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Signs (2002)

M. Night Shyamalan is a deft but somewhat frustrating filmmaker. On the one hand, he's using stripped down and universalized stories to convey some very big, very God-centered ideas, but on the other, because of their very accessibility--in his case driven by the need to reach summer movie audiences here and then foreign markets across the world--they have a certain opaqueness. Folks who are willing to go where he seems to be heading are left straining at the traces, as he holds back lest he lose anybody (or so it seems to me, at any rate).

Nonetheless, at this point it is possible to look at Mr. Shyamalan's last three films , and now Signs--and discern three distinct and significant claims that he's staked: the existence and endurance of the soul (The Sixth Sense); the existence of good and evil Unbreakable; and now with Signs, the existence of God. In fact, on one of the DVD extras, he refers to this film as a conversation between one man and God.

That man is Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), an Episcopalian priest who has given up the collar after the tragic death of his wife in a horrible, freakish accident. He's also become somewhat distant from his son (Morgan) and daughter (Bo) and his brother (Merrill) who's moved into a guest house on the family farm to help out. Graham's loss of faith is troubling enough as it effects him, but it clearly frightens the children and maybe most of all Merrill, who it is not too much to say worships his older brother.

In the opening scene, Graham is jolted awake and discovers that Morgan and Bo are missing. He and Merrill search for them in the cornfields, amidst the nattering of insects and other spooky noises. When they find them, Graham is so focused on what might have gone wrong that Morgan has to physically turn his father's head to show him the enormous crop circle that has been flattened into the field, saying: "I think God did it". This is the theme of the movie in a nutshell--Graham lost in what has and what can go wrong has lost the ability or the desire to read the signs around him and it will be the "faith" of the kids and of Merrill--faith that the signs do mean something--that will restore him.

The viewer is left just as uncertain as the characters about what is going on, though eventually it becomes clear that aliens have come to Earth. Their intentions, peaceful or warlike remain unclear. Finally, Mr. Shyamalan reveals what he';s after as precisely as he's going to in the movie, in the following scene between the brothers:



The family room lights are off now. The TV is still on. The SOUND IS MUTED. There are a couple glasses of Bo's water on the television now.

The fourteen lights are still hovering on the screen. Morgan is asleep on Graham's lap. Bo is asleep on Merrill's shoulder.

MERRILL (whispers): Some people are probably thinking this is the end of the world.

Graham turns his sleepy eyes away from the screen to Merrill.

GRAHAM (whispers): That's true.

Merrill looks his brother in the eyes. Beat.

MERRILL (whispers): Do you think it's a possibility?

GRAHAM (whispers): Yes.

MERRILL (whispers): How can you say that?

GRAHAM (whispers): That wasn't the answer you wanted?

MERRILL (whispers): Can you at least pretend to be like you used to be? Give me some comfort?

Beat. Graham thinks it over.

GRAHAM (whispers):

... There are all different ways you can tell that there's someone really there watching out for us.

You see signs. Sometimes they're little ones. You think of someone. The phone rings. They're on the phone... Sometimes they're big, like fourteen lights hovering over Mexico City.


Sure, there are a lot of people watching this who think this could be a bad thing. But there are a lot of people watching this, who think it's a miracle. A sign of God's existence. It's all in how you look at things Merrill.


What you have to decide is what kind of person you are? Are you the type who believes in miracles and looks for signs or are you the kind who believes, things just happen by chance?

Beat. Merrill is deep in thought.

MERRILL: I was at this party once. I'm on a couch with Sara Mckinney. She was just sitting there, looking beautiful and staring at me. I go to lean in and kiss her and I realize I have gum in my mouth. I turn and take out the gum. Stuff it in my paper cup next to the sofa and turn around. Sara Mckinney throws up all over herself.


I knew the second it happened. It was a miracle. I could have been kissing her when she threw up. That would have scarred me for life. I may never have recovered.

Merrill looks at the TV screen. Beat.

MERRILL: I'm a miracle man. Those lights are a miracle.

Graham smiles.

GRAHAM (whispers): There you go.


MERRILL (whispers): So which type are you?


GRAHAM (whispers): Do you feel comforted?

MERRILL (whispers): Yes.

GRAHAM (whispers): What does it matter then?

The two of them turn back to the silent screen of the television. It's a long beat before Graham speaks.

GRAHAM (whispers): Do you know what Colleen's last words were before they killed her?

Beat. Merrill turns and stares quietly at his brother.

GRAHAM (whispers): She said, "See", and then her eyes glazed a bit and she said... "Tell Merrill to swing away."

Merrill's mouth opens a bit. Graham turns and chuckles at his expression.

GRAHAM (whispers): Do you know why she said that?

Merrill nods, "No."

GRAHAM (whispers): Because the nerve endings in her brain were firing as she died, and some random memory of us at one of your baseball games popped into her head.


There is no one watching out for us Merrill. We're all on our own.

Graham turns back to the television. Beat.


Now, folks have talked about a number of the great films and filmmakers Mr. Shyamalan borrows from for this movie--Alfred Hitchcock, particularly The Birds, Night of the Living Dead, etc.--but one I've not seen mentioned is the final scene in John Ford's The Searchers. There John Wayne stands just outside the squat homestead, framed by the door, domesticity behind him, the expansive vista of the West before him, and he does one of those physically graceful moves for which he should be better remembered: he reaches across with one arm and grasps his other above the elbow, curling himself up somewhat, diminishing himself within the landscape even further, as if he (and what he represents) might disappear altogether. Graham is presented in much the same way visually--small, very narrow, sometimes seemingly shot through a fish eye lens which distorts and exaggerates that effect further. The camera displays the existential isolation his character feels. This fits well the idea of him conversing with God because Graham does seem infinitesimal. In the passage above, he is as much begging God for a sign as he is talking with his brother. But we are not entitled to demand signs of God, only enabled to recognize those that surround us and as the movie concludes it is the signs that have been there all along, but which he'd shut himself off from, that reveal to Graham just what's happening and how he and his family must behave.

