Sign, Sign, everywhere a Sign

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The plot in a nutshell
Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, once a reverand, now a man with little love for his God. Quite suddenly, crop cirles appear on his farm and other locations all over the world. Bright lights appear over major cities, and before you know it, spindly gray aliens are showing up at some kid's birthday party, providing better entertainment than Droopsy the clown.

The film explores man's faith in God, our willingness to believe in the metaphysical, and uses the 'signs' of the aliens as a metaphor to the more spiritual signs in our lives and the film. More about faith in God than it is about alien invasion, it took some folks by surprise and ended up with very mixed reviews when it was released to theaters in the summer of 2002.

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Relatively Spoiler Free Thoughts
I'm a big fan of Shyamalan. Both of his previous films were on my top ten lists for their respective years, and he has an excellent grasp of developing suspense. He has said before Hitchcock was an influence, and that's pretty clear to even the most casual observer.

The style of this film does have it's differences though. In particular, he has gotten away from the long continous shot scenes which were so prevalent in both of his previous films. The pacing is still deliberate, but he uses long pan and fade shots, along with deliberate dialog pacing and extended shots of static images - up a narrow flight of stairs, down an alley way, etc. - to create that mood.

This movie is not an alien invasion flick. It's a good thing too, because it fails miserably in that area. Many of the actions of both the humans and aliens are heavily contrived to fit the real point of the film, and if you're looking for a sci-fi popcorn muncher, this one isn't for you.

It is a suspenseful movie, and he shows his deft ability in the genre. You'll jump when your supposed to, cringe at all the right moments, and never look at a baby monitor quite the same way again. Shyamalan uses both sound and light to great advantage, and by not showing us the aliens in too harsh or clear of a manner, he builds a mood and setting that will grab you and keep you

Acting is solid all around, with particularly good performances by Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, and Rory Culkin (proof that one member of the family actually got the talent gene).  There's some great supporting work, and I loved Ted Sutton as the slightly off-kilter officer at the army recruiting office.  Even Shyamalan gets in on the act (stealing again from Hitchcock by always having some role on screen) with a fairly meaty supporting role.

But the greater question is whether the film works as a metaphor about faith, religion and how we use God to make all the little boo-boos in our lives seem all right. When I first watched the film, I answered this question with a resounding 'no'. I saw all the 'signs', and they were so tenuous, or simply ridiculous, that the final conclusion of the film (Hess' final choice) made little sense.

But then I considered it from a different angle. Perhaps M. Night Shyamalan isn't saying that there is a God, or that our faith is justified. What if instead, he's saying that whether or not there is one, we're destined to see signs of a higher deity with a higher meaning simply because we have to? Even when the signs are tenuous at best, we must cling to them because psychological we have to.

When I brought that perspective to the film, I had a very different feeling for it. It's still not a great film, and certain aspects of the story are very weak. But it is a film that can make you think, if you give it the chance, and that's often rare these days.

Rating - Rent It.
This is the kind of film I enjoy more after pondering it and discussing it. On a first viewing, many of the more glaring weaknesses in the alien invasion plot line hurt my ability to suspend my disbelief, but it does provide solid food for thought on higher issues. If you're looking for a fun little monster movie, pass this by. If you're looking for something that will make you jump on the couch, and think about the next day, give this one a rental.

Spoiler Laden Thoughts
Okay, this is the section where I get to talk about any and all plot points, twists and turns.  Stop reading if you haven't seen the movie!

Still here?  Okey-dokey, let's get to it.

As I mentioned above, this movie would fail miserably if it were simply an alien invasion flick.  Very little of what the aliens do, or the humans in response, makes much sense.  The aliens make the crop circles as navigation devices, which just so happen to be something humans have been faking for decades.  Thank God their version of a Death Ray was the massive wedgie.

