Shyamalan’s classic sci-fi drama Signs is both a thrilling celebration of the genre and a poignant exploration of the purpose behind life’s random tragedies.
This review contains spoilers for M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002).
Around halfway through M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, the protagonist Graham (Mel Gibson) turns to his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) in a moment of nihilistic anxiety and poses a question that the rest of the story then dedicates itself to resolving: “Are you the kind of person who sees signs, sees miracles – or do you believe that people just get lucky? Is it possible that there are no coincidences?”. From the film’s opening moments, long before the world is overrun with aliens and anarchy, Graham is shown as a man whose dependence on faith and miracles has been extinguished by the indiscriminate suffering and hatred that his life has been dealt – and Signs is the story of how he finds that faith once again.
On the surface, Signs chronicles one dysfunctional family’s battle against an imposing alien invasion that threatens not only their lives, but the survival of their planet as a whole. But unlike many classic sci-fis of that era, Shyamalan’s film doesn’t rely on this traditionally frightening concept to drive his plot forward. Instead, he almost writes the aliens as a backdrop to tell the real story – a story of luck, faith, and coincidence. In the decades since its release, Signs has become famous (much like many of Shyamalan’s older thrillers) for its groundbreaking third-act twist that completely reinvents everything that the audience thought they knew up to that point. And Signs is no different.
It isn’t until these final moments that everything finally clicks into place, revealing the true scope of Shyamalan’s story and ultimately shedding light on the message that he’s trying to promote. All those little details that he includes (Graham’s religious deconstruction, Merrill’s sporting failures, Bo’s apparent perfectionism) actually serve a larger purpose in the story. It’s because of all these specific minutiae that Graham and his family manage to survive the invasion, using the qualities that they’d previously perceived as tragedies to their advantage and morphing them into miracles. It’s a fascinating take on a long-discussed concept, and it gives Signs a quality that none of Shyamalan’s other movies have.
There’s a true purpose to Signs – a message to be carried into the real world and applied to everyday life. Although the classification of these tragedies as either miracles or coincidences is impossible, that’s ultimately irrelevant. As Graham mentions earlier in the film, there are two types of people – those who see coincidences and those who see miracles. For the longest time, Graham was the former. He saw his poor fortune as evidence that there was nobody out there looking over him, forcing him to drift away from his faith. It wasn’t until his poor fortune saved the lives of his children that he began to see the purpose of everything around him – and that’s a beautiful message for the film to present.
Things can be tragic without being unnecessary. Life is a balance of horrible misfortunes and divine (or coincidental) miracles – but, without the former, there would be nothing to highlight the necessity of those rare signs of goodness. It’s this mature storytelling that sets Signs apart from the rest of Shyamalan’s filmography, even though its narrative may not be as exciting and high-octane as films like The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable. From the technical aspects to the on-screen performances, everything about Signs feels like the director’s most lighthearted yet impressive outing at that point. It’s Shyamalan channeling blockbuster auteurs like Spielberg in the best way possible, with hugely positive results.
Signs also displays a level of humor and self-awareness that’s absent from most of the director’s other films – it never takes itself too seriously, despite the genuinely powerful nature of its commentary on life. It doesn’t feel preachy or overwhelming in its messaging, and maybe that’s because it’s aware that not everybody will be convinced by its concepts – and that’s okay. The film isn’t trying to make you believe in miracles, that was never its purpose. But if you are “the kind of person who sees signs” in the universe, this film offers the comforting recognition that you’re neither alone nor unjustified.
Signs is now available to watch on digital and on demand.