One particularly appealing sign that is dropped almost casually along the way comes when Merrill has to explain why his career as a minor league baseball player flamed out. Despite being a prodigious homerun hitter, he also set strikeout records because he offered at every pitch: "It felt wrong not to swing." That he manages by movie's end to make us feel that Merrill's urge is part of the order of Creation is just one small reason to be grateful to Mr. Shyamalan. That his movies are slowly building up the basics of faith for a vast audience is the big one.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

(2 movies reviewed)

    -FILMOGRAPHY : M. Night Shyamalan (
    -INFO: Signs (2002) (
    -ESSAY: M. Night Shyamalan’s Fears and Redemptions (Adam Nayman, Feb. 2nd, 2023, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: M Night Shyamalan’s Signs: The scariest moment in a movie with a 12 certificate age rating, 20 years on: ‘What you’re about to see may disturb you’ (Jacob Stolworthy, 8/03/22, Independent)
    -PROFILE : Out of This World : Hollywood is fat and happy with its summer of sequels. Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away-Philadelphia-director M. Night Shyamalan is proving himself to be our next great storyteller. A close encounter with the man behind `Signs'  (Jeff Giles,  NEWSWEEK)
    -ESSAY : The 150-Second Sell, Take 34 (MARSHALL SELLA, July 28, 2002, NY Times Magazine)
    -ESSAY : When the Moral Stakes Are Too Low (Terry Teachout, The Crisis)
    -ESSAY : Creating Fulfillment :  A review of the Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes (Bill Johnson, A Story is a Promise)
    -INFO : Wide Awake (1998) (
    -ESSAY: Signs and Wonders: The spiritual imagination of M. Night Shyamalan (Roy Anker, November/December 2002, Books & Culture)
    -ESSAY: Finding God in "Signs" (Daniel L. Weiss, Boundless)
    'Signs' for the times (Debra Saunders, February 3, 2003, Townhall)
    -SCREENPLAY: Signs
    -ESSAY: Signs and Wonders: The spiritual imagination of M. Night Shyamalan (Roy Anker, November/December 2002, Books & Culture)
    -ARTICLE: Signs of Faith? (Ted Parks, Religion News Service)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: for Signs (IMDB)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: for Signs (MRQE)
    -REVIEW: of Signs (James Berardinelli, Reel Views)
    -REVIEW: of Signs (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times)
    -REVIEW: of Signs (James Bowman)
    -REVIEW: of Signs (A. O. Scott, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Signs (Michael Elliott, Movie Parables)
    -REVIEW: of Signs (Decent Films)
    -REVIEW: of Signs (Kevin Lally, Film Journal International)
    -REVIEW: of Signs (Cynthia Fuchs, Pop Matters)
    -REVIEW: of Signs (Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW: of Signs (Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality and Health)
    -REVIEW: of Signs (Kim Newman, Sight and Sound)
    -REVIEW: of Signs (Reeling Reviews)
    -REVIEW : of Signs directed by M. Night Shyamalan : Aliens and Wonders : A Hindu director who attended Christian schools tells a parable about a Christ-haunted ex-priest. (Douglas LeBlanc, Christianity Today)
    -REVIEW : of Signs (Desson Howe, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Signs  (DAVID GERMAIN, AP)
    -REVIEW : of Signs (David Sterritt, The Christian Science Monitor )
    -REVIEW : of SignsThe Corn Is Flat : Signs is a hucksterish religious parable (David Edelstein, Slate)
    -REVIEW : of Signs (Andrew O'Hehir, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Signs  (Michael Wilmington, MetroMix)
    -REVIEW : of Signs  (Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter)
    -REVIEW : of Signs  (J. Robert Parks, Phantom Tollbooth)
    -REVIEW : of Signs (ROBERT WILONSKY, New Times LA)
    -REVIEW : of Signs  (Arthur Lazere, Culture Vulture)
    -REVIEW : of Signs  (Rachel Gordon, Culture Dose)
    -REVIEW : of Signs  (Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Elvis Mitchell, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Edward Guthmann, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Deal W. Hudson, The Crisis)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (James Bernardelli Reel Views)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Boyd Petrie, Respect)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Michael Elliott, Movie Parables)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Christian Spotlight on the Movies)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Hollywood Jesus)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Ray Pride, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Ed Gonzalez, Slant)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Kenneth Turan, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Sam Adams , Philadelphia City Paper)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Sean Weitner, Flak)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Dennis Lim, Village Voice)
   -REVIEW: of Unbreakable (R Michael Harman, Strange Horizons)
    -REVIEW : of Sixth Sense (Peter T. Chattaway, ChristianWeek)
    -REVIEW : of Wide Awake (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of Wide Awake (Stephen Holden, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Wide Awake (James Berardinelli)
    -REVIEW : of Praying with Anger (James Berardinelli)

    -Crop Circle Quest
    -Crop Circle Central
    -Unified Field Objection
    -Art Bell--Crop Circles
    -ESSAY : Crop Circles: Artworks or Alien Signs? (Hillary Mayell, August 2, 2002, National Geographic News)
    -ESSAY: Signs of Science?: The director of The Sixth Sense searches for meaning in flattened fields of corn. (Corey S. Powell, Discover)
    -ESSAY: Circular Reasoning: The 'Mystery' of Crop Circles and Their 'Orbs' of Light (Joe Nickel, Skeptical Inquirer)
    -ESSAY: Crop Circle Confession : How to get the wheat down in the dead of night (Matt Ridley, July 15, 2002, Scientific American)