Signs: Divine Providence in Cinema
Donald P. Goodman IIIVersion 1.0,
M. Night Shyamalan is a director more known for his flops than for his successes at this point, and is often considered (and perhaps even considers himself) a director of tense, taut thrillers. There is no question, of course, that Shyamalan is indeed a director of excellent thrillers; however, two of his films are not only excellently made, but also deep, profound explorations of the human condition, of timeless lessons and value. Signs is one of those two films.
Indeed, Signs is an overtly theistic film, with a lesson that many have noticed but that few have fully appreciated. Often billed merely as a statement of the presence of God in our lives, Signs presents a profound and traditional vision of Divine Providence, in opposition to a modern, reductionistic, “physics” view of the universe, with an entertaining and worthy plot.
In Signs, Mel Gibson plays a former (presumably Episcopalian) “priest” who has left his church because of disillusionment with God at the death of his dear wife, Colleen. Now, Gibson's character, Graham Hess, parents his two children, son Morgan and daughter Bo (powerfuly portrayed by a young Rory Culkin and a very young, and stunningly able, Abigail Breslin), on their Bucks County, Pennsylvania farm. Graham's younger brother, Merrill, is single and otherwise unemployed, and has moved in with the elder Hess to assist in the wake of Colleen's death.
Colleen was killed by the local veterinarian, Ray Reddy (played by Shyamalan himself in his now-signature cameo), who had fallen asleep at the wheel and struck her while she was out for an evening walk. It was a freak accident; he had not been drinking, and as Reddy himself noted, if it had happened a second earlier or a second later he would have skidded off the road and hit a tree, with no harm worse than a headache. As it was, though, Colleen was pinned between Reddy's car and a tree, already fatally injured when Graham arrives at the scene to say goodbye. Police officer Paski, portrayed by Cherry Jones, explains the situation to him; Graham is fully aware that this is his last chance to speak to his wife. Distraught and teary-eyed, Gibson powerfully portrays the stoic reaction of Graham Hess in this nightmarish situation, and approaches to speak to her one last time.
We see all this in flashbacks, of course, as the plot requires, and we learn that Colleen at first is saying sensible things. She tells Graham to remind Morgan that “it's okay to be silly”, and has a similar message for daughter Bo. But then, she tells Graham, “See.” Then she says that Graham should tell Merrill to “swing away.”
Graham tells Merrill about this, fairly early on in the film, recounting Colleen's last two statements to him. He opines that Colleen's brain was shutting down, and her synapses were firing randomly. Those random firings had brought up a memory of watching Merrill, who had been a minor-league ballplayer, at a game, and thus had led to her comment to “swing away”. He states no opinion on her statement to Graham himself, to “see”; but the import of that statement is truly the import of the entire movie. Graham concludes by telling Merrill that this experience, this senseless death of his beloved wife without even the cognitive awareness to give a sensible goodbye, proves that ”there is no one watching over us”, that “we are alone.” Things happen because they happen; they are random, caused by nothing, and man is left simply to fend for himself. Graham has fully lost the faith.
Providence, however, refuses to leave Graham alone. The movie opens with Graham finding that his fields have been vandalized by “crop markings,” a famous alien ruse originating in the 1970s. It has been pretty well established that the original crop signs were hoaxes; Graham, therefore, presumes that the vandalization of his fields is a similar hoax, and suggests that some local hoodlums might be responsible.
The appearance of an intruder outside his home at night, however, begins to shake his belief in the hoax explanation. He assumes at first that the intruder is again simply the local hooligans, returned to perpetrate some further pranks. Enlisting his brother's assistance, Graham tries to isolate the intruder. However, the intruder is able to escape by making a jump so prodigious that Merrill, Graham's brother, believes that no human being could have done it. Officer Paski, speaking about the case, posits a possible explanation, and Merrill's response to it is an example of Shyamalan's ability to introduce humor into a film without reducing the tension and suspense.
