Signs was the re-assuring escapism we needed after 9/11

This year is the 25th anniversary of the release of the first Jurassic Park. For most of us at Cinedelphia, it is a film that has defined what we look for in a summer blockbuster. So what better time than now to revisit the last 25 years of summer blockbusters and pick our favorites? View the criteria and full introduction here, and the whole series here.

9. Signs (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2002)

Why do bad things happen to good people? Is there anyone watching out for us? These are the essential questions of faith that the movies have been grappling with since the days of Carl Dreyer- and in 2002, M. Night Shyamalan sought to give them his own treatment. Starring pre-meltdown Mel Gibson as Graham Hess, a former pastor who quit when he became a widower and lost his faith, Graham lives with his two children and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) in a farmhouse in Bucks County, PA. Within minutes of the opening credits, they find huge circles that have been made in their crops. Just a day ago, the Hess family were an ordinary family, with their own unique tragedies- now they have front row seats to what might be the end of the world.

Released in August 2002, Signs was in the process of filming when the attacks of September 11th, 2001 took place. The cast and crew held a candlelight vigil and prayer circle the next night, just before filming the famous scene where Graham says goodbye to his dying wife. She had been hit by a car and pinned against a tree- her final words were advice, telling Graham to “see” and for Merrill to “swing away.” Having since lost his faith in God, Graham chalks them up to the firing of her nerve endings as her body was shutting down. Like the country itself after 9/11, he has been shattered and shaken by sudden, unexpected tragedy- and yet, as the film continues, we realize that he hasn’t lost his faith in God. He is just really, really fucking angry at him. Is the sudden appearance of crop circles some kind of a test from the man upstairs? A sign of sorts? An invitation to believe again? Or is it just a random event in the history of our world, like the chance that his wife had been walking on a particular stretch of road where a driver happened to fall asleep at the wheel?

While other films that year had, whether incidentally or not, grappled with new fears of post 9/11 America (Panic Room, Minority Report, The Sum Of All Fears, to name a few) Signs feels in many ways like the first film that tried to comfort a shaken nation. In the buildup to the now classic farmhouse attack sequence, Shyamalan evokes within the viewer a gnawing fear that something dangerous, something that means to harm us, is coming. But what I loved about the film after this re-watch, was noticing just how intimately communicated that fear is. The film never leaves the point of view of the Hess family. For example, it never shows us the situation room of the White House or explains much about what is behind the alien invasion. We only ever know what they know. We watch the news with them, we make up our own conclusions and see the confusion they experience as they try to make sense of something that has never happened before. Shyamalan evokes the same experiences that all of us had in the days following 9/11- as we sat with our families, glued to the television, trying to make sense of how something like that could happen. Shyamalan would continue to explore how we dealt with 21st century fear and tragedy in his superior follow up, the often maligned (but secret masterpiece) The Village, in 2004.

What makes Signs a successful summer movie, aside from its powerful emotional pull and its forever-imprinted-in-my-brain jump scares, is its sense of humor. For perhaps the first time, it seemed like we were allowed to laugh about all the crazy shit we tend to make up in our heads after something terrible happens. It’s hard not to cackle at a now-news-addicted Merrill after he has been holed up in front of the news for at least 12 hours, ranting about how the kids should instead be out playing “Furry Furry Rabbit” (“What is Furry Furry Rabbit?”…”It’s a game isn’t it?”), or at how he joins his niece and nephew in their donning of the now meme-ified Tin Foil Hat (to protect their thoughts from the aliens, of course). Shyamalan allowed us to create some comfortable distance from those tragic events, by giving us back the ability to laugh at ourselves.

Yet the humor would mean little without the emotional resolution brought about by the ending. The “twist” (the recontextualizing of Graham’s wife’s last words, into something that was meant to be) is only one part of it. This is a family who learned to believe in each other again, and function as a unit, in the face of uncertainty. This is where Shyamalan just took pages straight out of the tried and true Spielberg playbook of Audience Emotional Modulation. Films like E.T., Jurassic Park, or Poltergeist (my apologies to the estate of Tobe Hooper) are essentially pop fairy tales about family units that break apart but come back together. Signs follows firmly in that fine, fine tradition, right as Spielberg was kind of leaving that role behind to make more grown up fare like Minority Report, Munich and eventually Lincoln. The torch was sort of passed, and it is pretty clear that he wasn’t entirely ready for it. I am happy to say that, after the disasters of Lady In The Water, The Last Airbender, or After Earth, that he has found his stride again. This time, by making interesting films like The Visit and Split- fun, almost “mean” genre departures- something new entirely for the man. Shyamalan may have lost himself in the wilderness for a while, just like Father Graham did, but he has finally found his way back.

Author: Andy Elijah

I am a musician and music therapist who loves movies too. Raised in Maryland, I have been proud to call Philadelphia home for five years. Sounds can be heard at Baker Man and Drew. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd

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