Film Appreciation: ‘Signs’

Too biased to be legitimate reviews, but giving well-placed appreciation for the films I love. This series could be a precursor for full-on reviews, or maybe I’ll just post these brief “film appreciations” once a week. Either way, I’ve got a lot of miscellaneous movies that I’m dying to talk about, so bear with me.

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It may not be the most popular film of M. Night Shyamalan’s career, nor is it my favorite (Unbreakable is just too damn iconic) but Signs holds an immensely special place in my heart. If this film appreciation doesn’t sway your opinion on Signs, then at least I had fun raving about it.

The fact is, Signs may in fact be the most refreshing alien invasion film of our time. That isn’t to say that it’s the best of the genre, but without a doubt it has what most others like it lack. Forget the fanboy gripes surrounding M. Night, and forget the bad taste Mel Gibson leaves in your mouth as a modern-day viewer—there is seriously so, so much to love about this movie.

The most noticeable way Signs stands apart is through the unique perspective we’re given during the invasion itself. Past experience with the American film industry tells us that, in a film of this genre, this should be the most cinematic and grandiose event. Not so with Signs, yet the same impact is there.

Clearly the aliens have been there from the start. However, the lead up to the inciting incident—the full-scale attack—is just perfect. We see the titular “signs”, get a glimpse of a few extraterrestrial scouts, and even hear them communicating through baby monitors in that enthralling scene in the family’s driveway. So what’s next? Cinematic instincts tell us that it’s time for the family to pack into their car and leave the farmhouse behind. Most likely they will abandon their small Pennsylvania town entirely, crashing headfirst onto a road full of car chases with alien ships and encounters with other (most likely untrustworthy) survivors. Yet Signs doesn’t take this tried and true route.

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Instead, we are given a wonderfully contained story, sitting on eggshells in a remote farmhouse with this one, lone family during the film’s climax. We don’t see the effects of the alien attack on that dramatic, larger scale (like in War of the Worlds or Independence Day) but instead get an intimate look at how it impacts those in the periphery of the destruction.

These are the stories we never see but which are no doubt occurring while the White House is being blown up some 200 miles away. This refreshing take on an alien invasion would not be nearly as effective if it weren’t for the characters we’ve gotten to know during the rising action and their relationships to one another.

Each character in Signs is special to the story, and therefore to us as the viewer. To put it bluntly, each person is secretly living their own private hell: Mel Gibson’s father figure as the ex-reverend is obviously dealing with the loss of both wife and faith, his brother Merrill (played by the unparalleled Joaquin Phoenix) is undoubtedly in the throes of mental health issues and struggling with a fear of failure, Gibson’s asthmatic kid still feels sharply the loss of his mom while growing more and more disconnected from his father—all while Abigail Breslin serves as the innocent relief from the oppressive mood.

These characters become so interesting that the alien invasion exists almost in the background, or even feels as if it is occurring as a result of this small, broken family. Maybe the minds behind Signs even saw the invasion as a necessary event to mend their bumpy relationships. Of course, behind the scenes lurks the deceased wife and mother who is threaded throughout the story; always in the backdrop but ultimately serving as the guiding backbone for the plot.

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Naturally, you can’t talk about the mom in Signs without bringing up what makes this film truly shine: the magical element to it. Perhaps it was the filmmakers’ way of tying in the themes of religion and faith, but to me it has always felt like pure magic. I’ll never forget that wonderful moment when child-me made the connection between Breslin’s water glasses and the aliens’ weakness. Call it a too-convenient plot point or even a plot hole (yes we’ve all heard the “but there’s water vapor in Earth’s atmospheric composition!” theory a million times), but that was a damn cool moment where I was able to see clearly what they had been pointing us towards all along.

That, coupled with Mel Gibson’s dying wife’s prophetic last words, all culminates into those few minutes in the living room; right when you thought the worst was over and were quickly proven wrong. All the pieces clicked into place and you felt overall cheesily satisfied.

It was undeniably one of the moments in film that made me fall in love with movies from a young age, and I still get goosebumps when Merrill picks up that baseball bat and swings away.

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-Kendall

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