But I put my face in tomorrow
          I believe we're not alone
I believe in Beatles
          I believe my little soul has grown
And I'm still
          so afraid
Yes, I'm still
          so afraid
Yeah, I'm still
          so afraid
                    on my own

-- David Bowie, Afraid

Here are some signs for Signs:

-- U-TURN --

If you're under the impression I didn't like this movie very much, you're absolutely right. Since it's a good looking film, made with plenty of technical competence, I didn't detest it... at least not until I got out of the theater. Once I had a few minutes to digest what I'd just seen, what had started as mild disappointment turned into anger. There are certain things -- like overt emotional manipulation, weak stories, and ill-considered messages -- that I will accept from a crummy low-budget film, but which I find inexcusable in a major release from a director of M. Night Shyamalan's stature.

It's not that I had any prior expectations for the movie. I had barely glimpsed the trailer on television, and I'd seen the poster... and that had been the extent of my exposure to Signs. I went mostly because I was interested to see what Shyamalan had come up with. I thought Sixth Sense was a pretty good film, though the DVD extras suggested to me that had Shyamalan followed his original conception of the film, it wouldn't have succeeded nearly as well. And though Unbreakable was reviled by most critics, I actually found it more enjoyable than its predecessor in many respects. I somehow hoped Signs would build on the lessons the young film maker had learned from the previous films. I didn't care what the movie was about; it didn't matter. I had faith.

Oh, the irony.

After the film, I went around trying to discuss the experience with people, some of whom had not seen it yet. I've been reprimanded by some of them for giving away too much of the movie, and this took me aback. While I was watching the movie, it never occured to me that this was a film that would be "spoiled" by knowing what was going to happen. I never got the feeling it was trying to withhold anything. Certainly if it was, it didn't succeed. Still, I'd better warn you now: the review that follows contains a fairly detailed description of what happens in the movie. If you're anxious about spoilers, stop reading now.

That said, it's Shyamalan himself who spoiled the film for me.

I know about the UFOs
          I know about the mind contols
I know some things
          I know I shouldn't know

-- The Dead Milkmen, All Around the World

Just to add to the sense of irony, that very morning I had watched Andrey Tarkovsky's 1980 film Stalker again, for the first time in several years. After a steady diet of crap cinema, I felt it was time to remind myself what good movies were like. Stalker is considered one of Tarkovsky's "light" films, though it's anyting but trivial. It's a science fiction film without any special effects. It uses the idea of contact with a mysterious presence from space as a framework to examine the problem of maintaining faith in the modern world.

So, a few hours later, I sat in the theater and waited for Signs to begin. And Signs turned out to be a film that uses the idea of contact with a mysterious presence from space as a framework to examine the problem of maintaining faith in the modern world. Seeing it immediately after the Russian masterpiece, I became aware of just how far short Signs falls as a spiritual experience.1

So. We've got this priest, see? His name is Graham Hess, and he's recently resigned from the priesthood following the accidental death of his wife. She had been out running one night, when a truck driven by the local vet (played by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan himself) had swerved out of control and smashed her against a tree. Though fatally (gruesomely) injured, she had managed to cling to life just long enough for Hess to arrive. The apparent senselessness of his wife's death has left Hess questioning his faith in God.

Though I don't want to be too harsh about an issue like this, I couldn't help but think: this sort of thing happens all the time, and the reaction of many religious people -- especially priests -- is to turn to their faith as their main source of comfort. Rather than abandon their faith over the loss of a loved one, they look to their religion to reassure them that they will be reunited in the afterlife (if their religion acknowledges one, of course), or even just to get the feeling that their loved ones' deaths had meaning, and were not in vain. In any case, true faith is not meant to be discarded in the face of hardship; otherwise it isn't really faith. I say this as someone who looks on faith with deep suspicion, since it is so often used as an excuse to support ignorance. Still, there's no denying it can be a source of tremendous strength for those who truly have it. For a priest to give up in the face of this admittedly terrible, but nevertheless common trial... well, it suggests to me that he wasn't really cut out for the priesthood to begin with.

I can deal with the thought that our hero may have been a lousy priest. After all, I too might question the nature of the universe, if my wife were killed by the writer/director of the movie I was in. But I can't condone Shyamalan's long, loving, thoroughly tasteless buildup to the wife's death scene. Through a large portion of the movie, we're given fragmentary flashbacks to the accident. Then at last, when Shyamalan has drawn it out as long as he dared, we get to watch the poor woman gasp her meaningful last words, as the priest looks on in horror. It's a shameless, manipulative, almost pornographic sequence that had me cringing far more than any of the "suspense" scenes. It's a terrible lapse by a director who is frequently praised for his subtlety.

