Film is an art form. Sometimes we forget that because our lives are saturated by movies that have forgotten that film should enrich us and evoke wonder in order to transform. That doesn't mean they have to be boring. It just means they have to be thoughtful and aspiring for something more than just to entertain you for two hours. We would like to spend this section spotlighting films that we think make us think, reflect and see things all the better.
There Are No Coincidences
Written by Taylor Jarvis
The first time I saw Signs I made it about three-quarters of the way through before I broke down in tears and my father had to turn it off. I was seven years old and I found the film so frightening that I had to sleep on the floor in my parents’ room that night and I wasn’t able to finish watching the movie until about two years later. Before you ask yourself why my dad would let me watch a movie this scary let me tell you that at that point the movie I’d seen the most was Jurassic Park and I never found it scary, so my parents didn’t expect me to be afraid of the aliens in Signs. That being said, the question of why my dad wanted me to see Signs in the first place is a valid one. It is, afterall, a lot for a seven-year-old to take in. But, it wasn’t just because of our mutual love of sci-fi and aliens, it was because there is something more to Signs, something deeper that speaks to a truth known to those who live in Faith, and he wanted me to understand that.
Before we get into the deep end on this one I want to touch on the fact that I believe this is a perfectly constructed movie. Signs is a masterclass in pacing, suspense, tone, and most importantly, message. All of this is present even in the first scene of the film. The first few minutes of Signs is practically overflowing with information about our characters and it also manages to introduce all the major themes without being overbearing.
We know immediately that Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a single dad. We’re not sure what happened to his wife yet but we see him waking up alone with a picture of his family on his nightstand. His kids are young in the picture so when we see crude drawings taped to the door to their room we know that they aren’t much older now than they were in the picture. We see the outline of a crucifix on the wall where one must have been hanging for years and recently removed, again supporting the idea that whatever has happened to the Hess family did not happen long ago, and foreshadowing the reveal of Graham’s rejection of Faith. Graham hesitates and then ultimately doesn’t enter his kids’ room to check on them, implying his relationship with them is strained in some way and that he may feel over-protective. We know from the very first shot, as the camera dollies out literally through the glass in Graham’s bedroom window, that the Hesses live in a rural community and that they grow corn. As the camera comes to rest in the room Graham jumps awake, giving us a taste of the tension that will fill this movie to the brim. But, we also get a taste of the humor that will speckle the story when Graham hears a child’s scream and steps into frame from behind the door, his toothbrush still squarely in his mouth. All of this may seem like minute details but whether you pick up on these things or not, subconsciously your brain is and is preparing you for the experience of the next hour or so based on all these bits of information. That’s what makes it so well done. The fact that all of these things are packed so seamlessly into the first few minutes and they flow so effortlessly, it’s almost as if you’re watching your own daily routine suddenly being shaken by the discovery of a crop circle in your backyard.
And what an unsettling discovery it is. The way the Hess family examines the crop circle that has appeared in their cornfield overnight truly gives you a sense of foreboding. Even though Graham believes at this point that it’s just the actions of some neighborhood hooligans, the way the camera lingers and the way his son Morgan (Rory Culkin) remarks that he thinks God did it, reveals that the family knows deep down that this is something bigger. Of course we learn quickly that this is the case when it is revealed that aliens are visiting the earth and are leaving crop circles all around the globe, thus presenting us with our main conflict.
A lesser film would have stopped there. The aliens themselves and the world’s attempts at fighting them off would have been the main conflict, but the true conflict of Signs is found within Graham. His rejection of God and faith in general after what we later learn was the untimely death of his wife Colleen (Patricia Kalember) leads him to lose all hope in the face of the alien invasion. As the tension builds throughout the film, no one knowing exactly what the aliens want or if/when they are going to attack, Graham has a harder and harder time keeping his family together, at least in the way he would like to. His attempts at protecting his kids from news about the aliens continually fail as Morgan insists on learning more and more about the situation. He accuses his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) of being naive for having hope that this is not the end of the world. His refusal to believe in anything other than his hatred of God leads him further and further into despair. Or so it would seem.
