10 January 2015

Observing SIGNS

Two weeks ago I wrote a column here on foreshadowing, and listed some movies, novels, and short stories in which that writing technique played a part. I also mentioned a film--one of my favorites--that used that approach especially well, telegraphing in a subtle way a number of different events that would occur later in the story.

First, a little background. M. Night Shyamalan is an Indian-American writer/director who made several extremely good movies (The Sixth SenseUnbreakableThe Village, etc.) before his career took a necksnapping, hang-onto-your-seat nosedive with several extremely bad movies (The Happening, The Last Airbender, etc.). In the early Aughts, while still going strong, he wrote and directed a film called Signs, starring Mel Gibson--a movie that used a sci-fi plot to tell what I thought was an excellent story about faith and family and courage. I watched it three times in theatres when it was released in 2002, and to this day I consider it to be one of the best examples of effective story construction.


The title of the film has several meanings, the most obvious a reference to the strange "crop circles" often featured in the news some years ago. Most of these were proven to be hoaxes, but others are still considered by some to have been navigational aids (signs) created by visitors (scouts?) from another planet. The movie Signs begins with Gibson's character Graham Hess, an Episcopal priest who's lost his faith, discovering crop designs in the cornfields near his family's house. Other strange things soon happen, the suspense builds, and the story ends with Graham and his brother and two children not only confronting otherworldly forces but learning a life lesson in the process.

As I've said, a lot of seeds are planted throughout Signs that set up, and/or explain, later occurrences. The following are a few examples.

NOTE 1: SPOILER WARNING. If you've not seen this movie, close your eyes now, and then get thee to a Redbox, or to your Netflix queue. If you have seen it, I hope you'll keep reading, and then let me know whether you agree with my admittedly biased thoughts and opinions. (I used to be Night Shyamalan's Number One Fan.)

The foreshadow knows . . .

- Graham Hess's six-year-old daughter Bo doesn't like their drinking water, and is always leaving half-full glasses all over the house. In the movie's final scenes, it's revealed that water is the only thing that will kill the invading aliens--and Bo's leftover tapwater becomes a weapon. 

- Bo's older brother Morgan has asthma. That illness later helps to keep the alien creature's spray of poison gas from entering Morgan's lungs.

- Graham's brother Merrill was a star baseball player, and holds a local record for the longest home run. (He almost made pro, we're told, but didn't because it always felt wrong "not to swing.") At the end, Merrill uses his baseball bat to save the day.

- Early remarks by Bo hint that her mother's not around. We later find out she died six months ago, a fact that forms the basis for the entire plot.

- When Houdini, the family dog, begins acting weird at the beginning of the movie, Graham tells his kids he'll call Dr. Crawford. Looking surprised, Morgan says, "He doesn't treat animals," but Graham replies, "He'll know what to do." Much later, it turns out Graham prefers to contact the MD rather than the nearby veterinarian--Ray Reddy--because Reddy is the man who caused the auto accident that killed Graham's wife. (Even then, we're never told that Reddy is a vet; we only get a quick shot of his mailbox, which has his name and profession written on the side.)

- Shortly after Houdini urinates on the kitchen floor, the sheriff tells Graham that several local dogs have been peeing on themselves--as if they'd smelled a predator.

- In one scene Bo tells her brother Morgan that she doesn't want him to die. At the end of the story, Morgan is the only member of the family who indeed comes very close to dying.

- In Reddy's otherwise empty house, a trapped alien gropes underneath a pantry door and Graham chops off a couple of its fingers with a butcher knife. In the final scenes, when one of the aliens is holding Morgan's limp body, we see that two of the creature's fingers are missing.

- In the first scene, at the farmhouse, an empty spot outlined on the wall indicates that a cross once hung there but is now gone. And early on, the sheriff refers to Graham as "Father"--the first indication that he used to be a priest. He replies, "Don't keep calling me Father."

- Ray Reddy, as he prepares to flee from his home, tells Graham that he has a feeling the creatures "don't like water." Turns out he's right: water burns their skin, like acid.

- In two separate nighttime scenes at the farmhouse, the crickets outside suddenly stop chirping. Nothing happens right away, and only later do we realize it was a sign that something sinister has arrived and is in the area.

- Graham's dying wife is seen in a flashback, instructing him in her last words to tell his brother Merrill to "swing away." That's exactly what happens, at the end.

- While hiding in their basement, Merrill tells Graham he's just heard on the radio that the aliens who have landed in other parts of the world have retreated, but that they did so suddenly and left some of their wounded behind. The creature that Graham wounded earlier (by cutting off its fingers) turns out to be waiting for them upstairs.

