A Retrospective: Signs (2002)

With his new film The Visit out in cinemas this month, I recently took the time to re-watch M.Night Shyamalan’s 2002 alien invasion movie Signs; a personal favourite from my childhood years.

The director/writer has come under much derision in recent years. Having avoided many of his most recent efforts, I actually have quite fond memories of watching his films and I remember Signs as one of my favourites. After recently re-watching (the criminally underrated) The Village and enjoying it rather a lot, I decided to give Signs a go too and see if it also stood up to the test.


The early 2000s were a very particular time for mainstream horror films. The success of The Sixth Sense gave way to the rise of the ‘Spooky-thriller-where-everything-is-inexplicably-awash-with-orange’ genre (as I liked to call it) with films like The Others, Hide and Seek, Godsend in the pipe-line. Signs came around just before the genre had outstayed its welcome. At the time, everyone was looking forward to see what the guy who did The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable was going to do next. (It was a time when M.Night was being heralded as ‘the next Speilberg’. God, I feel old remembering that.)

I remember Signs as being an introverted alien invasion movie. It was a horror film where most of the actual horror was happening in some other part of the world. Meanwhile, our viewpoint was given to a dysfunctional family who are forced to stay up late in their little farm house, huddling in front of the TV for scraps of information regarding the mysterious invaders. Remember the strange foot disappearing into the corn field? Remember the clawed hand reaching out from under the door? Remember the news footage of the guy attending a kids birthday party dressed as an alien and… wait a minute… that was an alien!

The film certainly had some memorably creepy imagery. I remember the paranoia steadily growing and growing until the family were all donning tin foil hats and Mel Gibson ended up going absolutely mental at the family dinner table (although, watching it today, it’s hard to tell if he was actually acting that part or not). It was a horror film with a heart. It was an alien invasion movie with a focus, not on spectacle, but on themes like family, paranoia and God sending aliens to Earth because Mel Gibson needed to know that his wife died so that she could warn him about the aliens so he could become a priest again.

Yeah, after watching it again, that third thing is actually pretty distracting. It’s also completely inescapable. Almost every line of dialogue relates to this theme. You see, more than anything else, Signs is a movie about faith. It’s a movie about the end of the world and the day of reckoning. It’s about not believing in coincidences. The title relates, not to the crop circles, but to the idea that everything is a sign. At the end of the movie, the clear message seems to be that, if you believe that there are no coincidences, that everything is a sign and that everything has a purpose, your life will have meaning. If not, your life will be filled with fear (as Gibson’s character actually puts it in the movie). This idea is… well, it’s very easy for a film to say.

But, on the other hand, combining aliens with faith has been common business for a while now. There was that Nic Cage film Knowing, A fairly recent Dean R. Koontz novel called The Taking (God sends an alien UFO to cause judgement day) even the original The Day the Earth Stood Still was forced to adopt a line about Klaatu having no more power than the ‘holy spirit’. I wonder why these two themes are put together so often? Especially when they seem so at odds with each other?

Maybe it’s just the religious cultural barrier between America and Britain, but being confronted with this idea of “no coincidences” as something to take away from a film and seriously consider is a very alien concept to me (Whey!). In my innocence, my younger self must have seen Signs and just accepted this subtext while not letting it hurt the things I liked about the film. However, my old and cynical brain just can’t let myself enjoy it. That one little detail gets ensnared in my brain and I can’t focus on anything else. Is that the fault of the film or of me? Does that says more about the film or more about me? Perhaps it says more about the way the world has changed since the film’s release?

Oh wait. No. It’s definitely the film. Aside from that subtext, Signs is one of the most unintentionally bizarre movies I’ve seen. It mostly comes down to one scene right near the beginning where our main family decide to go into town, relax, mingle the locals and… is everybody in this town on medication or something? There really is nothing worse than dialogue that tries to come across as naturalistic and ends up landing miles from the mark (maybe with the exception of stepping on a snail while wearing socks.) The film treats us to an intense argument about Scandinavian high jumpers as well as a wild eyes army recruiter asking a main character “why aren’t you having your toes licked by beautiful women?” in the manner of a crazed William Shatner.

My favourite example by far is a scene at the end where Jaoquin Pheonix takes Mel Gibson aside and says…

“You’ve been looking pretty depressed recently . You’ve got to get your faith back ‘cos then you’ll be happy again. Chin up man.”

…When, literally, a few hours prior there was a FUCKING ALIEN IN HIS HOUSE! Jesus man, get your priorities straight.

So anyway…

Signs (2002). As good as I remember?:

…No. Not really.

Watching Signs again was a pretty unusual experience. As an M.Night fan, it was like standing in the shoes of someone who hates his films and seeing everything that they see for the first time. It’s a real shame because there is so much to like in this movie (and many of M.Night’s movies in general) but these good things usually get buried under a lot of distracting stuff and, to me, Signs, is the most distracting of the bunch. Anyway, The Visit is out now. I hear it’s pretty good and actually can’t wait to check it out.

Meanwhile, please enjoy this clip of the best scene from Signs featuring the (frankly, much needed) addition of Jonathan Frakes doing… god knows what.

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One Comment

  1. At the end of the film, I had to smile, recognizing how Shyamalan has essentially ditched a payoff. He knows, as we all sense, that payoffs have grown boring. The mechanical resolution of a movie’s problems is something we sit through at the end, but it’s the setup and the buildup that keep our attention. “Signs” is all buildup. It’s still building when it’s over.

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