Thursday, 24 November 2011

In Defence of 'Signs'...

When Signs came out, the majority of the reviews were negative. In the years that followed, the average in reviews has improved. (At least on IMDB). But one thing that keeps coming back, again and again is the criticism that...

SPOILER ALERT's an Alien Invasion story where the Invaders get killed by water. If you want a good straight up Invasion movie, go to Battle: LA. This movie is something else entirely. This movie is a story about faith. The Alien Invasion is just the backdrop.

As a sci-fi geek who has seen/read enough Alien stories to be judgmental about them, I was really pleased with this movie. The narrative as a whole is a brilliant piece of storytelling.

This movie, is about faith. If you pay attention to what the characters say between the chills and 'Ack!' moments, then you'd get a better feel for the brilliance of the script. Here it is:

The Characters:
The father, Graham Hess: a former clergyman, who lost faith after the death of his wife to a car accident and thus left the church.

His brother, Merril Hess: A baseball player, who moved in with his Brother and his kids after his sister in law died.

The son, Morgan: Crushed by the loss of his mother, and heavily asthmatic.

The daughter, Bo: The youngest of the household, and holds an interesting quirk of pathologically never finishing a drink of water.

Be advised, there are MAJOR spoilers from this moment on. Very last warning.

The Plot:

There's a moment in the movie, when Graham the former Reverend and his brother Merrill are watching news coverage of fourteen UFO's in the middle of the night, and Merrill makes a comment about it being the end of the world. Graham says it's possible. What follows is a monologue that I love, and have memorized, and quoted on a number of occasions. Read it carefully, because it so neatly defines the movie:

"People break down into two groups when the 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. Just a happy turn of chance. I'm sure the people in Group number two are looking at those fourteen lights in a very suspicious way. For them, the situation isn't 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 the 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 will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope. See 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? "

The house this family lives in is at the center of the action. The Aliens come in stages. First they form crop circles everywhere, to mark their landing zones. One of these crop circles is formed less than eighty meters from their home.

Next come single members of their invasion force, probing and such. Some of them sniff around their town. Anyway, I'm not going to get into the big worldwide signs of impeding attack. This is meant to explain the point of the storytelling:

During these early stages, the backstory is told.

First is the car accident that took Graham's wife. The town Vet fell asleep at the wheel, and hit her as she was walking. The car pinned her to a tree and gave Graham long enough to say goodbye to his wife. Her last words were: "Tell Merril to swing away". Her brain was shutting down and she was delirious.

Next, Merril's story: He's a baseball player, and holds the record for the most strikeouts, because he always swung as hard as he could, no matter what anybody said, also giving him the longest home run record. The Bat is still mounted on the family room wall.

And finally, comes the Invasion. The Aliens want the humans themselves, and use ground attacks. it seems they spray poison in small doses at close range, and people die.

The Aliens land their troops, putting their home right in the middle of the march. They flee to the basement, but the boy is injured. His Asthma kicks in big-time, leaving him nearly dead. They wait out the War going on outside.

The biggest and most hated point from most reviewers, is the way the Aliens were defeated. It seems that water is like acid to them. This makes the invasion quick, but disastrous for them, and humans stand triumphant as the family comes up out of the basement, only to find that one alien was left behind in the retreat, and hiding in their house, where he quickly takes the boy hostage, spraying him with the poison, as they fight him down.

As the alien is defeated, the boy seems to miraculously escape the Alien's spray, as the Asthma is treated, ensuring his survival.

The Point Of The Film:

Now, what we have here are a staggering series of coincidences:

1) We have, the death of his wife. Her last words would be burned into his memory, and they are "Tell Merrill to swing away."

2) We have, the brother, who was fantastic enough to have a baseball bat conveniently mounted on the wall, ready to use to fight the alien, but because he had no subtlety, he was here at home instead of on tour with the big leagues.

3) We have, the little girl, with a pathological refusal to finish a glass of water, making every room in the house full of half-full glasses of water when the alien strikes.

4) We have, the aliens themselves, who are horrifyingly weakened, to the point of death, by water, and who spray poison on their victims.

5) And we have, the boy, the former Priest's only son, who spent the night in the basement gasping impossibly for air through an asthma attack, so that when the Alien sprayed him, his lungs were closed, so no poison got in, and he was easily revived with asthma medication, while Merrill beat the alien into the water glasses with the baseball bat.

"See 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?"

This is not a scifi movie in the strictest sense. This is not an invasion story in the strictest sense. This is a movie about faith. About losing it, about finding it, and in the end simply wondering if the reason things sometimes work out is mere chance, or something more.

This movie feeds us these clues in bits and pieces, and I've had to explain the ending to almost everybody else I know who's seen it. But it makes sense to me, and I am constantly blown away by the skill with the writing.