The best moment in Signs, a new thriller that offers a faith-based approach to intergalactic warfare, comes in its opening scene. Mel Gibson plays a lapsed minister who jerks awake in his bed at dawn‘s early light. Unable to find his children in the house, he heads outside and races into a corn field whose tall stalks seem to devour him. Eventually, he finds his kids staring at a section of the field in which the cornstalks have been bent flat to the ground. As they all gawp, the camera rises to give us an aerial view of an elaborate series of crop circles in the green field below, and we’re left to ponder its enigmatic meaning: Is this a senseless prank by local yokels, some mysterious signal left by extraterrestrials — or is it, just maybe, a sign of cosmic, perhaps even divine, import?
Given such a cool premise and a nifty ad campaign (audiences gasped with delight when they first saw the trailer), it‘s no surprise that the movie opened last weekend to record-breaking ticket sales. Nor is it surprising that Newsweek’s cover should dub the film‘s young writer-director-producer, M. Night Shyamalan, ”The Next Spielberg“ and ”Hollywood’s Hottest Storyteller“ (by which they don‘t mean that he’s actually better than Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson or Paul Thomas Anderson, but that his movies make lots more money). Magazines routinely swoon before anyone who shows signs of being hugely popular — especially if he‘s part of the under-35 demographic they’re so desperately wooing.
Still, as one who raced to an early show of Signs on its opening Friday, I don‘t want to be cynical about people’s eagerness to see it. For like crop circles themselves, the movie seductively taps into two common impulses: the longing for transcendence, for Something More, and the desire to escape semiotic overload. Even as we‘re increasingly bombarded by signs of all kinds — in ads, in logos, in video games, in Internet pop-ups, in political speeches, in news footage of catastrophes — the deeper meaning of things appears to be slipping away. For all our skill at seeing through the bogus signage of commercial culture, we find it harder and harder to know which signs are evanescent and which might actually cut to the core of being.
In the past, the authority to interpret such matters lay with religious leaders, and in later centuries, the philosophic or scientific elite for whom rationality was itself a form of religion. But as our world has grown more democratic and the influence of the various high priests has weakened, the job of interpreting the world’s deluge of signifiers falls more and more to each of us. Which is why the relationship between signs and meaning has become such an obsession of late modern art, be it Antonioni‘s metaphysical enigmas, Cage’s Zen silences, Warhol‘s celebrity silk-screens (which both glamorize and deflate), Don DeLillo’s paranoia-riddled novels, Peter Weir‘s The Last Wave (whose aborigine-inspired apocalypticism is a vastly more daring precursor of Signs) or The X-Files’ doughty heroes, who found compelling new evidence every week for years that, yep, the truth is out there.
These days, we‘re a lot like Oedipa Maas, the heroine of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, who arrived in the Southern California city of San Narciso and looked down a slope ”on to a vast sprawl of houses that had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she‘d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had . . . There were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate.“
What makes this vision so resonant isn’t simply the revelatory accuracy of the metaphor (seen the Valley at night from up on Mulholland Drive lately?), but the sudden intimation of a new dimension to the universe. Oedipa is plunged into an awareness that the whole world is pregnant with ambiguous messages, hidden implications and cryptic frequencies that it will be her burden to try to decipher. If she‘s going to find any larger, transcendent meanings, she will have to do so amidst a world of mysterious signs — just like Gibson’s character in that corn field.
I‘ve sometimes wondered whether Carl Jung’s ideas about UFOs (he saw our fascination with them as a form of psychological projection) were familiar to Steven Spielberg — or as I like to call him, ”The Original Spielberg.“ No one, after all, has matched his brilliance at using space creatures to create moments of pop transcendence. In both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., he portrayed aliens not as monsters but as sources of wonder, optimistically transforming the lovable Extraterrestrial and Close Encounters‘ great birthday cake of a spaceship into the promise of Something More — and, moreover, Something Benign.
Shyamalan pulled off a similar trick in his breakout film, The Sixth Sense, which turned ”seeing dead people“ away from the scarifying and into a way of opening up an alternate reality beyond the material. To a lesser extent, he did the same thing in Unbreakable, whose comic book alter egos — unbreakable Bruce Willis and his glass-boned nemesis Samuel L. Jackson — were driven by forces of destiny far grander than mere reason could hope to understand. Working with a gravity unusual in today’s Hollywood, Shyamalan told us that things beyond our ken are still worth knowing.
He thoroughly betrays that idea in Signs, which brings the same plodding, patriarchal pretentiousness to supernatural thrillers as Road to Perdition did to crime pictures. Enthralled by his own genius and desire to make another blockbuster, Shyamalan has taken a terrific B-movie idea — spooky crop circles appearing on the family farm — and inflated it into what he wants us to believe is a serious commentary on faith. In fact, it‘s preachy, reactionary guff that serves only to resurrect benighted ideas about religion and family. As I watched, I kept thinking how much smarter and scarier I’d found Mark Pellington‘s The Mothman Prophecies, which takes exactly the same elements — a widower hero, a small-town setting, inexplicable messages, the possibility of space aliens, a dead wife who offers saving words, even a wise female cop — but tells its story with pulpy, paranoiac panache.
Signs’ opening minutes provide a genuine Spielbergian thrill, for the audience is turned on by what the crop circles might portend. Of course, the problem with posing a huge enigma at the beginning of a blockbuster is that eventually you must resolve it, and as The X- Files proved, there are more enigmas ”out there“ than good explanations. The revelations are doubly disappointing in Signs, for Shyamalan doesn‘t fully exploit the teasing eerieness of the crop formations, but quickly scuttles it in favor of a slack tale about space invaders, combining the xenophobic hokum of War of the Worlds with a level of unwitting comedy worthy of Ed Wood: These aliens may have the know-how to fly halfway across the universe, but still can’t seem to figure out how to get themselves out of a locked pantry.
In fact, this hostile invasion, too, is only a pretext. For Signs ultimately isn‘t about crop circles or spacemen or the expansion of consciousness. No, it’s about how Mel Gibson‘s paterfamilias regains the religious belief (and clerical collar) he abandoned when his wife died in a car crash, a belief that will allow him to become once again a Proper Father.
About halfway through the movie, he tells his brother, played by Joaquin Phoenix, that life’s main question is simple: Do you believe that events happen at random, or do you believe that there‘s some force looking out for you? Even so crudely formulated, this is a real question about how one makes sense of life, and I kept wishing the movie actually explored it. But rather than make his hero regain his faith the old-fashioned way — by making peace with his wife’s death and finding God‘s hand in the worldly signs that surround him — Shyamalan manipulates the plot details so wantonly that the movie winds up feeling like a cheap fundamentalist sermonette. As Slate’s David Edelstein noted in his splendidly crushing review, ”Shyamalan is saying that when you reject God, you kill your kids.“
Taking care not to offend anyone but, possibly, us atheists — Gibson‘s Christian minister belongs to no particular denomination — Signs dishes up the ultimate in calculated, nonsectarian religiosity, one that suggests that merely believing in some sort of Supreme Being can save us from the world’s ills. It instructs us to put our faith in faith itself, as if the crucial thing weren‘t what we choose to put our faith in. Such deep-dish vapidity gets you thinking: If Shyamalan is this sententious in a thriller about crop circles, heaven help us when The Next Spielberg decides to make his Schindler’s List.