M. Night Shyamalan’s alien invasion horror picture Signs was released 20 years ago, yet it’s still considered one of his very best. There’s a lot to like about this sci-fi movie, whether it’s the fantastic casting, the unusual otherworldly happenings, or the incredibly dramatic score by famed composer James Newton Howard. Signs, like Shyamalan’s previous great works, feels very personal, which is understandable. While the alien invasion backdrop creates some exciting dramatic confrontations, former Episcopal priest Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) and his struggle with the deconstruction of his own religion is clearly the heart of this film.
Graham’s personal apocalypse, set against the backdrop of the world’s, is the film’s most powerful beat, with themes ranging from bereavement to divine providence and the impact of demons interwoven throughout.
Despite the fact that Shyamalan attended Catholic and Episcopal schools as a child, he has never identified as a Christian, his interpretation of the old spiritual tradition for the film is strong. Gibson, who plays the suffering priest, is a fervent Roman Catholic, which no doubt inspired his portrayal of him, and his own directorial works like The Passion of the Christ and Hacksaw Ridge stand out as landmark portrayals of the faith. However, Shyamalan’s work on Signs stands out because of the way it highlights the conflicts between faith and doubt.
Rather than focusing solely on one, the film smoothly weaves them together, and while we only get glimpses of the broader product as the events occur, we get to see everything for what it was supposed to be on the other side of the credits.
We witness a man who has lost all meaning and purpose from the moment we first encounter him, especially after he discards his clerical collar. Even his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and his children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin) aren’t enough to help him get through his days. He’s removed all references to God from his home, including the crucifix that once hung on his wall, and prayer appears to be forbidden (as seen in the “final supper” scene). Graham is constantly telling people that he is no longer a Reverend throughout the film. He’s entirely lost himself in his attempt to abandon his job as a spiritual shepherd, let alone his relationship with God.
This is notably evident in the film’s most pivotal sequence, which wonderfully summarises Graham’s path. Merrill approaches his brother for consolation after learning that extraterrestrials have come on Earth, in the same way that he used to give it to his flock. Merrill is reassured by the concept that everything happens for a reason after a lengthy lecture about the two types of people in the world, determining that he is, after all, a “miracle guy.” Although it appears at first that Graham has inspired his brother to believe, the tableau quickly darkens, a murky reflection of Graham’s spirit.
“There’s no one watching out for us, Merrill,” Graham says as Merrill questions him about his own thoughts on signs and wonders. “Each of us is on our own.” Graham has concluded that, regardless of the wonderful nature of understanding we aren’t alone in the universe, the truth is that we are. Of course, the issues that Gibson’s character faces aren’t new.
If there’s one thing Signs is about, it’s the possibility of miracles, whether they’re signs and wonders in the stars or what we think are just “coincidences” here on Earth. M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi horror masterpiece has remained as relevant as ever after 20 years, and it’s easy to see why. As a result, the aptly titled Signs feels more down-to-earth and human than excessively respectful, always pressing us to figure out which type of person we are, “…the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles?” Or do you think folks are simply lucky? Consider the question this way: “Is it feasible that no coincidences exist?” We must make our own decisions.