Signs (2002)

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Movie Review written by: Born Movie Reviews
RT Critics Rating: 7.4/10

Born Movie Reviews' Rating: 9/10

SIGNS (2002) - M. Night Shyamalan

I have mentioned this several times before when I review horror films: The key in terrifying the audience is not what we see but what we don't see. Tension and suspense building paves way to our scary imaginations. The scariest part is if our imaginations are never confirmed on screen. You are not shown the creatures, but you see the destruction they have caused. Back in his prime, M. Night Shyamalan proves his talent in horrors and thrillers with Signs.

Signs revolves around former Episcopal priest Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) who, with his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and two children (Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin), discovers a series of crop circles in his Pennsylvania cornfield. The family slowly becomes convinced that the phenomena is a result of extraterrestrial life.

As the poster suggests, the film explores crop circles, the large geometric shapes in corn fields, seen all over the world in the 70s. When the 90s came around, these crop circles were later confirmed to be hoaxes. Signs takes on these, well, signs, to evoke the possibility that they are navigation tools for aliens to land. The best part about the film is the aliens are not even the crux of the film...

The film proves Shyamalan's talent as a director, that is when his career used to be promising and Oscar-worthy. Instead of using visual-driven shocks and disturbing images, Shyamalan produces what we would call "a quiet film." Signs tugs tension the same way classic Hitchcock films play out, using familiar objects and sounds, in which silence is the key to the terror. In agreeing with Roger Ebert, "it is not just what we hear that is frightening. It is the way Shyamalan has us listening intensely when there is nothing to be heard. There is as little plot as possible, and as much time and depth for the characters as [Shyamalan] can create, all surrounded by ominous dread." With the help of news broadcasts and radio broadcasts, the confusion and paranoia stirs more and more.

There is a scene in this film... in which my hair always rises and I always get a rippling chill... no matter how many times I watch it... 

James Newton Howard's score here is, without a doubt, one of his greatest works in the film/music industry, on par with The Village. Though there are many moments in the film where the scene is dead silent, the music, like the direction, is all about buildup. It can build up even if you are just listening to the soundtrack and not viewing the film. Howard creates a melody with faint repetition but lasting power, all on an emotional basis. For sure, the soundtrack's "Hand of Fate Part 1" sounds very different from "Hand of Fate Part 2," but both tracks play with anxiety, shivers, and regained faith.

Mel Gibson, portraying a priest who has lost his faith, paces his shuddering and trembling with much experience and precision. With a helpful, quiet, and economically written script, the film assists the cast in adapting the fears and emotions onto the screen. Gibson's chemistry with Phoenix on the screen is both intriguing and heartwarming to watch, and even more compelling when the two children are in the scene as well, and since the four characters are pretty much the core of the cast, you have classic filmmaking gold.

Signs, in similar ways to Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, is not about the aliens. It is never about the aliens. It is about the response, actions, and emotions given by the human characters, when they live in an ordinary place and they experience something extraordinary. For War of the Worlds, Tom Cruise's character slowly becomes the father figure he did not have before he started taking care of the kids. Here in Signs, Gibson's character is slowly tested in his personality and faith. In fact, halfway through the film, his character goes into a short monologue, explaining about people who sees signs and miracles, and other people who just believe in pure luck. The film then temporarily goes on to explore the philosophical theme of coincidences and consequences, all while feeding the tension that the characters and the audience are going through. By the time the aliens reach the front door, and you see their silhouettes glide past the windows, things start to get truly scary in Signs.

In conclusion, Signs is one of the greatest thrillers of all time, and arguably M. Night Shyamalan's best film, rivaling The Sixth Sense. Fortunately, the film finds a delicate balance between scaring us and touching us. With a pounding score by James Newton Howard, slow patient filmmaking by Shyamalan, and influential acting by Gibson and Phoenix, Signs is an intense suspenseful piece that delivers its substance no matter how many viewings are had. It delivers even if you just think about it.


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