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Signs


gen x review signsYou’ve seen the signs and you know that we are not alone, but sometimes you wonder if there is someone or something watching over us or just waiting to snatch us up in our sleep.


Master director M. Night Shyamalan understands how you feel and is willing to push you into the dusty corners of your mind, where everything you have ever feared is possible. This is a world where aliens and god do not necessarily want to be your friend and even dust bunnies sometimes have fangs.
Signs is a subtle, wonderfully paced film, a work of art so haunting that it nearly defies comparison.


Only the recent film Frailty produces this level of exquisite ambiguity, and that film lacks the courage to resist its own resolutions. Signs is the most complex, compelling work of storytelling so far from the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.


Ex-priest Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a man facing a crisis of faith. He has recently lost his wife and renounced his priesthood, believing that the accident that took his significant other was an arbitrary act, a sign without meaning. He lives with his small children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), and younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) on a farm in rural Pennsylvania.


One day he discovers a crop circle carved into his corn field. He initially believes the signs to be the work of petty vandals, but when nearly identical circles appear all over the world and strange lights are seen hovering over Mexico City, he changes his mind. The signs are dangerous portents for the cleric turned atheist, because they signify the possibility of another aggressive force in the universe.


The invasion that follows makes Graham re-evaluate his values. The alien signs are ultimately as material as any in the universe, but beneath them lies an entirely different system of meaning. Graham must determine, interpret and rationalize the world through the grammar provided to him. Are the signs empty absurd gestures in a demystified and meaningless Existential world or do they constitute some real language, a miracle.


The film teases out conflicting interpretations, playing with audience expectations until the uncertainty reaches a crisis of possibilities. The signs are overdetermined and metaphoric, designed to evoke a sense of ambiguity and doubt. Bo says, “are you in my dream,” or Graham mutters, “I’m not ready to face this yet” and the audience lets out a collective Aha, thinking they understand the film’s subtle narrative tricks -- but they don’t, trust me.


The film takes place is a real so symbolic that it may be a gross allegory for some deep psychological or spiritual trial, a setting so troubled by the past that it could be merely a psychic hallucination or cheap trick of consciousness, the kind of exercise college English professors are enamored by. Yet somehow the characters don’t feel wooden, unrealistic or contrived.


Graham stutters over swears he barely knows; Merrill interprets dating mishaps as signs from god; Morgan makes tin foil hats to protect his thoughts from the aliens; and Bo has a problem drinking one glass of water at a time. These are ordinary, flawed people, living lives of quiet desperation and trying to come to grips with the recent death of Graham’s spouse. The mysterious crop circles are merely the outer most ring of meaning in the story of people struggling to understand their world.


The family farm is a pressure cooker, forcing Graham and his family to face their lives in new ways. Emotions are intensified and amplified by the alien invasion, yet the real story isn’t so much the crop circle signs and warnings as the possibility of redemptive faith. Sometimes god speaks in a very private language. Sometimes our lives run in distant circles that seem arbitrary from the ground, but take on significance when seen from another perspective.


The aliens are uncanny, enigmatic signposts pointing toward some even stranger truth. They appear as vague shapes in doorways, strange figures creeping along the horizon, or indistinct eerie faces peering in from dark windows. They are the things we all see out of the corner of our eyes as we’re walking to our cars on cold autumn nights, the things we secretly know live in our basements eating grub worms and beetles.


Shyamalan builds suspense like a master architect -- a mad genius redesigning the tower of babel from its description in scripture. Every step forward reveals more of the uncertain underpinning holding everything together. The spiral stairwell leads nowhere, but you must follow it until you stand at the very top of this demon structure, where all signs appear both divine and utterly meaningless.
Signs are all around us. How you choose to interpret them is up to you.

 

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