And although every country in the world is extremely sensitized to ANY form of aircraft entering their airspace, all these same countries sit back and allow dozens of ships to park over major cities without at least trying to blast them out of the air? Oh, sure, the governments of countries like the U.S., Israel and India would sit back and wait to see what their intentions are...

I do like the fact that this film is about the perspective of one man, on his own, during such a crisis.  I would have actually preferred less outside information, and another of my major complaints revolves around what seems to be a tacked on plot device for the sake of the world, rather than this one household - the water.

So water burns the aliens like acid.  Okay.  So why the hell would they arrive here UNPROTECTED?  I understand why they came - the film makes it pretty obvious it's for the people ("It's a cookbook!"), but if we wanted to start eating the people of Venus, I think we'd be smart enough to wear a protective suit from the elements.

That's actually a minor gripe though.  The real flaw with the entire inclusion of the water is it's utter uselessness to the story.  The idea that something so simple defeats them requires a huge suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer.  If you're asking me to do that, then at least make it worth my while

Instead, the water servers very little purpose.  Yes, the little girl has always had this mental deal where she finds some reason she doesn't like the taste.  Of course, she keeps getting herself another glass anyway.  And yes, this is surely one of the 'signs' from God.  But for what?  The use of the water does little to help Hess, who finally figures out that simply beating the crap out of the alien might be a viable solution.

The water is tacked in to give you the viewer the sense that we won, and the bad guys are going home, at least for now.  It's not a point that was really necessary to make, and hurt the film more than it helped.

And what about that 'revelation' of the bat?  This was another contrived 'sign' that required the humans in the film to act so far out of context of reality, that it's almost impossible not to laugh.  Let's say you're being attacked by monsters, or zombies, if you saw the Night of the Living Dead version of the old 'barricade yourself in the house' trick.  Wouldn't you pick up a weapon?  Perhaps the hammer you're using to pound the nails into the wall?  When you walk up the narrow flight of stairs to see if the nasty beasties are still waiting for you, just out of sight, sure to pounce as you reach that last step, wouldn't you naturally pick up the pick axe you were using to prop the door shut?  You know, just a little extra insurance to at least have a fighting chance?

But no.  None of the humans here ever pick up a weapon to actually defend themselves until, miracle upon miracle, Hess thinks back to his wife's final words.  Actually, I have to take that back.  Hess' son does know what to do with a weapon - he kills the family dog with a barbeque knife that he had obviously picked up to protect his sister.

This wasn't accidental on Shyamalan's part, and I realize that.  He had to do that, otherwise his contrived ending wouldn't work.  The problem is, it requires far too great of a stretch of the imagination to buy into that behavior.

And what about that prophecy from his dying wife?  She died (but not painfully!  We were very clearly told that God wouldn't do that!) and another man's life was ruined, simply to provide an answer that should have been obvious anyway.

So we have three signs or situations, all that could be the act of God serving some higher purpose - the daughter's distaste for the water and her leaving it around the house, the death of his wife, and his own son's asthma.  And all three are about as weak of a connection to a spiritual plane as you can get, even when taken together.  But yet, Graham Hess finds his way back to his love of his Lord.

And this brings me back to my earlier assessment.  What if that really is Shyamalan's point?  We see his own character, the man who killed Graham's wife, trying to convince himself that what happened was 'almost like it was meant to be'.  But that's not about faith - that's because he has to tell himself that.  The alternative is that HE is the reason a good woman died, it's his fault, his fault alone, and there was no higher purpose.  He can't possible accept that, and so he's looking for any 'sign' that it's not true.

And Hess, well, he also is desperate to believe again.  Just as his own son hates him for the death of his mother, so he hates God for the death of his wife.  But given even the flimsiest of excuses, he can find meaning and purpose in her death, and find his way back to the fold.

When I examine it from that angle, it works for me.  Okay, I won't go quite that far, as there are still plenty of problems with the film.  But it was a fun little spooky flick, and it did make me ponder a few things.  I can't ask for too much more.

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