on hand “for the city folks.”
M. Night of the Living Dead
The mystery of the crop circles becomes moot at some point. They are indeed “for real,” and the movie changes gears. It begins to tease us about the details of this new reality. To Shyamalan’s credit, he stays with his characters throughout the rest of the film. Signs does not become a special effects extravaganza. The characters’ response to the new way of things is what Shyamalan focuses on.
I found this technique to be doubly effective. On the one hand, staying intimately with the Hess family gives us someone to relate to, making the psychological effect greater. On the other hand, I often wanted the Hesses to get out of the way of the TV so I could see the news reports. Shyamalan kept me on the edge of my seat by tantalizing me — giving me only a brief glimpse here and a hint of evidence there.
But even this chilling phase becomes moot. After a certain point, we know all we need to know about the new situation and the movie changes gears again. It becomes merely a siege. Think Night of the Living Dead, only less creepy. Eventually I began to ask myself “what’s the worst that could happen” to these characters. And when a rather mundane answer came quickly to mind, the movie lost all sense of wonder and fright.
Holey, Holey, Holey
A lousy ending was not the last of my disappointments. As the credits were rolling I kept recalling holes in plot and logic, which I will relate in the next two paragraphs. No kidding this time, I’m going to give it all away, so skip to the conclusion now if you don’t want anything revealed.
Think of the aliens who came to earth. Here is a species which is poisoned by dihydrogen monoxide (and if you don’t know what that is, you can look it up at http://www.dhmo.org). Yet they come to a planet whose surface is two-thirds DHMO, in order to “harvest” its inhabitants, who are also two-thirds DHMO. From a great distance they would be able to tell that our atmosphere is mostly DHMO, yet they land here anyway to see for themselves what it’s like to breathe poison.
And why do the aliens need to make crop circles anyway? A race that can master intergalactic travel surely can make a map of the Earth’s surface. A little red dot on a display screen would serve just as well. And if you have to mark the surface, why duplicate the work of Earthling hoaxers? Why not use some new, unique way of marking the globe with their landing strips, like radioactive dye or glow-in-the-dark stickers, or giant piles of alien dung. Either these are the dumbest aliens to master space travel, or else the screenwriter needs to polish his skills.
Could Be Worse
Signs is not as bad as I make it out to be. There is a palpable sense of tension throughout the movie. Just being in the theater is a minor thrill, what with the Hitchcockian pacing, the pitch-perfect music, and the inevitably gasping audience.
But Shyamalan has come to deserve a higher standard, and measured by that raised standard, Signs is a big disappointment.