johnlink ranks SIGNS (2002)

Twelve years ago, when SIGNS debuted, Mel Gibson was one of the most bankable stars on Earth and M. Night Shyamalan was considered a can’t-miss Director. My, my, my. How things have changed. SIGNS felt like a good movie when I saw it ten years ago. Has the shine washed off?


I watched SIGNS (2002) on 10.7.14. It was my third viewing of the film, and first in a decade.

SIGNS tells the story of an alien invasion. Like the Spielberg WAR OF THE WORLDS, which was made 3 years later, this is a movie that focuses on the story of a family rather than the larger picture. This is a film about isolation, duality, and faith. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a former Reverend who lost his faith when his wife died. He raises his children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin in her film debut) with the help of his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). The film starts with a crop circle in the corn. Turns out, they learn through the news, that this is happening all over the world. It would seem the signs are pointing towards an invasion. Being a suspense film, those signs are correct. The climax of the film has the family holed up in their house trying to ride out the night.

SIGNS, of course, is a title referring to the signs of faith as much as it is the signs in the corn field. This is a movie which is about the universe, or God, having a plan and that everything turns out just right. This would, by extrapolating a little bit, mean that all the faceless people who died in the invasion were always destined to die at the hands of extra terrestrials, but we can put that aside for a moment. Where a normal movie does everything it can to avoid being too much about coincidence, SIGNS is a movie which wants to not only be about coincidence, but to embrace it as a predetermined path. That’s a bold move. It works, somewhat. Pushing against the success of the message are the fact that this is a Hollywood script written by a man who controls what will happen. Of course everything can happen in a pre-determined way: it is scripted! Secondly, some of the dialogue which leads to the coincidental revelations is a little forced, most notably a conversation on a couch between Graham and Merrill about faith, which turns to coincidence only as a way of setting the audience up for what will happen in the third act. It is a strange scene, one which feels like a forced bit of exposition in a movie which works hard to be about quiet subtlety.

Watching this movie, it is easy to see how Shyamalan may have thought that THE HAPPENING might have been a success rather than a monumental failure. SIGNS is a quiet movie which works because it is about small things. Cherry Jones is almost annoyingly mundane as a police officer, but the tone works for this film. This tone extends beyond that character as well. Part of the reason it works is that we have seen Mel Gibson be funny and deadpan enough throughout his career, that his doing so in this movie reveals character rather than masks it. Joaquin Phoenix has some great line delivery from some dialogue that is among Shyamlan’s best. The problem with HAPPENING is that it had Mark Wahlberg being mundane, Zooey Deschanel being mundane, and everyone else in it being mundane. There was no activation of energy anywhere. SIGNS has a wonderful turn by a 6 year old Abigail Breslin to keep it infused with life, Gibson’s humor, Phoenix’s skill, and a surprisingly grounded performance by young Rory Culkin. There are sections of this movie which are so quiet and so understated that it risks toppling, but the movie always stays on the correct side of that line.

The main device that allows it to do is to setting the movie in a quiet rural town. This is not a macro look at an alien invasion, but rather a micro look at a family’s survival. Quiet works over demonstrative, and the demonstrative stuff (like Gibson running around the house loudly and uncomfortably proclaiming his anger) feels out of place for these folks.


The movie is also about duality. Graham is a reverend and then he is not. The opening shot is mirrored by the last shot. There is a great deal of symmetry in the cinematography, like in the shot above with the family watching television. There are some things I am sure are supposed to mean something, only it isn’t entirely clear what. This is a white town with all white people where the one person who killed someone is Indian (Shyamalan plays the part himself). It is a movie which does not comment on this directly, but in a film which is about the alien, which is about the other, it sure sticks out like a sore thumb.

But really, the ability to enjoy or not enjoy this movie hinges on how you take the last moments. For some, this is the start of the unraveling of Shyamlan’s career, and those people felt even more slighted by the ending of THE VILLAGE two years later. For another group, the ending is a perfectly fine wrap up. For others, the totality of the movie makes up for the deus ex machina at the end. I think I fall in that last camp. This is an enjoyable movie, an interesting movie, and a worthwhile movie.



The bonus point is for a top level score by James Newton Howard. It recalls great horror and sic-fi scores of the past and does a great job of using the same theme in both the positive and negative portions of the film, only with different instrumentation. Great score.


FINAL SCORE: 7.25 out of 10

~ by johnlink00 on October 8, 2014.

5 Responses to “johnlink ranks SIGNS (2002)”

  1. Great review Link. This truly is a divisive movie. When I first saw it I loved it but hated how it ended up. Then I thought about it and told myself to get over it and liked it plenty.

    Then later I thought about it again and asked myself “These aliens have mastered interstellar flight and can conquer other planets but can’t open pantry doors and die if water gets on them?” Bullshit.

    I think this is a totally EFFECTIVE movie but……..

    • Totally feel the same way. If you take it as a movie about aliens, it is SERIOUSLY lacking. If you take it as a movie about family, it is pretty good.
      Definitely one of those movies that is more effective than good, great word choice, haha.

  2. Though I get why a lot of people get on M. Night’s case now, you still can’t deny the fact that this movie works as a suspense-thriller. That is, until that twist ending comes around. Good review John.

  3. Great review! You have a new follower! I haven’t written about this one on my blog, but I have always enjoyed this movie. For me, the biggest problem with the third act is that it loses the mystery of the alien. If the only glimpse we got of the creature was the hand in the coal chute, I think it would have been stronger. Also, depicting a family dealing with an alien invasion within the context of grieving the lost of a loved one was quite a novel approach.

    • The trap Shyamalan seem to fall into was feeling like he needed the big third act reveal. But, at least with Signs, he had the presence of mind to make the movie about the twist. I’m not surprised he couldn’t sustain that as a career.
      Thanks for following!

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