Wineskins Archive

February 11, 2014

Movie Review: “Signs” (Sep-Oct 2002)

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M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs
Reviewed by Beth Van Rheenen
September – October, 2002

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, writer and director of the hugely successful The Sixth Sense, Signs begins with the eerie return of crop circles. Although those mysterious patterns from the late 1960s and early 70s were revealed to be hoaxes, Shyamalan’s story cleverly builds on those incidents and quickly establishes a suspenseful mood. Signs is also quite scary in places, the primary reason for its accurate PG-13 rating, although it is also peppered with “mild” profanity and brief violence.

For those wondering why New Wineskins is reviewing another science fiction movie, I want to suggest that Signs is not science fiction. By definition, science fiction is a form of fantasy in which scientific facts or hypotheses or the extrapolations of such form a logical basis of the plot.

Logic, however, is missing in Signs at every turn: a father allows his young children to overrule him, fails to seek help in the most dire situation, and attempts to fend off the enemy by wedging an ax handle under a doorknob. Instead of logic, this film emphasizes suspense, fear, and uncertainty. The movie also capitalizes on a remote location, repeated (and contrived) darkness, and subterranean passages–all conventional elements of the gothic genre, a popular form of literature that originated in 1764 with Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. A major object of gothic literature is to create within the reader a sensation called “the sublime,” the source of which is a painful idea or emotion (such as extreme fear) that enables one to achieve new heights of feeling while suspending rational activity.

While science fiction works, both written and cinematic, have found increasing popular and critical acceptance, gothic literature remains marginalized. Other than Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, most oncepopular gothic writers are now largely unknown and unread: Walpole, Charles Brockden Brown, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, and Theodor Storm. A reader of serious literature might respond, “Good! What possible use could such a genre be when its emphasis is scaring people into irrational states?”

The answer is that this genre is one of the best, if not the best, for dealing with trauma. Gothic literature focuses on characters who are victimized by powerful forces beyond their control. Yes, these works have a surfeit of emotion and violence, but these conventions are uniquely suited to the working out of trauma and its effects.

Past emotional trauma, not the current alien threat, is the central focus of Signs. The Hess family – Graham (Mel Gibson), a farmer and former clergyman, and his children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin) – have suffered the horrible and apparently senseless loss of their wife and mother. As a result, Graham has renounced the priesthood and his faith in God. As he angrily tells his family, “I am not wasting one more minute of my life on prayer.” Hess’s true struggle is clearly with his faith, not the aliens. But Signs, despite the apparent “return to faith” that it celebrates, is based on a dangerous misconception. A close examination of the movie reveals that Graham Hess’s faith is not restored; rather, his sight is restored.

The truth is that Graham loses his faith because he cannot make sense of the events that surrounded his wife’s death, particularly the randomness of her accident and her bizarre final words. On a less intense level, he is also troubled by his son’s struggle with asthma and his daughter’s phobias about water. As he cannot understand where God has been throughout these ordeals, he renounces God.

Ironically, however, his encounters with the aliens give him new insights into these events. By the end of the movie all his questions have been answered (but certainly not all the viewers’ questions about the aliens!), and he “sees” everything, just as his wife had mysteriously implored. The last seconds of the movie provide visual confirmation that Graham has returned to God: against the backdrop of his children?s laughter, he puts on his priest’s collar, indicating his intention to be “Father Hess” again. In the world outside of cinema, however, sight is rarely so fully restored, nor as believers should we expect it to be. Faith, Hebrews says, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1), and Paul wrote, “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (II Cor. 5:7). As Philip Yancey states in Reaching for the Invisible God, “Doubt always coexists with faith, for in the presence of certainty who would need faith at all?”

So is Signs worth seeing? Yes. In the best gothic tradition, its examination of human struggle is suspenseful, though illogical, and it provides an excellent forum – outside the walls – for discussing Christians? response to trauma and the true nature of faith.New Wineskins

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