I know that this next one is WAY past the 90s. In fact, I did not expect to do this post in quite some time. I hope that all of you are ready for an experiment.
My tweep (for those of you not on twitter the translation is twitter friend i.e. twitter + peep = tweep) Tyrone Bruinsma Films @TBruinsmaFilms (for my other tweeps, if you’re not following him, your loss) thought it would be great to have us write about a film that we disagree on. Point, Counter-Point.
I felt that it should be two as I would like to venture into writing a post on a movie that I did not particularly like as well since that would be something new for me.
Stay tuned for next week’s. It will be my first critical review…
Click here for the link to Tyrone’s Article on his Blog!
WHY SIGNS WAS A SIGNAL OF M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN’S FAILINGS
Written by Tyrone Bruinsma
“It’s been often touted that director M. Night Shyamalan made 3 stone cold classics in rapid succession: The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs. Unfortunately I think M. Night’s ONLY good films are The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Split.
To fully summarise: The Sixth Sense was the rare film that was good, financially successful and still a classic, Unbreakable is a completely underrated and better than you thought masterpiece and Split was a junky fun film. And I’m aware A LOT of people love Signs, I mean if you want to watch a video on why Signs apparently works so well: check out this Chris Stuckmann video that I respect but disagree with (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3Ju05PuiyQ). But I’m not the only one who thinks it’s lacking film, many critics even at its initial release had major issues and seeing as how I heard good and bad things, seeing it a few months before Split and after seeing the god awful The Visit-I was open to it being bad or good…and it’s bad.
Before I get into why Signs doesn’t work and was actually a signal of M. Night’s deteriorating skillset-let me recap the 11 years which M. Night spent on worst years’ lists. Even if you liked Signs:
-2004’s The Village was a completely non-functional film whose story ONLY served for the sake of a twist and didn’t make sense upon re-visitation.
-Then in 2006 he released The Lady in the Water (A film which Disney didn’t’ understand but would green light regardless and he had a nonsensical hissy fit and took the film to another company saying “Disney hates auteurs) which was basically M. Night making fun of critics who called out his issues, made no real scares, had the dumbest and overly contrived plots AND framed M. Night as some Messianic figure whose works would save the world and make him leader of it…yeah…that’s totally not ego-stroking.
-2008 saw the release of The Happening, a laughably bad (To the point it’s a “So bad it’s good film) “horror” film about killer plants that M. Night first said would be a disturbing horror film and immediately ret-coned as a “B-Movie”. This is movie is so broken and dumb that Mark Walberg hates it and during filming, asked M. Night about plot holes and M. Night acted arrogantly about it.
-In 2010 we got one of the worst adaptations ever in the form of a 103 minute version of the first season of The Last Airbender. The movie failed because M. Night’s writing and execution was not fit for this series at all, blaming critic’s for not letting his “art-house mentality” make the movie better. The movie just doesn’t’ work and is pretty much racist for having all the good main characters be white despite the cultures presented in the film. That same year, M. Night produced Devil: another stupidly hilarious film only serving one of the worst twists and history.
-2013 gave us the embarrassing misfire that was After Earth: a sci fi film whose story doesn’t work, has actors giving their worst performances and is completely nonsensical.
-And before he made the ACTUALLY good Split: he made the found footage abomination The Visit which is basically a meta-textual where M. Night tries to explain that ALL the stuff he does and that critics and audiences hate him for is actually genius and hating him makes you an evil, idiot person.
No, I’m not kidding. And ALL of this horrible stuff was set up in his alien invasion film-Signs.
Signs does have a few good elements before I start bashing it. The cinematography is fine (though it’s off and even his films with good cinematography are bad), Mel Gibson’s performance is good and the initial story is good enough. And yes I’m aware about the themes of faith, grief and suffering as religious martyrdom…but the movie truly fails to make that work for me. Wanna know the funniest thing? There’s a filmmaker who makes the theme of faith, suffering and religious sacrifice work and makes it work to emotional effect: Mel Gibson. Yeah, who’d have thought Mel Gibson would be good making films about that? (Obvious Sarcasm is Obvious) But it’s true: Braveheart, Passion of the Christ and Hacksaw Ridge all share the same themes, but unlike Signs…actually have a point to it. Braveheart was about sacrificing yourself for the freedom of your people, Passion of the Christ was about the love Jesus had for humanity and the suffering he endured for it and Hacksaw Ridge was about the punishing trauma a man is willing to go through to save his fellow man’s life. That’s powerful stuff…but Signs doesn’t’ get that emotional, that deep or that impactful, I’ll get to that later but first…everything else.