Soon thereafter, the news begins to reveal that there are lights appearing in the sky, all over the world, and it eventually becomes clear that those lights are attached to alien spacecraft. Morgan, who has obtained a book about aliens, observes in that book a picture of an alien attack that contains an illustration that Bo notes is eerily similar to the Hess's own house, burning from said attack. The book also includes explanations of the aliens' potential behavior; this book, along with the famous baby-monitor that picks up some of the aliens' communications, is a great guide for the careful viewer of the action of the film.
Graham becomes more and more convinced of the existence of the aliens, and more importantly of their hostility, when he gets a call from none other than Ray Reddy, who says simply “Father,” and then cuts off. Graham drives over to Reddy's home, finding him in the vehicle outside. Reddy apologizes for the accident that kills Graham's wife, opining on how utterly improbable it was that he would have been passing Colleen at that one moment when he fell asleep. Gibson's portrayal of Graham's emotional reaction is, once again, able and powerful. Reddy also notes that he's heard that the aliens fear water, and that therefore he would be heading to “the lake” and recommends that Graham do the same. Lastly, before leaving, he advises Graham not to check the pantry in the house—he had locked “one of them” in there. He drives off, and Graham goes into the house. How can he not?
Reddy had been mildly wounded; it's pretty clear that to him, at least, the aliens had been hostile. In an immaculately filmed scene, Graham approaches the pantry and eventually sees the creature itself, which reaches at him under the pantry door; Graham, who had picked up a kitchen knife to use as a mirror under the door, panicks and cuts off the creature's fingers. Now, he knows without a doubt that the aliens exist; and now, as he says later, he felt unquestionably that the creature meant him harm. He goes home to plan how to protect his family.
They decide to stay in their home, rather than flee to the water; as Morgan says, they have to stay because “this is the house where we lived with mom.” So they board up the windows and doors and settle in for a last meal as the sun goes down, morally convinced that the alien assault will begin that night. At this meal, the whole crisis of the movie comes into play when Morgan asks that they pray, and Graham refuses. “I am not wasting one more second of my life on prayer,” he says angrily, and the family weeps and comes together. It's an important scene that sets up the entire conflict of the film.
As an alien invasion movie, the film is credible. But it is not, primarily, an alien invasion movie. The central conflict here is not man versus alien; it is faith versus unbelief. Once the viewer recognizes this, Signs becomes much more than a decent suspenseful thriller; it becomes a profound exploration of Divine Providence.
Lots of little factors are laid out early in the film, things that seem to be merely color to flesh out characters. Merrill was a minor-league baseball player, who had more homers and more strikeouts than anybody else because he swung at every pitch; “it felt wrong not to swing,” he says. Morgan is asthmatic, and requires an inhaler when an attack begins. Bo is very finnicky about her water, and leaves half-drunken glasses of it all over the house because they have become undrinkable for various reasons; “it has amoebas in it”; “it has a hair.” Morgan's alien book, clearly a work of speculative fiction for children, has statements that weirdly map onto the aliens' actions, and even has an illustration that indicates the Hess's own home would be attacked. Color? Yes; but much more than color. The details that make the film work.
All of these details are vitally important to the resolution of the film's central conflict of faith against unbelief. Graham has no faith, but the universe is pressing faith upon him. These details all come to play in the film's climax.
The aliens do attack; the family retreats into the basement as the house is breached. The aliens use a gas to immobilize and kill their human enemies. At one particularly poignant moment, Graham slams the door to the basement, then looks down at the knob; it starts to turn, and he grabs it and holds it still. That slender little inch of ancient wood separates him from the technologically powerful aliens that seek to kill him and his family. Merrill finds a pickax which they use to bar the door, but in the process the light is put out and a scuffle ensues. When light is again found, Morgan is having an asthmatic attack, and has left his medication upstairs, where the alien creatures now rule. Graham's faith in Providence comes to its greatest possible low, and he actually expresses his hatred for the God that could cause such things to happen. Once again, in this characteristically powerful performance Gibson has the audience fully feeling his anger, frustration, indeed hatred of God as he holds his dying son in his arms. “I hate you,” he growls, and the audience really wants to hate with him. The low point of the conflict has arrived; faith is at its lowest ebb, and unbelief at its highest. The resolution has to come soon; and Graham goes to sleep that night, together with his family, fully believing that none of them would live out the night.
