Thursday, September 21, 2006

SIGNS

SIGNS (2002, USA, M. Night Shyamalan)
What you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky?

I find no pleasure in dissecting other people's pets. Lots of good and smart people love this movie, and I've got no desire to deny them that. I don't like this movie, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't.

If you haven't seen SIGNS, and you like suspenseful sci fi thrillers that may or may not be about alien invaders – particularly if you're looking for something without excess violence or supernatural horror, with some pro-faith, family-affirming stuff in the mix – don't read past this paragraph. The best thing about this movie, first time through, is the tension and dread it manages to create, and I'm not going to be the one to diminish that by giving even a hint of where the story is going. And plenty of people find lots to like besides just the suspense: maybe you'll see the same strengths they did. Rent the movie, fire up the popcorn maker, turn out the lights and get ready to squirm.

For me, though, this movie just doesn't work. I started out ready enough to get the willies over critters in the cornfields, but before long I just couldn't suspend my disbelief any more, not so much over the Creepy Green Monsters premise as everything else. The script seems screenwriterish, over-wrought: the lines don't flow out of the situation or a character's need, but out of the writer's need to manipulate plot and theme (and audience). It all seems forced: characters have characteristics, not character, and I can't buy any of it.

Sharp and seasoned critics applauded SIGNS, Peter Travers and Roger Ebert and plenty of others. The very perceptive Catherine Barsotti acknowledges that the ending may be contrived, but is willing to cut the movie some slack there in appreciation for the way everything up to that point deftly interweaves the story elements of a conventional sci fi thriller, a domestic drama about a family in mourning, and a character study of a priest who's lost his faith – Fear, Family and Faith. But it's not just the ending I find contrived: it all seems calculated, mechanical and unconvincing.

Indeed, many of the film's fans see the horror movie elements as little more than a marketable way to get the shills into the metaphysical and relational tent. For me, the scary bits are the only things that worked. Shyamalan knows how to crank up the tension: when we're desperate for a glimpse of these creatures, at the same time filled with dread, and we have to get down on our knees and strain to catch its reflection on the blade of a butcher knife of all things... That's scary. He also hits the right note of helpless dread in the scenes where we watch events unfold on TV, and the first televised glimpse of an alien gave me all the jolt I wanted. But as much as I wanted to, I didn't buy the human stuff or the holy stuff for a minute.

Perhaps things first start to go seriously wrong when Gibson's character runs around the house yelling improbabilities to scare the monsters away: not only is it out of keeping with the dramatic situation, it seems condescending toward the character, the first of many over-statements and mis-steps used to create the kind of well-meaning Movie Priest who never set foot on this planet. (Why does this character ring so false, seem so badly drawn, so clunky and manufactured, his priestliness so superficial? Apparently Shyamalan went to both Catholic and Episcopal schools, well I think he mixed up his priests: Pastor Mel is married and he's expected to hear confession. And where's he get off calling himself "a reverend" – no pro would make that outsider bungle.) There's an authorial heavy-handedness everywhere in this film that drives me mad: no cross on the wall at the beginning, cross back on the wall at the end. I mean, why would a cross even leave a shadow like that, unless it was really dirty or you were running your fingers around it all the time. No, it's a Symbol, it's not the true cross it's a Movie Cross, just like the Movie Priest Mel has to impersonate, all terribly intentional and obvious and fake.

The performances are as earnest and unconvincing as everything else in the film. I like Mel Gibson, not just in action flicks but in roles that call for a real emotional connection. Still, he's not in the middle of this one at all. Not that he doesn't try hard, but that's exactly what we don't want to watch: actors trying hard. When he listens to Dr. Reddy's confession, we see an actor trying to convey tortured emotion using just his face muscles, not a human being experiencing an agonizing moment. Indeed, Shyamalan's cameo here may point the direction this film should have gone: he's slightly awkward in the role, not really an actor, but I think he's closer to the truth of the moment than his movie star counterpart. What SIGNS may need is a smaller-budget remake: go BLAIR WITCH crude or original LIVING DEAD raw with this baby, loosen up the script a bit, give the monster a lot less screen time – does he really have to stand there for five minutes so everybody sees he's just a guy in green leotards with fake claws, while characters have flashbacks and even in real time have plenty of time to slowly figure out they should hit him with that baseball bat hanging on the wall? – and you might really have something. A lot less would be much more.

