Amid the blockbuster thrillers of lazy summer, the last thing you may expect is to find yourself pondering life’s big questions as you scream from the edge of your movie seat. Unless you’ve seen “Signs,” that is, by director M. Night Shyamalan.
“What a profound and prescient mixture of anger, confusion and faith to pop up in the midst of a summer of silly sequels,” said Craig Detweiler, a screenwriter and the director of Reel Spirituality, an institute at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.
“For raising eternal questions in a hugely entertaining manner,” Detweiler added, “M. Night Shyamalan deserves all the boffo box office ‘Signs’ is definitely getting.”
Besides enhancing the fame of its director, whose credits include the Oscar-nominated “The Sixth Sense,” Shyamalan’s latest film has brought plenty of the signs Hollywood loves most--the ones that go with dollars. During its opening the first weekend in August, the movie earned more than $60 million.
All this for a story about a priest, presumably Episcopal, who loses his wife, then his faith, only to regain his belief after confronting aliens who leave strange patterns in the cornfields outside his rural home.
“Signs” tells its otherworldly story in a down-to-earth way. Rather than showing epic vistas of alien hordes, “Signs” concentrates on the life of one family in Pennsylvania.
When the film opens, the priest, Graham Hess, played by Mel Gibson, is grieving for his wife. The father has two children: the severely asthmatic Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), a little girl with a strange obsession about the water she drinks.
Hess and his children are accompanied by Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), the priest’s younger brother, who has moved back to the farm to help after the wife’s death.
The intensifying threat from another world unfolds indirectly. The family watches television reports, hears strange signals on an old baby monitor and reads a book about aliens. The audience experiences the horror of alien invasion through the interactions of four people. Those interactions also reveal Hess’ crisis of faith.
When reports of mysterious lights in the skies above Mexico City appear on TV, Hess tells Merrill the world has two kinds of people, those who believe someone is behind everything that happens, and those who don’t.
Merrill asks his brother which group he places himself in. “There is no one watching out for us, Merrill,” the doubting priest replies. “We are all on our own.” With the story of how Hess’ wife died related in a series of dreamed flashbacks, the priest interprets the death as simply a random event in an unguided, uncaring universe.
But the movie insists on tying up every loose end. Morgan’s asthma and Bo’s water obsession are transformed from incidental afflictions to key elements in the story and clear signs of a providential plan at the film’s surprising conclusion.
Despite the obviously Christian elements in the movie, Christian critics have not been unanimous in praising “Signs” as a clear pointer to the faith.
On his Movieguide Web site, conservative Christian critic Ted Baehr finds the film to be “slightly syncretistic” with a “false Hindu worldview and some moral elements and ambiguous Christian ones.” On the Movieguide scale of “Moral Acceptability,” where categories range from “exemplary” to “abhorrent,” Baehr and fellow reviewer Tom Snyder gave “Signs” a “caution” rating.
Despite the reservations about theology, Baehr praises Shyamalan as a moviemaker, calling “Signs” a “riveting suspense movie that effectively combines both the horror and science fiction genres.” And Baehr said he appreciates the faith-friendly issues the movie raises, describing it as “a very subtle, very well-conceived exposition of
Detweiler, however, applauded the film’s affirmation of a presence above and beyond the observable. “Like a lot of postmodern filmmakers, I think Shyamalan clearly believes in the supernatural
The movie looks at “the fundamental questions of whether we are alone in the universe ... or whether there is a possibility of divine intervention and intelligent design.”
While making every detail make sense could be a reflection of theology, it is also great screenwriting, Detweiler said.
“In some ways, I might argue that God is sort of the ultimate screenwriter, bringing all the loose ends, the seemingly random occurrences of our lives, into some great purpose.”