First of all, the movie isn’t scary. Opening on a blue credit screen with black titles and “horror music” isn’t exactly a good sign (no pun intended). I mean…think of classic ways horror movies have opened: jaws, Sinister, The Thing, Jurassic Park, The Shallows or Zodiac. And if you just wanna talk about title credit openings well…Alien still did it best. But I think I was only scared in the loosest terms twice: once was the alien leg in the cornfield and the other time was the alien on the roof. Any other time there was an attempt at fear or showing the aliens was lame, and even in the alien on the roof scare was made dumb by the little girl’s line about wanting water. And I could tell very clearly from Split that M. Night likes to mix humour with horror, but that doesn’t’ work here…or in any of his other films. Also…the alien’s aren’t scary and don’t have any presence or…sensible biology.
Now-let’s get on to the child actors. Now child actors tend to get a bad wrap…mostly because they’re kids. But in this movie, we have a girl who seems oblivious to everything around her…and a boy who talks like he’s Danny from The Shining, Henry from the Book of Henry and Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory. The main problem is we’ve inconsistent child characters (something that’s common in M. Night’s work) with one that doesn’t seem to do anything or know anything and another who acts like a mature adult who knows everything he’s talking about. And considering Joaquin Phoenix acts like a dumb teen…this is a very weird thing to do. The Happening also had younger characters talk about serious issues and adults acting like children. I don’t know why this is a thing M. Night does…but it doesn’t make sense.
Next is the cinematography, now yes: I did say it’s good…but that comes with a caveat. See M. Night loves long takes and sometimes (like in Unbreakable) it works…however-in this film and in many others: it doesn’t. See instead of having a shot reverse shot sequence for dialogue conversation, he uses and long, drawn out and slow single shot that goes from one side of the long table to the other…but it’s boring, slow and draws attention to itself too much. Considering M. Night’s ego…it wouldn’t surprise me.
That’s the thing: M. Night’s ego is his biggest downfall…along with any other director who gets to that state. Similar to how George Lucas (Only because mentors advised against his worst aspects) made Star Wars and then years later got to make the prequel trilogy with unlimited resources and only yes men
serving him. Well a similar thing happened with M. Night: because the Sixth Sense was a financial, cultural and critical success in one go…he kind of just bought into his own ego and genius. And this means that most of his works (but mostly Lady in the Water and The Visit) are ego trips meant to be these “high class think pieces” that are amazing because he experimented with genre. But here’s the thing: JUST being different without a creative element to back it up doesn’t make it genius. Using terrible framing and over choreographed movements in The Last Airbender wasn’t “being art house”. Having Will Smith act as the least engaging performance he’s given wasn’t “defying genre expectations”. And having the twist in the Village make no sense in universe wasn’t “unappealing to the critics”. Simply put, they were bad creative misfires and you should own up to them-stop blaming everyone else. You’re such an auteur and creative individual, but won’t admit that your choices fail-it’s just everyone else who’s wrong for not liking it.
But now we get to the big, stupid reason this movie doesn’t work-the marriage of plot and theme. The entire theme of this movie is about “Everything happens for a reason”. Mel Gibson’s entire character in this movie is basically learning to accept the pain of his past, the quirks of his family and trust in God that everything will be ok. Now aside from the fact that the loss Mel Gibson suffers basically reduces a female character to a plot point and not…a character, the main issue I gave is that Mel’s character already seems to accept everything. Like his daughter constantly wanting water and leaving it half full everywhere isn’t’ that weird to him, nor his son’s weird maturity. In fact, the only real arch is that he has to see all the coincidences come together at the end to make him a Man of the Cloth again. I’m not against religious stories: like I said-Mel Gibson himself makes them better. But the whole time: the film tells us not to question anything, to just go with it and that eventually everything works out with you coming on top. It might be fine for M. Night who had two failed movies before making it big…but that’s a bad message to tell those who’ve genuinely suffered that “if you just go with everything-it’ll be fine”. There’s no nuance or greyness proposed, it’s just blatantly stated. And all of this comes down to…yes- the “twist”. The fact that we learn the aliens have a weakness to water and that because Mel’s daughter constantly leaves half cups of water on everything…the alien bumps into one and it shows damage…ok…where do I start?
-One: why would an alien race EVER want to invade a planet that’s 70% water and is accessible to every human being in major areas? Fire trucks would be our tanks.
-Two: it’s convenient that the alien just happened to be in the right room with the right cup in the right place at the right time. What if Mel had moved the cups away or the alien got into the basement? -Three: what were the aliens ACTUALLY doing? They showed up, ran around a bit and left. They blew up nothing, showed no interest in humans and mostly acted like cliché monsters not written properly in an alien invasion movie.
