Signs

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Is there anyone working in cinema today that risks an entire movie on its final ten minutes more than M. Night Shyamalan?
Making a name for himself with the devastating rug pull that closed out The Sixth Sense, the director seemed to think that a last act gasp is more important that whatever came before it in order to scratch that all consuming itch that was perfectly covered by Robot Chicken’s “What A Twist” sketch.
It’s reached ridiculous levels these days (Glass technically had three, all of which were rubbish), but it really started to take effect with 2002’s Signs, a ridiculously tense and incredibly well crafted alien invasion thriller that audiences complained jumped the tracks in the final moments of the film and that sullied everything that came before.
But is this early evidence of Shyamalan excitedly jumping the shark really a fair account of a movie that strings together its moving themes of faith and family and then delivers one of the greatest jump scares in modern history?

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Graham Hess is a former priest who has since lost his faith and is trying to move on from the death of his wife, six months earlier. Making ends meet at his farm in rural Pennsylvania with his two young kids Morgan and Bo and his brother, failed baseball player Merrill, their buttoned down lives take a turn for the incredibly weird when a massive crop circle turns up in the middle of one of their corn fields. Graham initially writes it off as an elaborate prank but inbetween one of his dogs suddenly getting violent, his daughter constantly leaving unfinished glasses of water all over the house and shadowy figures seen around the area, the strange occurrences start to mount up until the crop circles start showing up globally.
Naturally, the world kind of freaks, but in an attempt to quell and potential hysteria within his household, Graham tries to keeps things normal – but still the occurrences keep happening with lights being spotted in the sky and unearthly sounds being picked up on an old baby monitor.
Could these really be signs that aliens are eyeing up our planet for some mysterious reason and if so, could these reasons be sinister in their intent? As time goes on it becomes clear that extraterrestrials are, in fact, days away from making their presence felt and it’s becoming pretty damn obvious that they’re not here to nibble on M&Ms or other such cutesy shit and the world girds its loins as the sightings become ever more threatening.
But where does this leave the Hess family? Why was Graham’s wife’s last words about Merrill swinging his baseball bat? What do these things actually want? What the hell are all those glasses of water all about?
In the midst of some deeply creepy shit, the Hess clan – Graham in particular – is about to learn some fantastical lessons about matters of faith.

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Often when a well made movie shits the bed in the closing moments, people tend to take their frustration out on the film as a whole, however, when looking at Signs with an open mind, it really deserves more love than it gets because for the most part it’s only an alien paw away from legitimate greatness.
Opening with a title sequence that give composer James Newton Howard to cut loose with an utter banger of a score before the director launches into an invasion film that refreshingly holds back on the Independence Day bombast in favour of touching character beats and gut crawling tension as we see what a slow, stealthy alien infestation looks like from the ground as it effects people who aren’t mathematical geniuses or who can’t fly a jet. As the Hess’ try to go about their business while still internally writhing with the rawness of a recent loss, Graham tries to double down on normality while his predictably precocious kids attempt to make sence of it all and his nice-but-dim brother struggles somewhere in the middle. It’s yet another example of Shyamalan’s gift with character work as you know exactly what everyone’s thinking without anyone saying anything thanks to some magnificent examples of foreshadowing (Witness Graham letting us know exactly how dangerous events have gotten by allowing his family to each choose whatever they want for dinner). The actors more than rise to the occasion and if you can separate the artist from the art, Mel Gibson is a resplendent example of downplaying a character’s emotions, having all of Graham’s grief and uncertainty bubble just under the skin. Elsewhere, Joaquin Phoenix gives wide eyed support as well meaning screw up Merrill and sterling work is delivered by the alarmingly young Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin and despite the odd appearance of the sheriff of a grumbling member of town, the movie chiefly holds focus on the struggling family unit. Yet amidst all the drama, Signs is surprisingly witty and comes loaded with a fair amount of humor that’s as dry as sandpaper and all the funnier for it – witness Graham’s awkward attempts to be imposing to scare off what he thinks are trespassing kids (“I’m insane with rage!”), or the usage of tinfoil hats to show how weird the alien rumours are getting. There’s even a healthy dose of satire in there too as it toys with the concepts of the family getting all their information from panicked news reports and wild speculation, gradually becoming more addicted to any knowledge they can glean from the events that are rapidly unraveling around them.

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Admittedly, Shyamalan’s particular style of storytelling often flies in the face of logic and yes, the movie relies heavily on massive examples of unbelievable coincidences, but that’s supposed to be the point – however, it’s just such a fucking shame that it all falls apart with the end in sight as Shyamalan fails to stick the landing and all the careful construction he’s spent the last hour and forty minutes building collapses like a house of cards. It’s a disappointment to be sure and is oddly reminiscent of the final act fumble of James Cameron’s similarly well put together tension of The Abyss and the reveal that Graham’s wife was giving him warnings about the invasion while at death’s door feels less like a miraculous confirmation of the divine and more like an eyeball rolling contrivance born of the need to cram in an unnecessary twist.

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Still, despite the overly neat silliness of the ending, Signs unleashes some impressive scares that simply shouldn’t be written off because of the ending. A news report that sees an alien suddenly wander into full view at a kid’s birthday party is one of the most traumatic – yet disturbingly casual – shocks of the noughties and the sight of a claw lunging at Graham as he peeks under a barricaded door is a perfect yelp inducing cherry on an incredibly tense cake.
To be filed under sci-fi movies that tantalisingly brush against perfection before messing up the ending (along with The Abyss and Spielberg’s version of War Of The Worlds), Signs deserves to be regarded higher than it is, but that ending ironically turned out to be a sign of problems to come for Shyamalan’s subsequent output.

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