I’d never watched Signs before this past weekend. The reasons are easy enough to enumerate. I am not a big horror fan, and upon the movie’s release, the people I knew only talked about how scary it was. I therefore imagined a lot of jump scares and stress, and I rarely find myself in the mood for those two things.
I also was nonplussed about the whole ‘aliens conversation,’ especially aliens as a horror movie monster. A horror movie with a monster as the prime instigator of horror, and that monster pre-declared as an already tired trope, did not and does not draw me into a theater near me. The only thing worse would be to not declare that the monster is aliens and then reveal the source of horror as that tired trope after an hour of teasing it (I’m looking at you Super 8).
I should have realized sooner, however, based on the critical acclaim the movie received, that it was more than a tired alien movie. It is so much more. And it took a national reckoning with unidentified flying objects for me to hit play and experience this for myself.
I did not consciously choose to watch Signs because the Pentagon had just released their report on all the UAP that they still cannot explain and will not attribute to domestic or foreign intelligence or alien life and cannot explain via means of science or camera tricks (not much left by way of explanation guys). But I do believe my subconscious was at work, and that provided such a delightful convergence with the theme of Signs.
Signs is not about aliens. And Signs is not a horror movie whose goal is to scare. Signs is about the way we see the world, or if we see it at all. As Graham puts it in the movie, there are two types of people, those who believe in signs and miracles, and those who believe we are all alone. And more than that, those two types of people can look at the same thing and walk away with completely different stories about what they saw. And I am sure many people walked away from Signs and told the story of a ‘scary movie’. Indeed, the movie was a masterclass in building tension, and it did a great job revealing enough of the monster to not be disappointing, but not so much of it that we felt like there is nothing to reveal at the climax. But others saw a commentary on the lens we choose to view the world with, the signs we miss and those we see and how we explain them away.
I watched Signs because the country is talking about aliens. And as the country is talking about aliens, it shows a thirst for something greater than what we are experiencing- a secret hand guiding our actions, an outside observer monitoring our situation, an intelligent life greater than our own. It both comforts and horrifies us.
Graham was in the midst of being horrified at the idea that we are not alone. As a Reverend, this manifested in his horror that a God in control of the universe, a benevolent God mind you, would allow the senseless and brutal death of his wife. Any man who had the final conversation with the one they love in that manner would walk away questioning the validity that there was anything greater than our masses of flesh bouncing into each other while here on earth. The thought that there is a being who could have stopped it, would be worse than believing we have no greater purpose.
Shyamalan understands the thin dividing line between belief in aliens and belief in a higher power. They both are outside our planet, they both can choose to intervene in our affairs, they both are usually ascribed with greater intelligence than our own, and they both challenge our worldviews and presuppositions in a fundamental way. If we saw the existence of a god or of aliens, we end up asking ourselves similar questions. What do they want with me? How should I live with this new knowledge? What does this mean about being a human?
Obviously, it would lead to different answers, and in some ways is a totally different line of questioning, but only because the answers are derived from the evidence. They both present similar existential crises. So Graham, already in an existential crisis as he asks questions of the God he has rejected is now confronted with alien life forms invading the planet, and throughout the movie one can never quite tell which conflict he is dealing with. Because at the end of the day, Graham needs to decide if whatever he is seeing, god or aliens, are signs, or if he is all alone.
The nuance of that internal conflict is beautifully told. At first Graham won’t even admit that the crop sign is from extraterrestrial life. He figures there is some other earthly explanation. And along the way, little does he know, he is observing other signs, nonsensical though they may be- asthma, water glasses, ‘swing away’, the death of his wife and her final words. But he is closed to all of them. He is closed to any possibility that something might be out there, alien form wishing him arm, or deity looking to aid him.
But as the movie progresses, Graham must admit that there is extraterrestrial life, whether he wants to or not, and the fact that he is absolutely not alone almost breaks him. Just as the loss of his wife shook his worldview, now the appearance of aliens is shaking it again. Faced with almost certain death, and maybe the death of all humanity along with it, he must decide if he actually has disavowed his faith in God. And he wasn’t ready to answer that questions quite yet.
Shyamalan attempts to tell a story with the most difficult internal conflict at the heart of its main character, a man going from belief to unbelief and back again. There may not be anything so fundamental to humanity than their religious faith or lack thereof, it changes the way we view everything, if we see signs or if we see accidents and coincidences, how we view death and our roles here on earth. And because of this, that conflict resolution can often feel trite, as if the person had never actually descended into the bowels of unbelief in the first place. However, Signs falls into no such trap. The death of his wife and Mel Gibson’s performance show him in deep unbelief. He is mourning and angry and so very sad. The challenge would be to find a way to realistically tell the story of a man coming out of that unbelief.
The final scene does this. It tells the beautiful story of a man who had been provided signs all along, even in the midst of his chosen blindness, even when he had blocked out any iota of something greater, the signs were still there. And they all coalesced beautifully in a wonderfully surprising way. I had forgotten about the water glasses, I assumed the asthma was for a different plot device, I assumed Merril swinging away was for backstory and to develop that character. But even all of these signs wouldn’t be enough to deliver a man from their unbelief. However, delivering that message through the dying words of his wife in the act which caused his unbelief, was storytelling at its finest. “See…. Tell Merril to swing away.”
I did not see the signs. Only upon reflection can any of us look back and recognize the signs that got us to where we are (like Pentagon reports getting me to watch a movie and write this post). And none of us will reflect on how we got to where we are, if we don’t have faith that there is something greater.
Even in Graham’s lack of faith, when face-to-face with that alien, he couldn’t deny something greater than our world, and he found both aliens and a god.
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