Comfortable and Furious

Signs (2002)

Signs is a good movie. Real good in fact. It flirts desperately with greatness, but in the end, Signs is left alone with only the bartender listening to its woes. M. Night Shyamalan pulls out every emotional fastball and sucker punch in the book and then beats you on the head with ’em. Funny part is, many work. In addition, M. Night breaks some of my own personal movie rules, yet I am hardly filled with venom. The first rule broken is having not one, but two cute, smart little kids in almost every scene. One of them is a fucking Culkin. They even ask penetrating questions about their dead mother (Groan). Shyamalan also depicts good, clean, hardworking small-town folk as good, clean, hardworking small-town folk. I hate that.

The worst rule he broke was allowing a kid’s disease to become an integral part of the plot. That kind of shit actually boils my blood (See Panic Room and The Others). However, the story here in Signs is so well told that I wasn’t bothered. In fact, during the last forty-five minutes when Signs was doing nothing but jerking tears and soliciting screams, I donated a few.

Shyamalan has a miraculous ability to reign in his leading men. We’ve all seen Braveheart, so we all know how much of an over baked Christmas ham Mel Gibson can be. Just like he did in Unbreakable with Bruce “Yippy Kay-A Motherfucker” Willis, M. Night forces Mel to calm down, get a hold of himself and have some dip. Meaning, instead of playing his usual idealized larger than life everyman, Gibson plays Graham Hess, a broken-down preacher – an everyman. Gibson is entertaining and believable in the role.

Other things Shyamalan does well: I bet the effects budget for this movie was $10,000. That is ten thousand, not ten million. This movie is about an alien invasion. Not like two or three aliens, but thousands and thousands of aliens invading four hundred cities. I was trying to imagine what the movie would have looked like if Spielberg or Lucas had gotten their grubby paws on the script. Oy Vey! There would have been aliens coming out of every corner of every shot, all blinking and beeping. Instead, and wisely I might add, M. Night chose to make a thriller, not a computer showcase.

How refreshing!! He must have watched Jaws and realized that true terror comes not from seeing the shark, but from the anticipation of seeing the shark. Hence, we get about two minutes of on-screen alien. More than enough. Think about it, The Sixth Sense was about ghosts and Unbreakable was about super heroes. Signs is about aliens, yet in all three films, Shyamalan focuses on the characters and what’s happening to them psychologically, instead of trying to outdo George Lucas like every other director seems hell-bent on doing. Refreshing, to say the least

Something else that Shyamalan seems to be doing better than any big budget director in Hollywood; there are no over the top, wacky characters in any of his movies solely added for comic relief. It could be argued that the clerk in the bookshop or the girl at the pharmacy served this purpose. I suppose. But I was thinking more along the lines of Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element or Robin Williams in AI – out and out buffoons. None of that here in Signs or in any of Shyamalan’s other films. Shyamalan seems to be more concerned with telling a good story than he is with making fifteen-year-olds guffaw and spit up Dr. Pepper. Good for him.

I have one serious bone to pick with Mr. M. Night, though. The ending. I’ll never be able to figure out why a director, especially a writer, director, producer like Shyamalan is so found of billing himself as, would take such a big chance in the beginning with the message of his film only to cave in and cow-tow to studio pressure and public taste for the final few minutes. What is the crime with making a film that you know the public is going to consume en masse and allowing it not sit well in their stomachs? Sam Rami did just that with the ending of Spiderman and most Americans saw it twice and are planning to by the DVD. Here’s what happens at the end of Signs.

Gibson, his brother (The reliable Joaquin Phoenix who is almost 19 years Gibson’s junior) and the two most perfect kids in the whole world are trapped in the basement and the alien is trying to get in. The thing almost gets in, causing the youngest Culkin to have an asthma attack. Of course, the kid’s medicine is upstairs, so he just rides the attack out, almost but not quite dying. Then later when the freaked-out family leaves the basement (Without the pick-ax for some reason – well, there is a reason, but…) an alien grabs the boy and sprays poison gas in his face. Gibson’s character had a crisis six months earlier when his wife died. He lost his calling and his faith and is no longer a reverend. While Phoenix is beating the alien to death with a baseball bat (That’s the reason!) Mel drags the kid outside where he theorizes that the asthma attack had shut down his son’s lungs and therefore Culkin didn’t inhale any of the gnarly gas. Of course, just when you think the kid is dead, he’s fine. Not only that, Gibson gets his faith back and starts preaching again.


Let the kid die. A fucking Alien had him! And how about a little moral ambiguity? If the kid had died and then Gibson puts the collar back on, well, that would be interesting. Or if the kid had died and Gibson keeps on cursing and denying God, well, that too would be interesting. As it is, Signs ends too neatly, it’s too tidy. Too middle of the road, too happy. Even if the damn kid is allowed to live, I have my reservations as to whether or not Gibson’s character would begin preaching again. I’m not a Christian, but nothing would shake my faith in the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost more than looking at my half-dead son in the arms of an alien. My larger point, though, is that earlier in the film, Shyamalan asked some fairly tough questions, but his paint by numbers bullshit ending silenced any worthwhile answer he might have given.

Not to take away too much from the rest of the movie, which was well acted, well-paced and most importantly, well written. The little girl is adorable, and honestly, I only felt like knifing the Culkin kid once or twice. Phoenix on the whole does a good job, but he seems only able to be scared and goofy or overly earnest. Although there is one scene where the lady cop asks him how he likes working at the gas station, to which he replies, “Stimulating.” It is a funny scene; however it is the sort of thing someone who keeps apartments in New York, Los Angeles and Berlin might say, not a down-on-his-luck minor league ball player. Also, Shyamalan should not act in his own movies. He has all the on-screen charisma of a potato.

Signs is really creepy and worth watching in a theater, especially ones with a big sound system. Absent are Shyamalan’s trademark twist ending and Gibson’s Uber-Macho bluster. Present are “Scary Summer Thrills” and childhood actors who don’t make you vomit in your lap whenever they open their precious little mouths. It’s called Signs not so much for the crop circles, but rather because Shyamalan is asking a bigger question: do things happen randomly and without meaning, or is phenomena simply that? The answer has all the subtlety of an elephant walking on hammers. However, for a movie ostensibly about crop circles and an alien invasion, I was pleasantly surprised. Entertained a little, too.

Ruthless Ratings

  • Overall: 7
  • Direction: 8
  • Acting: 7
  • Story: 4
  • Re-watchability: 6

Special Ruthless Ratings

  • Number of times you realized that Abigail Breslin is the cutest little girl you’ve ever seen: 3
  • Number of times you thought, “Hey, this is just like Panic Room: 5
  • Number of times you were really freaked out, good like: 4
  • Number of times you groaned because of some cutesy bullshit uttered by one of the kids: 3
  • Number of times you realized that every single thing said and done in the beginning of the movie comes back to have significance at the end: 6
  • Number of times you couldn’t decide if this was smart, efficient film making, or self-indulgent, look-how-clever-I-am film making: 5
  • Number of times you thought, “I know it’s Mel Gibson, but I like the movie anyway.”: 9
  • Number of times you felt exactly the same way watching Bruce Willis in Unbreakable: 12
  • Number of times you thought, “While Shyamalan might be the next Spielberg, he sure as hell ain’t the next Scorsese.”: 3