- The opening scene of the film (Graham coming out of the bathroom in their house) is repeated in the last scene. The second time, we see through the window that the seasons have changed (time has passed), and he's now wearing a priest's collar.

I realize that listing these examples this way, out of order and out of context, doesn't make the movie sound very interesting--but it is. It's a story that, at least to me, combines fine performances with a great setting and soundtrack, humor, steadily-building tension, and a stunningly emotional ending. I challenge you to watch the final scenes without brushing away a tear (and my movie tears are usually reserved for Dumbo and Old Yeller). Have any of you seen Signs? Any opinions?

Night shift

Note 2: As I've said, I used to be used to be one of Night Shyamalan's biggest fans. Although I have friends who hated SignsThe Village, and another of his movies called Lady in the Water, I loved all three, and even wrote about Shyamalan in a 2008 Criminal Brief column, here, two weeks before The Happening happened. As things turned out, The Happening crashed and burned, and so did 2010's The Last Airbender, which I found myself hoping would be The Last Shyamalan Project. I recently watched his latest film, After Earth, and thought it was so-so.
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But I'm trying to remain loyal. The Nightster obviously has great talent, and maybe his next movies will be as good as his early ones were. If the are, I'll be the first to reboard his bandwagon.

Meanwhile, I'll just watch Signs again. I hope you will too.


  1. John, I confess that I went through a lengthy phase of not watching many movies. You've corrected that with several of your columns that made me eager to Netflix some that I missed during my reading-only phase. SIGNS is one of them. I agree with everything you say about it, and especially appreciate how subtle many of the foreshadows are, but my favorite is that shot of the mailbox revealing Reddy is a vet. It's freezing cold today, and I believe it will be a good day to revisit SIGNS.

  2. Glad you liked it, Fran. I'll never rank great movies as highly as I rank great novels, but we writers can definitely learn from them, and from any kind of fiction.

    By the way, last night I watched Devil, a movie that Shyamalan produced (someone else wrote it) in 2010, and it was good. It's available via Netflix streaming, at least at the moment.

  3. I've never been able to stand Shmayalan (probably misspelled, sorry) & thought The Sixth Sense was beyond stupid. But different strokes for different folks, I guess.

  4. Liz, tell me it ain't so!!!! (I can see I need to work on you.)

    I did like The Sixth Sense--but I must also agree that some of his movies were terrible. As you said, different strokes . . .

  5. John and Liz, I watched THE SIXTH SENSE the first time expecting it to be horrible from what some of my friends had said, but I enjoyed it immensely. Then again, a lot of my strokes are different.

  6. I set a high bar for paranormal and Shyamalan makes the cut. Elizabeth's bar might be higher yet.

    I like the first three films and didn't see the latter two John mentions, but at first viewing of Signs, I was on the negative of ambivalent. That may have been because I was expecting something like Close Encounters but ended up with The Invaders. I wasn't looking at it through the eyes of John, which could make me reconsider now that I'm past the ET stage

  7. I liked The Sixth Sense, and Signs; I thought both were very suspenseful. I agree, I'm kind of tired of EVERY alien movie being about how EVERY alien in the universe is out to get us (are we a paranoid species or what?), but I'm a sucker for crop circles. Shyamalan's crash and burn amazed me, too - and I hope he gets back on his game.

  8. Hi John-

    I confess, I was a Nighthater- thought "Sixth Sense" was STUPID, that "The Village," once you were in on the secret/joke/mcguffin/whathaveyou was a one-trick pony, and "Unbreakable" was unwatchable. However, I decided, based on your endorsement, to give Shyamalan another chance, and watched "Signs," (it doesn't hurt that I'll watch Joaquin Phoenix in anything- if anyone can make Pynchon's TEDIOUS "Inherent Vice" interesting, it's Joaquin Phoenix) and enjoyed it.

    Thank you for that, and for giving me the idea for a future blog post about a movie I find criminally overlooked, which employs cinematic trickery along these lines.

    So a double thank you!


  9. Leigh, you're right, this movie turned out not to be "about" what I thought it would be. Instead of SF/fantasy, it's actually a story about faith and spirituality--and that's a subject that, if not handled well, can be pretty corny.

    Eve, I too am fascinated by things like crop circles (and Bigfoot and the Bermuda Triangle, etc.). Part of me really wants to believe these things are real.

    Brian, I look forward to your column. And yes, MANY of my favorite movies seem to have been criminally overlooked. As Liz said, different strokes.

  10. I loved SENSE, thought UNBREAK, and SIGNS cured me of the Night guy. Sorry.

  11. Hey Rob, at least you made up your mind early on!

    Like Eve, I remain hopeful that he will again prove himself, in future projects.

  12. Where did bo get the idea that her brother was going to die?


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