And it's not just Mel: Joaquin Phoenix has but one note to play, condemned to sit for great stretches of time on the couch between two too-cute kids with tinfoil on their heads, with nothing to do but embody the Goofy Kid Brother Who's Actually Wise. Characters don't talk, they have lines and give speeches. They fulfill Dramatic Functions, they have Endearing Qualities, they're even assigned Character Flaws that will help everything to Work Out In The End. (See, it's happening: this movie awakens my Inner Pauline Kael.) I liked Cherry Jones' Officer Paski better, not only for the actor's less face-frozen performance, but also for the character's humanity, with all credit to screenwriter Shyamalan for giving us a lonely widower and a compassionate female cop who don't end up together! The best surprise in the movie.

The Tak Fujimoto cinematography that was so evocative in the dark and urban SIXTH SENSE (an infinitely superior film) seems kistchier than Rockwell in the bright rural setting of SIGNS: when the gang heads into town, it looks more like Disneyland or Seahaven than any small town in the real world – apart from the ones they tart up for tourists. If you want to tell a story about a family and a faith in crisis, give it some dust and rough edges, don't sentimentalize it with greeting card art direction.

Frankly, I think many Christians over-celebrated the film because it wrestles with faith questions that rarely show up onscreen. But I even – or especially – had problems with that aspect of the film.

The first time we see a crop circle (or "crop sign," as the film thematically calls its cornfield metaphors), Shyamalan puts his wisdom in the mouth of a child: "God did it." Well, the kid is just plain wrong: God didn't do it, aliens did, and they'll kill him if they get half a chance. We're told that there's a whole lot of people who, "when they see those fourteen lights, they're looking at a miracle... And that fills them with hope." But I'm thinking, they're reading the sign all wrong: it doesn't say "God loves you," it says "Danger danger Will Robinson!"

There are two kinds of people in the world: the kind who believe there are two kinds of people, and the kind who don't. Count me among the latter. So when the Hess brothers agree that there are "Miracle" people who think everything is a sign, and then there's everybody else that figures "whatever happens, they're on their own" and it all just comes down to luck, I'm thinking maybe I'm not a people at all then, maybe I'm some kind of alien, because I don't fit in either group. I figure some things are miracles, and some just ain't. Some things signal divine intervention, and some just happen: some things are evidence of God's benevolence, and some signal something else, and some don't signal anything at all, they just are.

Shyamalan advocates for faith, but faith in what? He connects the priest's loss of faith in God with his skepticism about crop circles, and I'm thinking hey, that's not cynicism, it's common sense. Are we simply to "believe"? In what? In faith itself, however misplaced? In the goodness of aliens? That the wife's death was "meant to be," that she couldn't have offered her family good survival tips in person but only from the brink of death? That nobody would have thought of smacking the critter with that baseball bat on the wall if mom hadn't prophesied? So God had to kill mom to save her family from aliens?

"Is it possible that there are no coincidences?" That sounds like an Eastern brand of fatalism that owes more to M's Indian heritage than his apparently half-digested Christian education. Isn't it also possible that there are coincidences, but that there are other things which are not? Is it possible that God makes miracles out of this world's fallenness – sometimes? And sometimes not.

The film's defenders may argue that this is exactly Shyamalan's point: maybe he's saying Group Two is both wrong and right, the fourteen lights aren't a miracle but there is someone looking out for them. Morgan is both wrong and right when he says God made the crop circles: sure it was only malevolent aliens who flattened the corn, but perhaps Morgan's (and Shyamalan's) God is big enough to allow both blessing and curse for his children. So maybe the film is much more thematically rich and subtle than it appears to be. But I doubt it. If that's what he was shooting for, he missed his mark: SIGNS doesn't present itself with that kind of subtlety or understatement in any other aspect of its presentation, why expect such nuance and paradox in its themes? No, when all's said and done, I think the film's contradictions are much more muddle than Mystery.

Robert K. Johnston argues that SIGNS is as complex as Ecclesiastes, that it asserts the goodness of God while acknowledging the randomness and pain and lack of resolution we experience in real life. But for me, that doesn't pay enough attention to the movie itself: Shyamalan's world could use a lot more randomness and reality, and would do well to leave things much less resolved. The God of Ecclesiastes doesn't fix everything: the God of SIGNS manipulates every last detail to make things work out swell. In Ecclesiastes, bad stuff just happens: in SIGNS, every tragedy is "meant to be."

The pervasive problem with this film may be the problem with M. Night Shyamalan's worldview. He creates a universe of themes and events that is just too tightly closed and tidy, where every occurance is a plot point, every character attribute a set-up for a melodramatic pay-off. The heavy hand of an over-functioning God (or screenwriter) is seen everywhere, and there's no room for anything – or anyone – to breathe or be human. Every damn thing means something, it's all a set-up, utterly premeditated and Significant. In Shyamalan's world, there's no room for choice or chance, subtext or serendipity. Nothing can just be what it is, everything has to be a sign.

Available at Videomatica

No comments: