As I was sitting down to watch an M Night Shyamalan film, I felt fairly well prepared for to what I was about to watch. And that’s not a bad thing. Shyamalan has a knack for thrillers that is unmatched within the genre. Most thrillers are filled with unexplained twists and turns, over the top chase scenes, and a plot that grows ever the more confusing by the minute. Unlike those, Shyamalan feeds you more and more information through the film, clearing your understanding at the same pace as the main characters’.
The movie follows the Hess family, who, after finding crop circles on their farm, are forced to reconsider whether or not they are alone in their universe. They are led by patriarch Father Graham Hess, a former priest who renounced his title after his wife suddenly passed away. His younger brother, Merrill, came to live on the farm to work and to help with the children. Graham’s kids, Morgan and Bo, are struggling without their mother, and Graham’s surety of his world is entirely shaken. For a movie about alien life, Shyamalan does an excellent job at reinforcing the theme of faith, both in religion and in one another. As a thriller, most scenes are nonconfrontational, and instead rely on incredibly close shots of Mel Gibson’s face and a distant but rising global threat to build tension.
Watching this movie in a pandemic felt more disconcerting than usual. Especially scenes where Merrill, played by a young Joaquin Phoenix, sits in a closet, his eyes fixated psychotically on a television. He obsessively watches news broadcasts of the end of the world, which, if it had been set twenty years later, would undoubtedly be replaced by obsessive doom scrolling. As the end of the world draws near, each family member takes to a different obsession. Somehow, I feel that if Shyamalan had written this is 2020, Mel Gibson would be aggressively making sourdough bread.
The pièce de résistance of this film, however, just as with most M Night Shyamalan films, is the way every neatly clicks into place in the last fifteen minutes of the film. Everything that was first presented as bad omens become lifesaving, like Graham’s wife’s final words, Bo’s obsession with water glasses, Merrill’s failed baseball career, and Morgan’s crippling asthma. Unlike most thriller writers, Shyamalan understands how to make his audience feel clever. Most thrillers take pride in their obscurity and use unexplained plot holes to cover their poorly written plots. Or, on the flip side, they patronise their audience, and spoon feed the entirely unsurprising plot twists.
Overall, this film completely itches the scratch. It’s a thriller, horror, and mystery tied into one, and Shyamalan imbues just enough humour to cut through the darkness. It is, however, more of a fun thought experiment than a fleshed-out film. Other than Graham, most characters don’t get fully realised development, and instead serves as plot points to fill up Graham’s story. Despite this, Signs is a fun and gripping watch.