What made my life
          so wonderful?
What made me feel
          so bad?

-- David Bowie, Afraid

Hess's loss of faith is all the more perplexing when you realize that, aside from the tragedy of his wife's death, his life looks pretty good. He has two adorable children (even if one of them is a Kulkin), acres of good farmland and a beautiful old house in rural Pennsylvania. He has a younger brother who has selflessly offered to help him through his grief. And yet, he's still unable to cope. We're supposed to believe that Hess is too closed up inside to deal with his feelings, or to express them to those around him. We're shown this when he's supposed to run around the house, scaring away the kids he thinks are playing a practical joke on him: he's unable to improvise, or pretend to be really angry. All this would be much more convincing if Hess were played by almost any other actor than the ultra-cool, easygoing Mel Gibson. Bill Macy, for instance, would have been ideal. But Mel Gibson?

(Oh well; at least it wasn't Bruce Willis this time.)

However stressful the past may have been, Hess and his family are in for tougher times yet. The trouble starts eerily enough with crop circles. Yes, I'm sure you know as well as I do that crop circles are made by human beings with ropes and planks. But there's no reason to assume that aliens from outer space couldn't use ropes and planks as well, right?

Uhh... yeah.

The Government says it's due to poor farming,
but I know it's the queers!
They're in it with the aliens!
They're trying to build landing strips for gay Martians!
I swear to God!

-- The Dead Milkmen, Stuart

It should probably be noted, for the record, that the aliens do more work in the fields than priest/farmer Hess and his brood. Then again, a real farm family would be hard-pressed to find the time to notice the end of the world, if it happened around harvest time.

Following the appearance of the circles, more strange things start happening around the Hess home. Shadowy shapes are seen around the house, or on the roof, or dashing through the corn fields. The local animals start to behave strangely, as though something menacing were just out of sight. One of the family dogs goes berserk and attacks Hess's son, who just happens to be holding a barbecue fork. In what was, for me, the first serious groan-inducing moment of the film, the dog is impaled on the fork and dies instantly. The actual impalement and death occur off-screen, and that's a good thing: we only need to know the result, and the rest can be explained to us. I'm not sure why the dog's death is given more dignity than the wife's death; but since I like dogs far more than I like people, I guess I'll just accept it.

Pretty soon, the whole movie is full of signs, and like the crop circles, they're all written in corn.

It's doctors and priests and the end of the world!
-- The Dead Milkmen, Epic Tales of Adventure

If you want to enjoy the movie, forget the Bigger Picture. Forget the plot, the sci-fi trappings, the heavy-handed religious import of the Signs, and wait for the many small, truthful moments the movie shows us. Signs really excels at giving us glimpses of the Hess fmaily's lives, as the terrible times come closer. These finely-observed moments, brief flashes of the characters behaving like real people, give the movie its greatest strengths. For example, there's a running joke involving tin-foil hats that's genuinely funny; and one of the film's best moments is the way the possible end of the world is announced -- the little girl complains that she can't change the channel, because the TV has all the same shows on it (meaning, of course, the emergency broadcasts). When his son loses control of himself and lashes out at him, Hess's petulant, childish reaction is heartbreaking because it seems so real, even if it is absolutely the wrong thing to do.

But even in moments like these, Shyamalan sometimes oversteps. Sometimes, like the scene where the family climbs on top of the car, everything seems too stagey. Other times --for instance, when the danger grows closer, and Hess begins telling his children about the day they were born -- Shyamalan veers off into bathos. It's also annoying how often the danger at the doorstep will pause, obligingly, while the actors have their character-building moments. And then, of course, there are those little details that you know have been put in as the setup for the Big Twist Ending. Shyamalan has been pretty good at misdirecting his audience in his previous films, but (to give an obvious example) the first time the kid pulls out his asthma inhaler, the director might as well have had the words PLOT COVENIENCE!!! scroll across the screen.

Though the family tries to behave as though things were all normal, it soon becomes obvious that there are real space people out there. It's also apparent that they've come to Earth for some unfriendly purpose. We get glimpses of lumpy heads and claws, and we hear them communicating in a language of clicks and hisses. Apparently the military and civilian authorities can't hear the spaceships as they communicate with each other, but Hess and his family can -- through their baby monitor.

