I remember watching Signs as a kid and being so completely terrified. There was such a deep sense for me of not-knowing, of the danger of this scary thing (alien invasion) being imminent but also not entirely believed, and that element of doubt which Mel Gibson’s non-Reverend Hess deeply feels, as a kid, only made things more frightening. Watching as an adult, Signs is a movie that you can watch but isn’t entirely happening in a normal way. That is, everything is off in this film, almost like it’s meant to portray a sort of reality that isn’t actually our own, where aliens also happen to arrive. Is it scary? Maybe.
It makes sense to me why, as a child, it would be, because the pacing of everything is too fast. It’s like baby-thriller, for those who don’t actually know or want suspense. Within the first 15 minutes, all national and international television stations are shouting, “Aliens! It’s aliens!” There’s really not ever a question to us, the Hess kids, or anyone else present that they’re here, they’re sheer (invisible UFOs, get it?) and they’re bad, despite whatever half-baked monologue that Gibson tries spouting about ~signs.~
What wounds the film most is Shyamalan’s inability to actually use the aliens as a means of confronting the loss of the Reverend’s wife. Shyamalan wants to be heartfelt and superfluous with his characters to the point of disbelief, to the point where you can pick out which pieces of speech Shyamalan wrote when he was in his feelings. If malicious beings from outer space have broken into my house, I’m not going to sit my son down and tell him about how he was born. (There’s a dozen examples of how uncomfortable this dialogue is, be it in the writing, delivery, or pacing: Morgan giving Bo an explanation at the drop of a hat on why her Ballet recital tape is existentially unimportant; Merrill dully telling Hess in the basement about ‘seeing a look in his brother’s eye that he never wants to see again.’ The awkward rushed sentimentality of Hess’s last moment with his wife. It’s just all bad. Stop.)
What I’m getting at is: Shyamalan seems so concerned with writing “deep” “spiritual” “thoughtful” “romantic” scenes with the intent of pushing the family closer together that he seems to forget that the aliens are even present. When we finally get a good hard look at one, what we’re getting is a silhouette of an extra in a morphsuit shifting menacingly. Did the budget run out, M. Knight? And for what?
I’m not saying Signs isn’t creepy at times (the idea of watching TV in a closet gives me the willies), but c’mon. The ending “Swing away, Merrill.” revelatory sequence bit encompasses for me how extraordinarily heavy-handed this film is with trying to get its message across. Despite however hard Joaquin Phoenix hits the guy in the morphsuit, it still strikes out on its delivery.