Monday, December 28, 2015

Shyamalan's Signs from a Post-Mormon Perspective

I've gotten some flak for this opinion in the past, but I don't think The Sixth Sense was the peak of M. Night Shyamalan's now-derided career.  I think the peak was Signs.  

For a long time, Signs was my favorite film.  But when I visited my family for Thanksgiving and one night we decided to watch a movie, the best prospect from among their mostly PG-rated collection was my old favorite.  I hadn't seen it in years, and it was interesting to watch from a decidedly ex-Mormon vantage point.

Signs uses a mysterious alien invasion as a backdrop for the story of how a country ex-reverend regains his faith in God.  The movie's title refers both to the crop circles in his cornfield and to the content of one of its most poignant scenes:
This scene is, in my non-film-savvy opinion, a brilliant masterwork of cinematic genius.  The dialogue is crisp, the hushed, somber tones of the conversation provide a strong sense of atmosphere, the way it's shot so that the television lights up only half of Graham's face to indicate his struggle with the dichotomy he explains, Mel Gibson's and Joaquin Phoenix's performances...I love basically everything about these few minutes of skilled storytelling.  Here, as Merrill and Graham watch news footage of an alien presence, Merrill expresses concern that these events could spell the end of the world.
MERRILL:  Do you think it could be?
MERRILL:  How can you say that?
GRAHAM:  That wasn't the answer you wanted?
MERRILL:  Couldn't you pretend to be like you used to be?  Give me some comfort?
Merrill wants his brother to behave the way he did when he was a reverend.  He wants wise, optimistic Graham instead of cynical, hopeless Graham.  When I was a teenager, I loved this scene because it illustrated how belief can provide comfort.  But what I never realized is how this scene also indicates that the belief in question is based in comfort instead of in truth.  Merrill doesn't want Graham's honest answer, he wants his comforting answer.  He doesn't care whether everything is actually going to be okay, he just wants someone to tell him it will be.  Notably, the impending end of the world isn't altered in any way by how honest or how reassuring Graham's statements are.

But because he cares about his brother, Graham attempts to give the kind of advice he would have given when he was a man of faith:
GRAHAM:  People break down into two groups.  When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence.  They see it as a sign, evidence that there is someone up there watching out for them.  Group number two sees it as just pure luck, a happy turn of chance.   
I'm sure that the people in group number two are looking at those fourteen lights in a very suspicious way.  For them, the situation is a fifty-fifty...could be bad, could be good.  But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they're on their own.  And that fills them with fear.  Yeah, there are those people.
But there's a whole lot of people in group number one.  When they see those fourteen lights, they're looking at a miracle.  And deep down, they feel that whatever's going to happen, there'll be someone there to help them.  And that fills them with hope.  
So what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you?  Are you the kind that sees signs, sees miracles?  Or do you believe that people just get lucky?  Or, look at the question this way:  is it possible that there are no coincidences?
Merrill responds with an amusing anecdote that made him a believer in miracles and then asks his brother, "Which type are you?"  Graham attempts to bat the question away gently at first, but the scene culminates in this grim bit of dialogue:
GRAHAM:  There is no one watching out for us, Merrill.  We're all on our own.
And that's where a touching display of brotherly compassion takes a turn for the worse and Graham allows his personal opinions to threaten Merrill's hope.

The remainder of the film attempts to demonstrate how wrong Graham is because a string of impossible coincidences saves his family.  When an alien releases a poisonous gas in Morgan's face, his asthma keeps him from inhaling the toxin.  The apparently non-sequitur dying words of Graham's wife from months earlier give him the idea for Merrill to attack the alien with a baseball bat.  And Bo's idiosyncratic paranoia about funny-tasting water has resulted in glasses full of the alien's biggest weakness all over the house. Merrill defeats the intruder, Morgan survives the poison, and the heavy implication is that, had God not taken Graham's wife and arranged every bizarre detail, the entire family would have perished in the invasion.


While the climax does an excellent job of transitioning the belief from mere hope to evidence-based understanding, I think the movie contradicts itself on two fronts, microcosm and macrocosm.

As far as the big picture is concerned, Graham apparently decides that God was watching over him all this time, but doesn't seem to be bothered by all the people that God wasn't watching over.  The entire planet is ravaged by this alien incursion, and even though the attackers fail, the body count is heavily implied to be staggering and worldwide.  Why did God protect almost all of the Hess family but permit thousands of other families around the world to be killed?  And why did God need to ensure the death of Graham's wife to do it?