In my favorite scene in this movie, and one of my favorite conversations in any movie, Graham confronts Merrill about his Faith. As the news plays in the background, the TV the only source of light shining on the two brothers, Graham explains to Merrill that “There are two kinds of people… So you just have to ask yourself: are you the kind that sees signs, sees miracles? Or do you think people just get lucky? Is it possible that there are no coincidences?” Merrill responds that he believes this is not the end of the world. He shows that he still has Faith, even if his older brother, a former reverend, does not. He believes that everything happens for a reason.
It’s hard to continue without spoilers from here but I’ll do my best because I believe it really is best to go into this movie cold if you don’t already know the ending. But, basically, the film goes on to answer Graham’s question: no, there are no coincidences. Everything truly does happen for a reason. We’re introduced early on in the film to the fact that Graham’s daughter, Bo (Abigail Breslin), has a weird quirk where she leaves glasses of water all around the house, that Morgan has asthma, that Merrill used to play baseball and holds the minor league strikeout record because it always “felt wrong not to swing,” among other things that may seem like simple character building. By the end of the movie, however, we realize that all of these things are present for a reason. Everything works together in the end to save the day, and Colleen’s final words - “Tell Graham to see, and tell Merrill to swing away” - are the key. Even Graham’s lack of Faith has a role to play in the ultimate saving of the day.
I will elaborate on that last point at the risk of spoilers because the message of Faith is what compelled my dad to show me this movie, and it’s why I keep revisiting it over and over to this day. In one of the final scenes of the movie, the aliens have broken into the house and the family is hiding in the basement. Morgan is grabbed by one of the aliens after they figure out a way in and is thrown into an asthma attack. As Graham holds him in his arms, trying to get him to calm down and breathe, he looks up and tells God not to take his son, he tells God that he hates Him. In an earlier scene Morgan had asked to pray before dinner and Graham refused saying he would not waste another second of his life on prayer. And yet, even in Graham’s hatred, even in his attempt to offend God, he opens himself back up to Him. He finally lets God back in, even if it’s only to express his fear and anger, he involves God in the situation. This coupled with Merrill’s Faith and silent prayers as he watches helplessly, I believe is what saves the Hess family. Graham’s re-acceptance of the existence of God opens his eyes to hope once again, allowing him to “see” past his hatred and believe in something bigger than himself.
As the dust settles from the final confrontation with the aliens, the camera repeats its opening motion through Graham’s bedroom window, although this time the glass is broken. I absolutely love this because it is so rich with symbolism. In the beginning of the film, Graham is looking at life through a lens. He believes he’s seeing it clearly, as if looking through glass, but there is still a barrier preventing him from seeing the truth. In the end, the lens is shattered, and now Graham can see the world as it truly is; filled with hope and Faith. The extra layer here though is that it wasn’t Graham’s or Merrill’s Faith that broke the window. It was the aliens. The demons literally knocking down Graham’s door. Ultimately it was Graham’s own fears, personified by the aliens, that forced the window to break, and allowed the light to flood back into his life. This simple camera movement through a broken window shows that not only is the message that “everything happens for a reason,” but it goes even deeper saying that “even bad things happen for a reason.” Even bad things happen for a good reason.
Signs is one of the formative films of my youth and one of the movies that made me want to make movies of my own. As I’ve gotten older and watched it again and again I’ve come to understand it more. It is so rich with Truth and so expertly crafted that I could not recommend it more. Some may find one of the twists at the end a little cheesy and hard to swallow, but I sincerely compel them to look underneath that and see what this movie is trying to say. I’m not sure if even Shyamalan is aware of how deep this film dives into the human condition, into the exploration of grief, and the significance of every aspect of our lives. What I am sure of is that I will continue to watch Signs, and pick up on something new each time, and I will try to live up to its message of faith, hope, and love.