Tuesday, September 8, 2009

"Signs": either audiences hate Hitchcockian filmmaking, or just September 11th

Critics, for the most part, enjoyed. Audiences, for the most part, hated it.

M. Night Shyamalan had a promising debut. I, of course, am talking about his 1998 opus "Wide Awake", starring Denis Leary, Rosie O'Donnell, and Julia Stiles. Haven't seen it? Neither have I.

And then came 1999, and, according to the DVD case, the "#1 thriller of all time!", "The Sixth Sense". Audiences loved the ghost story, the twist, the cameo by New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg; critics and the entertainment community loved it as well. "The Sixth Sense" was nominated for six Oscars, and although it came up short against "American Beauty", the world seemed to be Shyamalan's oyster.

His 2000 followup, "Unbreakable", didn't wow critics and audiences (this one included), but likewise was considered a decent-enough thriller with a strange twist.

Then, after a two-year hiatus, came "Signs". Critics overall responded positively. Audiences, however, despised it.

"Signs" is the story of Graham (a yet-to-be-crazy Mel Gibson), a recently retired pastor and widower who has lost his faith. Helping him raise his children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin's first, and amazing, major film performance) is his brother Merrill (a yet-to-be-crazy Joaquin Phoenix). The movie begins with Graham waking in a muted panic - he hears his children screaming. He and his brother find them in the corn fields outside their Bucks County, PA farmhouse. In the middle of the night, a massive series of crop circles has appeared. Although they originally suspect they're the victims of local pranksters (played hysterically in one scene by Stella and The State's Michael Showalter), it quickly seems as though the cause is far more, shall we pun, alien [/ducking chair].

From the very first frame, following the opening credits with James Newton Howard's delightfully harrowing Herrmann-esqe score (below), it is clear that this is a world where something is not right.

There is something on the tip of everyone's tongue, an underlying agitation and tension that nobody in the family directly addresses. Even when we discover about the recent tragic death of the family matriarch, and before the imminent alien invasion is apparent, that uneasiness remains. Even though we're spared any melodramatic speeches from Gibson, and more importantly, the children, about how much mom is missed, they all carry the trauma in how they try to act like everything is fine. Their family, obviously, is not fine, and it becomes all the more apparent that everything in the world is far from fine. Crop circles pop up world-wide, alien craft appear, and it seems like all humanity can do is wait for complete annihilation.

The most common complaints about "Signs" are fair. Audiences criticized the marketing campaign that made "Signs" seem like the next "Independence Day", when in fact the plot is so focused on the family we spend all but two scenes on the farm, and for the most part, we don't even see the alien invaders. When we do, they aren't much to behold, which is the other big complaint. The aliens have a run-of-the-mill anatomy and rendered in a fairly mundane CGI, and the first two sightings - on the roof next to the chimney, and the stray foot in the corn field - are so muted they almost can't be seen. When I first saw this in the theater, I wouldn't have known I should be startled had it not been for the music cue. Although not a common complaint, some critics didn't care for the overall theme of the movie, namely, Graham's grappling with faith and whether or not he believes in chance, coincidence, and fate; some critics felt it was too heavy-handed and predictable. Other critics, like Christopher Smith of the renowned Bangor Daily News, didn't care for Shyamalan's acting role in the film, which seems to be the main crux of his Spinal Tap-ian review, "crap circles".

The heavy-handedness of the theme of fate, faith, and chance is certainly debatable. There are several scenes of Gibson monologue, which, in my opinion, are well-enough written, directed, and performed. Shyamalan's role of Ray Reddy, who was inadvertantly responsible for the death, has a monolgue that's slightly overdone, but happens early enough that it doesn't have too much affect on the final act. If talk about faith versus chance versus fate happens to be your type of movie, I think you're in luck. If you'd rather see Gibson jump on an in-flight saucer and beat the alien to death with a garden hoe, you're out of luck.

The alien invasion scene in particular owes a lot to Hitchcock. Most of what is happening is hidden from view, instead, we're forced to stare at a wall or a flashlight for an agonizing time while we listen to indiscernible racket. Just like in any good suspense thriller, or in one of my all-time favorites ("Jaws"), "Signs" lets our imaginations do most of the heavy lifting for us. On a whim, I threw the DVD in over the long weekend, and wondered if audiences had grown too lazy to appreciate suspense that wasn't spoon-fed. If you don't have an active imagination, I'm pretty sure you won't be predisposed to liking most of the last third of the movie.

On further reflection, though, I wondered if the poor audience reception went beyond differing expectations or the need to see ID4/Saw-style gore. I began to wonder, unironically, if people hated this movie because of September 11th.

Yep, I just said that. Please allow me to explain before you assume I'm crazy.

The flashbacks wherein Graham talks to his wife for the last time were scheduled to shoot September 12th, 2001. This was the first day of filming for the movie "Signs".

A movie about questioning faith, reason, and chance was filmed in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Watching the film seven years after its release, the confusion and shock of those events is palpable, especially in those first scenes.

Given the subject matter, I then couldn't help but wonder: was the film too dark for audiences to really connect to less than a year after September 11th? Even though it earned almost $230 million at the domestic box office, most people I've talked to don't care for the movie. I just can't accept that some questionable CGI, slower pacing, and a few lines could make people hate what is, at the core, a suspenseful claustrophobic thriller that takes cues from cinema's most accomplished directors. Perhaps if the film came out two years earlier, or seven years later, audiences would have responded differently.

TOO MUCH: bad CGI, televisions and radio telling the characters what's going on, could have used fewer dramatic pauses

COULD HAVE USED MORE: nuanced dialogue in Shyamalan's scenes and Gibson's basement monologue

FILM SNOB NOTE: This was the last of Shyamalan's movies to be well-received by critics. His subsequent films, "The Village", "Lady In The Water", and "The Happening" were received with progressively negative reviews. Also, Mark Ruffalo was originally slated for Joaquin's role, but dropped out when a (benign) brain tumor was discovered. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto replicates his "Silence of the Lambs" style of actors looking directly into the lens.


IF YOU SAID THIS WAS YOUR FAVORITE MOVIE, I'D THINK: It's odd you didn't say "The Sixth Sense", but at least you didn't say "Lady In The Water".

1 comment:

  1. Another great post! I hated signs except when they were wearing those tin foil hats...that was actually pretty dope.