In the morning, Merrill finds that the radio works; the news is that Philadelphia and its outlying counties are free of the hostile aliens, and because Morgan still needs his medication, Graham agrees that it is time to risk going upstairs. They find the house empty; but as Merrill goes up the stairs, sunlight is shining through a curtain which is marked with stars and moons. The whole family goes upstairs, and Graham leaves Morgan on the couch to get the television, so that they can see how the victory was won.
When he returns, Morgan is in the arms of one of the creatures; Graham can see that it is the same alien whose fingers he cut off in the veterinarian's house. Merrill had said that, according to the radio, the aliens had left so quickly that they had left some of their wounded behind; now the family knew the truth of the news. Merrill stops, seeing the alien, and the action is entirely within Graham's soul; everything begins to come together, and we finally understand what his wife told him, when the “random” firings of her synapses gave Graham her final advice.
“Tell Merrill to swing away.” “Swing away,” Graham tells Merrill, without even turning, and Merrill, confused for a moment, looks up and sees one of his mounted baseball bats on the wall. Now he understands; he grabs it and as he moves the alien gases Morgan and drops him. Graham gets Morgan and flees the room; Merrill faces off against the creature. He strikes the creature and it falls, knocking one of Bo's water glasses onto himself; the water burns his skin, and Merrill now knows how to attack. He begins striking the glasses at the creature; water sprays on him, and he howls in pain, and eventually goes down, dead; in one of Shyamalan's characteristically well-placed shots, we see the eyes-view of the creature when a glass of water falls on its face; we hear its cry of pain; and we see its chest, moving up and down as it breathes, finally stop.
Now outside the house, Graham drops to his knees with Morgan in his arms, begging the God he once loved for help. He now can follow his wife's last advice to him: now he can see. There are no random firings of synapses, no random quirky habits, nothing that does not redound to the greater good. If Colleen had not been killed, she would not have given him this advice, and they would not have stayed safe in the house; he would not have told Merrill to swing away, and the bat wouldn't have been on the wall; if Bo weren't so finicky, the water glasses wouldn't be everywhere to allow Merrill to strike back at the creature; and if Morgan weren't asthmatic, the poison would have penetrated all the way into his lungs and killed him.
So Graham hopes. Morgan's asthma significantly closes his airways; and while Bo weeps in sorrow, and even Merrill, now outside, is near tears, Graham only prays. That is why Morgan has this horrible asthma; his airways were closed. He will survive. And he does. The conflict of the film is resolved here, not in the room with Merrill and the alien. The fight is only one part of the great denouement: faith now triumphs over unbelief.
Throughout the movie, signs (no pun intended) show that Providence is at the center of resolving our conflict. One of the most common traditional images of Providence, stars and the heavenly bodies (most brilliantly executed in literature by Dante's famous last line about “the love which moves the sun and other stars”), is the viewer's constant companion. The very lights on the enemy ships themselves, being pricks of light in the night sky, betoken the coming of Providence governing all events. When the family comes upstairs from their long night in the basement, Morgan nearly choking to death, they are greeted by the bright sunlight streaming through a curtain bedecked with stars and moons. And nothing is merely random; everything has meaning and is guided by God, from the seemingly senseless firings of a dying woman's synapses to the idle habits of little girls.
Signs, like most of Shyamalan's better movies, rewards rewatching. For the attentive viewer, it is edifying and rewarding.