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Signs is Remembered as M. Night Shyamalan’s Alien Movie, but it Has a Human Heart

Before you check out Knock at the Cabin, revisit the director's last take on the end of the world.

Crop circles had never looked this good. In 2002, M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs brought something new to the little green men hoax, made ubiquitous in a wheat field in Conholt, England in the 1980s.

Not only were these crop circles cinematic in both their portrayal and their scope — spreading far and wide across several acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania — but they had also never appeared as eerie on camera. Signaling impending doom, its creators would unleash physical threat and psychological torment on the poor, undeserving Hess family. And that’s only the second-most horrifying thing that’s ever happened to them.

As is typical with (almost) all Shyamalan projects, Signs takes place in the Greater Philadelphia Area, in this case, rural Doylestown. Living in borderline seclusion from the rest of the townies is Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a former Episcopal priest and a widowed father with two young children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). Hess is morose and jaded, having lost all faith in God and humanity following the disturbing death of his wife following a drunk driving accident. Hess lives with his brother Merrill, a burnout minor league baseball player (Joaquin Phoenix), who has his own issues to deal with.

When large crop circles appear they’re initially attributed to vandals, but the Hess brothers are skeptical of their own deduction. When other circles begin to appear globally, and UFO sightings are reported in major metropolitan areas, Morgan and Bo become convinced that this is the beginning of an alien invasion. Graham and Merrill aren’t sold, at least until they chase a spindly, shadowy creature into the field and hear ominous clicking noises through a baby monitor.

Terror and fear begins to spread as news footage abounds with jumpscare clips of the invaders. After a surprising and unexpected call, Graham finds one of these aliens locked inside his pantry. Graham then makes the critical error of screwing around and finding out, cutting off the alien’s fingers and earning himself an extraterrestrial enemy. From there, the Hess’ are forced to barricade themselves and survive.

Come for the aliens, stick around for the subtle character studies.

Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Gibson and Phoenix’s performances are superb, though that was expected from both actors. Phoenix plays a pathetic husk of a man better than most in Hollywood, and does an excellent job balancing that side of Merrill with his good intentions and fierce loyalty to his brother. Meanwhile, Gibson is convincing as a stressed-out and hopeless father, heartbroken over his wife’s death, confused about his religious beliefs, and now expected to protect his children from an alien threat.

Less expected are the scene-stealers, Culkin and Breslin, who also knock it out of the park. Breslin as Bo is initially adorable, but slowly affected by the trauma of enduring an alien attack. Culkin’s Morgan is precocious and too smart for his own good, and while his preteen attitude is acted out remarkably well, it’s his fragility that seals the deal. Every time they come into frame, their sibling chemistry, as well as their relationship with Gibson, is believable.

Curiously, the most interesting part of Signs isn’t its suspenseful and tense alien break-in. Rather, it’s the character study of Graham — and, more specifically, the study of his faith’s highs and lows — that’s the most engaging. Amid all the alien antics, Graham steadily meditates on why and how he lost passion for his vocation, what his current purpose is, and whether there are miracles or just strings of coincidences. Shyamalan’s signature twist isn’t horrific, but dramatic and philosophical.

You’ll never look at corn the same way again.

Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Much like Signs, Knock at the Cabin deals with a potentially apocalyptic event. Shyamalan is well aware of the connection, as he noted to Total Film in an interview.

"Which of my other movies is Knock At The Cabin in the ballpark of? The closest, I think, is Signs, because both movies are confined, to some extent, and they’re both populated by such loveable families at the center of apocalyptic events. I do think that you fall in love with both of those families. You laugh with them, are scared for them. You feel connected... It’s a wonderful discussion that we’re all going to have when you watch the movie. Is humanity worth saving? Are we good? The human experiment— is this working?”

So before you rush to theaters and watch Shyamalan’s latest thriller, revisit Signs. Shyamalan is infamous for his misses, but this was a thoughtful and freaky hit.

Signs is streaming on HBO Max.

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