It brings to mind the "God of Lost Car Keys" complaint.  Why does God answer a prayer for something so trivial when there's so much war and starvation and disease and suffering around the world?  Why does God expend so much effort to protect one family in rural Pennsylvania when people all over the globe are getting slaughtered?  Does he not care about all those other people?

For the small-scale contradictions, it's difficult to see God's hand in anything except the ending.  Who decided to board up the house?  Graham.  Who decided to go down to the basement?  Graham.  Who realized the aliens might be trying to get into the basement through the old coal chute?  Graham.  Who guided Morgan successfully through an asthma attack without medicine?  Graham.  It was the faithless one who relentlessly defended himself and his children while his brother, who's clearly more open to a belief in God, mostly just followed his lead.  That can be interpreted as an endorsement for skepticism, as it seems to coincide with leadership and action and realistic solutions.

And in the end, we're still left with one family's series of impossibly lucky coincidences as the best manifestation of God.  It's convinced Graham to put his priest's collar back on.  It reaffirmed my beliefs as a Mormon viewer.  But as an ex-Mormon, I find the ending much more ambiguous than I ever realized.  God never comes down and says "you're welcome for setting all this up."  There's no overblown, explicitly religious to epilogue to cheapen the ending. We simply see the seasons change, and Graham get dressed with his collar on, grinning sentimentally to the sounds of his children in the house.  The protagonist has made up his mind about the cause of all these events, but the film presents it in such a way that it doesn't seem to expect that every viewer should come to the same conclusion.  Because even if we disagree with the movie about God and such, it's still a satisfying ending because the family whose struggles we've followed for the last ninety minutes are whole and happy.  I can connect with the characters' emotional journeys even if I don't particularly care for their ecclesiastical ones.

And I think that makes me like Signs more than I did before.  It's difficult to write a narrative that manages to bring home a strong moral to the story without alienating those who disagree with it (Get it?  Alienating?  I couldn't resist).  My dad disliked the ending of The Dark Knight because Gordon and Batman agree to lie to the public.  My mom dislikes Mr. Holland's Opus because there's too much liberal preaching.  But here I am, an agnostic who has zero interest in organized religion, watching a guy regain his faith in extraordinary circumstances, and I still love this movie.

Shyamalan's later work has tapered off and I, like many others, have questioned whether he was ever a good writer or if he just got lucky with a couple of screenplays.  I'm not sure if he did this on purpose, but there's a lot more nuance to Signs than immediately meets the eye.  It makes its own point, but intentionally or not, it leaves plenty of avenues open to almost the exact opposite of its message.

And I find that fascinating.  It makes me want to go back and re-watch The Village to see how spot-on his depiction of a modern-day cult may or may not be.


  1. Great post! I've got to see those movies. I love the clip. I've seen the Sixth Sense, and it's awesome, but I haven't seen Signs or the Village. I definitely will have to.

    I just finished reading the Korihor Argument book, so it's been on my mind. Isn't it interesting how people seek after signs to confirm their belief, and they find belief in any number of "faith promoting coincidences?" Yes, the "God of the Lost Car Keys" is alive and well. I believe that members are constantly looking for signs of the truthfulness of the church, and they're so desperate to find those signs that even a made up movie about an alien invasion and a preacher will make them all warm and fuzzy and confirm to them that the church has to be true.

    It's nice to be able to step back and realize that nobody is pulling the strings of my life from another planet. When something goes well, I don't have to give all of the credit to god, and when something goes bad, I don't have to worry that I've lost his favor or that he's trying to test me. What a relief!

    1. Well, I guess I've totally spoiled the movie for you then!

      I also forgot to mention that the emotional impact of the movie, even though I no longer believe in something the movie seems to preach about, was just as real to me. When the kid gets his asthma medicine after being rescued from the alien, he wakes up and groggily asks Mel Gibson, "Did someone save me?" And Gibson, covering his mouth to hide his sobs of happiness, responds, "Yeah, baby, I think someone did." This is an obvious reference to God, but I had tears welling in my eyes anyway. I think it's another testament to how good of a film this is that I completely reject one of the biggest themes but I get so wrapped up in it anyway.

      Especially as I've been working on my Book of Mormon commentary, I've noticed how fickle God is portrayed in Mormonism. I completely agree with you that it's a huge relief not to worry when things don't go my way that I've pissed off an unseen, unknowable, all-powerful being.

      But I definitely recommend that you watch Signs, even though I've spoiled a lot of plot points for you. I mean, I've seen it several times and I already knew what was going to happen when I sat down to watch it, but I still enjoyed the hell out of it.