-Four: did Mel Gibson’s daughter ONLY do this when her mother died? Will she keep doing it or has it stopped? Because…that just feels like M. Night failing to write an actual female character…again…in the same movie.
-Five: I realised while writing this that Mel Gibson really is M. Night’s insert character and that if M. Night changes nothing an goes with it-he’s coincidentally achieve greatness and become amazing…just like how he directly wrote himself in Lady in the Water.
And that’s really the major problem: M. Night making a wish fulfilment movie about himself. He even makes basic thematic connections by not tying the water to anything. It’s not holy water to imply the aliens as demons metaphor and the wife who died in the movie as Mel Gibson’s loss didn’t die in water- so there’s no thematic tie. If you wanted a better story: Mel Gibson should’ve accidentally killed his wife by accidentally driving her into a lake and she drowns or something and he spends the entire film hating himself and hating his daughter’s problem. We don’t get that…instead we have M. Night inserting himself as the man who killed Mel’s wife…and that’s LITERALLY obstructs the film. It LITERALLY has Signs as a good movie being obstructed by his egotism blocking an actually good film. His unnecessary character, his coincidental plot and narrative framing as a misuse of faith as a story and his overly obsessed showy direction only prevents the film from being good. M. Night-ever since Signs has made egotistical works where HE blocks their growth and only recently with Split.
Overall, if you like Signs: it’s understandable. But I find the pretentious (and M.Night is very pretentious) style and execution for what should be a powerful story about faith is a waste. In my opinion: if you want a crazy alien movie with a twist and very powerful theme-watch Arrival.”
I remember hoping that M. Night had another one in him. I was fresh out of college and living in Pullman, WA. We moved there in June and I had been jobless for a couple of months (that never feels good). I finally got a job as a donut fryer at Dissmores just before the release of this film and I had not gone to a movie for two months (UNHEARD OF)!
This would be the first film that I saw off my dry spell.
I have found that the mood we are in when we see a movie has SO much to do with our enjoyment of it. I’m pretty sure there are some good movies out there that I saw when I was sour and have not revisited. It seems unfair, as it was not the films fault that I was not in the best place mentally to watch it.
The opposite end of that spectrum can be the same.
I was off movies for two months (including Netflix–DVDizzles at the time). I finally had enough money to take my then wife on a date. School was about to start in a few weeks and we had a steady income to help supplement her TA-ship. I was feeling really good and that emotion stayed with me through the experience of this movie.
You all know by now (I hope) that I am a fan of Hitch’s films. His films were rarely about “the explosion.” They were about letting the audience know that the bomb was under a table, but our hero had no clue as the time ticked down…rarely did his bombs go off, but we found ourselves uneasy in our seats watching our hero about to explode.
When I watched “Signs,” I felt those same feelings watching “The Birds,” and “Strangers on a Train,” and “Shadow of a Doubt,” for the first time.
“Signs” is not a horror movie. If it was horror that you wanted, this was not the film for you. It is truly a movie about a man that has found himself in a spiritual trough, who finds a way to dig himself back out again with the help of his family. The “visitors” just give him the motivation to make his life (and his families) relevant for him again.
I am a sucker for movies that make a “full circle.” I like subtle hints that are dropped at the start of films that end up being the tape that keeps the fragmented film together.
“Signs” delivered that feeling for me.
I found the tone of the film to be very balanced with its ability to trickle in humor between scenes of suspenseful silence and the rigid unknown.
The persons in charge of casting rarely get the credit they deserve. There are no awards for casting, and if you fail at that, your movie will fail. If you make it work, you’ve made the director’s job SO easy. I feel that M. Night probably had an “easy” production on the shoot of this film.
Gibson’s Graham Hess is played with the right kind of quiet torture that a man who has recently lost his wife would have to hold as he has two kids he needs to keep it together in front of.
Joaquin Phoenix as his brother Merrill steals every scene that he is in, both with humor and the expression of fear that comes with suspense projects.
I think another thing that helped me enjoy the film was how quickly they dispelled the possibility of the “crop circles” being anything other than extra terrestrial. I was skeptical of this when I first saw a trailer, as I knew how people made crop circles…it was dealt with and I was able to enjoy the rest of the movie.
If you can find a creative way to grab my attention and make me jump a little, you sell me.
That damn rotary telephone sold me. Add an intelligent script, great actors, fragments of film, sprinkle with aliens, and a pinch of tape…you’ve gone full crop circle.