Eventully an enormous fleet of spaceships appears in the sky over the world's major cities. It turns out that the crop circles were some sort of navigational aid. Why these aliens would need to make crop circles to guide ships that have traveled across the galaxy, I can only guess. Why they needed to hang aroung their crop circles in person and stalk people, I can't even begin to imagine.

In the face of the alien invasion, the family decides to board up the doors and windows and wait. Here the movie gives an affectionate wink at Night of the Living Dead, as the family tries to hold off the invasion with a few sticks and boards. The futility of their efforts in the face of... well, the End of the World... is shown through the frantic, silly things they do, like boarding up doors that open the other way. And, of course, they forget ways into the house that everyone takes for granted. This annoyed me, too: even the idiots in Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City/City of the Walking Dead remembered the coal chute in the basement. And, NotLD-style, they end up in the cellar, with the invaders pounding ineffectually on the door.

But who are we
          So small in times such as these?

-- David Bowie, Slow Burn

Signs is obviously a post-September 11 film, with its nightmare depiction of hostile aliens among us, and death coming unexpectedly from the skies. How are we supposed to retain our faith and our hope in the face of what may be the end of everything we value? Precisely because it is an obvious post-September 11 movie, it can't possibly provide an appropriately difficult answer to these difficult questions. It wants to be reassuring, life- and faith-affirming. You know within a few minutes that the film isn't really going to show us the end of everything, the way the superb English film Threads does. It would have been a much more interesting film if, for example, it had started with Hess's crisis over the death of his wife, and then shown us total, world-wide devastation. That would have given us a sense of real perspective. It would even have been interesting to have Hess regain his faith by losing everything... by suffering still more. Like Job, for instance; a Biblical character Hess seems never to have heard of.

But the times don't call for stern stuff like the story of Job. Shyamalan wants to reassure us, and so his alien threat is impossibly weak. The aliens can cruise across the universe in ships that disappear from sight and from radar, but they can't break down a door. What's worse, in order to give us the requisite happy ending, Shyamalan comes up with the creakiest deus ex machina I've seen in a good many years. It turns out that these super-advanced aliens have One Fatal Weakness, and once the humans discover it, the aliens take to their spaceships and skedaddle. I didn't believe this in Yonggary, and I don't believe it here.

In his desire to concoct a happy ending, Shyamalan failed to consider what his ending really implied. First of all, the aliens' One Fatal Weakness totally invalidates their reason for being here (hint to Mr. Shyamalan: what is the human body mostly composed of?). Worse than that, Shyamalan seems to be suggesting that God has killed thousands, perhaps millions of people... brought the world to the edge of destruction... and shattered the peace of mind of most of the entire planet's population... just so that one shallow priest could regain his faith. Anyone that believes that some Supreme Being is giving him special treatment, while the rest of the world suffers unbearable torment, isn't just being naïve... he's dangerous. He's coming awfully close to the mind-set that brings us suicide bombers and religious terrorists.

Frankly, if you want a much better examination of the crisis of faith in our times, especially in America after the September 11 terrorist attacks -- not to mention a more effective challenge to the apparent indifference of God -- I recommend you go listen to the latest David Bowie CD, Heathen. I've used several quotes from its tracks in this review. Like Shyamalan in Signs, Bowie brings together both the sublime and the ridiculous, sometimes at the same time -- for instance, note the way, in the concluding track, that the Górecki-like harmonies threaten to turn into a doo-wop song; or look at the way the fluffy song Everyone Says Hi takes on a totally different meaning from its context in the album ("...and the guy upstairs..."). But Bowie's CD is much more elliptical and ambiguous than Shyamalan's movie, though he seems to be confronting the same issues. And while Bowie's conclusion is far from hopeless, it isn't as irritatingly cozy as Shyamalan's.

If I put faith in medication
          If I can smile a crooked smile
If I can talk on television
          If I can walk an empty mile
Then I won't
          feel afraid
No, I won't
          feel afraid
I won't be
          be afraid
                    Any more

-- David Bowie, Afraid


I expected some response from my review of this film; after all, it's one of the only films I've chosen to review while it was still in the theaters, and still on many people's minds. It was also doing very good box office. I figured I'd hear from a number of people who would take me to task for my appallingly negative take on a popular movie.

Well, I did get a larger response to this review than I have from probably any other. And it was in general very favorable. Several readers responded with letters that were actually far better than the review itself, and it is only vanity which prevents me from tearing the page down and putting up the letters instead.

