Signs is a 2002 sci-fi thriller by master frightener M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan is notorious for his final-act twists, some of which stick the landing (The Sixth Sense), some of which fall flat on their faces (The Happening). When you watch a M. Night Shyamalan movie you have no idea what you’re going to get, and that uncertainty is part of what entices viewers to keep seeing his movies. Ultimately, it’s a dyed-in-the-wool formula that he’s employed for 30 years to a fairly high degree of success, and it makes Signs a nice addition to his repertoire. Signs does a good job of teasing a trademark twist that you may or may not see coming.
The story of Signs revolves around Graham Hess (Mel Gibson). He lives on a farm with his three children, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), Bo (Abigail Breslin), and Morgan (Roy Culkin). Graham, a recent widower, is struggling with his faith, fatherhood, and finances. On top of all that, mysterious crop circles are now appearing in his cornfield. (If it’s not one thing it’s another!) At least he’s not alone; These crop circles are appearing all over the world and it forces you to ask: What is going on?!
His son, Morgan, posits a theory that sends the household into a state of paranoia. Paranoia that comes across as a little boring and dry at times, but feels like an accurate picture of what a family might experience in their situation. They position baby monitors to keep a close eye on their acreage, and they religiously consult the nightly news for insight. However, despite all these proactive efforts to calm nerves, everyone can’t help but fear the worst. This rigmarole works not only because we feel their trepidation, but because the slow buildup heightens the film’s tension. Additionally, the audience can really feel Graham’s struggle to be a protector and a leader. Aside from maybe Alador Blight from The Owl House or Stolas Goetia from Helluva Boss, Graham might be the best depiction of a struggling father I've ever seen.
And that’s why I love Mel Gibson’s acting in this movie. Mel Gibson is not really someone I would consider a “good actor,” but he gives a very credible performance as a loving patriarch in Signs. Moreover, watching Graham reject his faith and eventually turn back to it creates an intriguing conundrum that adds great emotional depth to the film. His chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix is also a high point, as it provides the film with some really fun moments. His interactions with Breslin and Culkin feel realistic and uncomfortable, and that makes the character of Graham more empathetic. Graham is the heart and soul of this movie, and Mel Gibson’s earnest plays a huge part in making that so.
I would be remiss not to mention the film’s score. The film’s music helps the Signs cast tremendously by adding suspense to the film. James Newton Howard, the movie’s musical maestro, is one of my favorite composers, and his score for this project might be his best work. Using mostly a combination of violins and flutes, Howard creates a sound that perfectly captures the element of mystery that shrouds Signs. The film’s sounds are simultaneously ominous and curious. Particularly in the climax, the score perfectly captures horror and hope. Howard’s music portends when it’s supposed to and delights when it needs to.
Overall, “Signs” is a really well-made sci-fi thriller. The movie’s resolution is a bit confounding, but great pacing, quality performances, and a beautiful score make up for the lazy twist. Additionally, a touching message about not letting go of your faith, even when God seems really far away also helps the movie succeed. If you haven’t seen it, seek it out. It’s one of Shymalan’s better oeuvres.
Signs is available on most major platforms.