“Signs” is M. Night Shyamalan at his best

Mel Gibson tries to keep his family together in the wake of an alien invasion in M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs." Image courtesy of IMDb

It’s easy to dismiss M. Night Shyamalan as a has-been filmmaker. The director’s well-known love of twist endings has become the subject of jokes while his film releases have been met with lukewarm reception at best from critics and audiences alike for quite some time, such as his 2006 effort, “Lady in the Water” or “Old” from earlier this year. However, there was a time when Shyamalan could do no wrong in the eyes of movie fans, turning in back-to-back hits with 1999’s “The Sixth Sense” followed by “Unbreakable” in 2000, both starring Bruce Willis. “The Sixth Sense” solidified the director’s style and penchant for unpredictable endings and is still a major part of pop culture to this day. Although not as revered as his films with Bruce Willis, M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 sci-fi thriller “Signs” shows that his earlier successes were no fluke.

“Signs” stars Mel Gibson as Graham Hess, a former priest living in a small Pennsylvania town with his brother and two young children in the face of an extraterrestrial threat. Shyamalan wastes no time jumping into the action as Hess jerks awake one day to discover huge crop circles in his cornfield. Audiences are quickly introduced to the rest of the Hess family, each member defined by a flaw or quirk — Graham included. He makes it clear to his neighbors that he’s no longer to be addressed as Father His wife’s death in a traffic accident six months prior has destroyed his faith. His brother Merrill, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a former minor league baseball player whose penchant for swinging his hardest at every pitch resulted in him holding the record for most strikeouts while his son Morgan — played by Rory Culkin, younger brother of “Home Alone” star Macaulay Culkin —  is asthmatic and carries an inhaler with him everywhere. Abigail Breslin rounds out the main cast as Graham’s daughter Bo, who is known for leaving half finished glasses of water around the house. 

What sets “Signs” apart from most invasion films is that it doesn’t expand its scope to a global level and instead focuses on the alien invasion from the perspective of one family. Any insight into what’s happening globally comes from news broadcasts that offer limited information to both the character and the audience, helping to create unease through the sense of the unknown, while also allowing audiences to better identify with these characters. The chemistry among the main cast is one of the film’s greatest strengths and helps the characters feel like real people with years of history among them. 

For the aliens, Shyamalan subscribes to the same “less is more” philosophy that helped make “Jaws” suspenseful, only offering brief glances at the aliens for the majority of the film and keeping them a largely unknown presence. Thanks to this, the audience’s imaginations can run wild until the moment the aliens are revealed in full. One of the most nerve-wracking scenes plays on the audience’s imagination as Mel Gibson’s character enters a house to investigate an alien locked in the pantry. 

The twist ending of the movie may be one of the most ambitious of Shyamalan’s. It doesn’t rely on blowing the audience away with some over-the-top reveal like his previous films but is understated and almost poetic in the way it all comes together in the closing moments of the climax. There’s action to the climax as well, but it’s the payoff of earlier plot threads that makes the resolution feel satisfying. 

Like a lot of Shyamalan’s films, “Signs” explores many themes such as faith and the importance of family while also delivering a curveball twist in the end.  It seems that when he creates more intimate stories like this — smaller in focus in spite of the larger scope of the event — is when the director really shines. For anyone burnt out on M. Night Shyamalan, “Signs” serves as the perfect reminder of what the director is capable of creating.

“Signs” is rated PG-13 and is currently streaming on Hulu.