One note in particular deserves mention: reader Zack Handlen (whose wonderful new site, The Duck Speaks!, compares questionable movies with their literary inspirations) sent a very compelling message, which read in part:
What troubled me most about the eventual thrust of the film -- the idea of coincidences being a bit more than just coincidences -- was much the same as yours, albeit for different reasons. You took issue with the idea of some Supreme Being killing millions in order for one conflicted priest to regain his fate. I didn't see the story as quite working that way. It is strongly suggested that Graham's wife was killed _on_purpose_ by said Supreme Being; the driver who hits her says that he never fell asleep at the wheel before, that if he'd fallen asleep at any other point then when he did, no one would have been hurt.

By the logic of the film, such a series of "coincidences" aren't really coincidence at all. Which means that the supposed accident that caused Graham to lose his faith in the first place was meant to happen. God didn't send the aliens to give him his faith back -- if it was so important that Graham have faith, he wouldn't have killed the wife in the first place, right?

Welll -- as I see it, if you accept that God did have a hand in the death of the wife, this leads to two options. Either God did it all because he wanted Graham to lose and regain his faith for some inscrutable reason, or God did it because he wanted to send a message to Graham (the message that the deus ex machina rests rather heavily on), and the faith issue was all Graham's. I lean towards the second one as being Shyamalan's intent, if only because the first explanation doesn't seem to hold with the overall tendency towards whitewashing God.

However, the second is just as disturbing to me as the idea of the millions dying so some loser priest will put his collar back on. Because it means that God killed the wife in order to save the son. And while that may seem on the surface benevolent (somehow) because, after all, what mother wouldn't sacrifice herself to save her child? -- it implies that God ranks people. That he decides who lives when and how they die, that one person may be sacrificed to save another -- and here the sacrifice seems so small as to be pointless. "Swing away"? Like Graham wouldn't have figured that out on his own.
Good and thought provoking points. They also show to what extent we take humanist values for granted, living where and when we do. To a certain way of thinking, it's perfectly natural that a God (or gods) would do as He (or they) pleased with human lives. They are, after all, His for the taking, and they're all ending up being disposed by Him in any case, right? Our post-Enlightenment Western view of God is shaped by our humanist notions of justice. We think of Him as being well-disposed toward us, and kind, and just; all according to how we feel we ought to be treated. It's precisely this attitude toward the Divinity... this presumption that we are somehow on equal footing with God... that gets us in trouble when we run into other ways of thinking, in parts of the world where humanist ideals have not taken root. Not just abroad: there are many people here in the United States who believe the sin of humanism to be corrupting the nation; but I believe that even the Kansas Board of Education is relieved that our civil and criminal justice system is based on democratic rather than theocratic principles.

And again, let's not forget that this is a God who allegedly had his own Son killed to save everybody else. So the idea of sacrificing people ad libitum is something He's had some experience with. But in the end, I think we're left with a movie that doesn't withstand such close scrutiny. I think it's a well-intentioned film that didn't stop to consider its own implications. And the saddest thing about it for me is this: that in spite of all the interesting discussions I've heard, or participated in, concerning the film, I have no desire to go back and watch it again...

1. The Tarkovsky connection gets even stranger:

I'd been in the mood to watch a Tarkovsky film for a while, ever since I'd had a discussion with one of my co-workers a few weeks before. We'd been talking about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. He asked me if I thought there was any such thing; I said I thought that we wouldn't recognize it even if we found it. I asked him if he'd ever read Stanilaw Lem's novel Solaris, which is about mankind's encounter with a planet whose ocean seems to be alive. Decades of study result in no further understanding of this giant "organism"... but it seems the ocean has had much more success studying us. One of the points of the book is that we're not really looking for aliens in space; we're looking for some part of ourselves. We want to be reassured about our place in the universe. We want some validation, some idea that our lives are worthwhile. That's probably not what we're going to find.

Tarkovsky made a film version of the novel, different from the book in many ways, but even more insistent on the idea that we are searching the stars for signs of our own humanity. My friend suggested that someone should remake Solaris, and I had a good laugh about that. Both the book and the movie are incredibly complex, the absolute opposite of what's currently popular in sci-fi. I couldn't see anyone making a new version of the movie in today's industry.

Weeks passed. I saw Stalker again, and went off to see Signs. Before Signs started, my wife and I started talking about remakes in general. There are several slated for the coming season, some of which make me shake my head in dismay. I was particularly interested to see what they were going to do with the American version of Ring, so I was gratified to have the chance to see the trailer. I still have hope that the American Ring might turn out to be a decent (if unnecessary) film. But then, immediately after the Ring trailer, came another trailer. Hmmm... blue shifting seas... pulling back to reveal a planet... and a space station... George Clooney in...


"Signs" indeed.

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