Symbols and grief in Signs, a film about life after death and beyond the stars.
What is Signs about?
A grieving family discover a crop circle on their farm but dismiss it as a hoax – until alien sightings are reported around the world …
This tale of grief and aliens delivers a lean script in which nothing is wasted on-screen, and where everything means something.
Signs is about a family caught up in an alien invasion. Released 3 years before Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, this a similar story but told in much a quieter way.
Signs may lack the latter’s big budget (most noticeable in the monster reveal), but it’s a compelling and deftly woven tale. It draws on traditional storytelling techniques – think Hitchcock and early Spielberg – to deliver dread, laughs and jump scares.
Like Shyamalan’s The Happening, there are moments of horror, grief and comedy. But Signs is a far funnier film, perhaps because it uses light hearted rather than black humour.
There’s also the customary twist – though here it’s less an unexpected ending and more the mother of all expositions.
The significance of signs
Signs are symbols that convey a broader meaning: the picture signs that identify toilets or telephones, for instance.
In the movie, the crop circles are a sign, but no one knows what they mean. Are they a hoax, or a sign of alien invasion?
Signs are also things we interpret as coincidence, causality and consequence – for instance, when animals get spooked before a disaster. This is where the film sets out its stall.
When Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) asks older brother – and former priest – Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) for comfort about the end of the world, Graham gives double-sided reassurance.
He says there are two kinds of people in the world. One sees inexplicable things and writes it down to luck. The other kind sees God’s purpose. The world is a less frightening place for them, because they believe everything happens for a reason, as if to a grand master plan.
Essentially, Graham is describing faith. You either have it or you don’t – but without it, you’re at the mercy of your own fears.
The irony is that Graham lost his faith when his wife died. When aliens attack the family, he doesn’t know whether they’ll make it through the night.
Aliens and extremism
As in The Happening, everyone has a theory about crop circles, aliens and the end of the world – and each one appears to be correct.
- The army recruitment officer claims the aliens are conducting a scouting mission and will return in greater number
- Ray Reddy (Shyamalan) has a gut feeling the aliens can’t stand water
- Morgan’s book shows what the aliens will look like, and their intentions. And one illustration even appears to be the Hess home.
The theories are a counterpoint to Graham’s missing faith. Without the stability of his leadership, his family and wider community fall prey to panic and paranoia.
Ironically, the tin-foil hats that the kids wear to protect themselves are a symbol of conspiracy thinking, of the dangers of jumping to conclusions that serve beliefs rather than evidence.
The ending explained: superhero origins
Sadness runs through Signs – because of the family’s grief, but also for their weaknesses.
Merrill is a talented baseball player … with a phenomenal strikeout rate. Bo (Abigail Breslin) has a phobia of drinking water. Morgan (Rory Culkin) has asthma and struggles to breathe. And Graham has lost his faith, making him no comfort to the people who need him – including his children.
Rather than writing these characters off, the film’s final scenes turn their flaws into strengths:
- Colleen Hess’s last words become a prophesy for Merrill to “swing away” at the alien
- Bo’s phobia means there’s water all over the house. The aliens’ weakness is water
- Morgan’s asthma closes his lungs when an alien attacks him, saving his life
- Colleen’s last words to Graham help him “to see” coincidence and find his faith.
The ending may strain the boundaries of the believable, but it fits the film’s treatment of grief.
Graham’s wife Colleen dies when veterinarian Ray Reddy falls asleep at the wheel and crashes into her. The tragedy haunts the family, but making Colleen’s last words a prediction transforms her death into a Christ-like sacrifice that saves them.
Her death has purpose. Suddenly there’s meaning in the family’s awful, all-consuming grief.
Faith and fatherhood
The film opens on a faded version of the past. A family photo sits on the bedside table, but Colleen is dead and Graham is no longer priest. There’s a symbol (a sign) of this outside the bathroom, where we can just make out the faded space where a cross used to hang on the wall.
Graham loses faith because he can’t reconcile a loving God with tragedy. Yet getting to grips with his new identity proves a challenge.
For a start there’s his comedy cursing when he and Merrill chase an intruder around the house (“I’m losing my mind!”). Also consider the number of times he tells other people not to call him Father.
This is the greater significance of losing his faith. Consumed by guilt, Graham stops being a father to his kids. He can’t fully console them or share their grief.
It makes for an interesting contrast with other action dad movies, including 2012, The Tomorrow War, Greenland and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. Whereas those films turn their dads into action heroes intent on saving the day, family or planet, Graham Hess quietly retreats from the world (see also Knowing).
Without faith, he thinks all is lost. He even has the family sit down to a last supper, as though this is their final night together. Then, hunkered in the basement, the family fends off an alien (and an asthma) attack. Graham voices his grief and anger at God for the first time: “I hate you.”
Having faced his demons, he’s finally able to hear Colleen’s final words, opening him up to faith once more. At the end of the movie, Graham refuses to believe Morgan is dead. Instead, he quietly explains – or prays – why he’ll be OK. And he’s right.
The last time we see Graham Hess, he’s a priest again. But this time he’s not looking back, but facing the world head-on.
Signs (2002), directed by M. Night Shyamalan
What to read or watch next
- Split, Unbreakable (Shyamalan, superhero origins)
- The Happening (Shyamalan, unbelievable events, grief)
- War of the Worlds (Spielberg, 2005 – a family caught up in an alien invasion)
- The Grey, Don’t Let Go, The Woman in the Window (grief)
- Top Gun: Maverick (grief, fathers)
Picture credit: Tomasz Filipek