Grossing more than $200 million to date, M. Night Shyamalan’s spiritual-thriller Signs has been on top at the box office during the dog days of summer. It’s an unlikely blockbuster, mixing B-grade alien invaders with themes of family and faith. We might be tempted to ask, what is the appeal?
It’s not the first time Shyamalan has tackled the spiritual. A Hindu educated at Philadelphia’s Catholic Waldron Mercy Academy, his films frequently utilize Catholic themes and symbols. The Sixth Sense was an allegory for Purgatory. Unbreakable was about using one’s God-given talents, and Wide Awake was about a young boy’s search for God. Signs can be described as God’s conversation with a man.
In the film, protagonist Graham Hess is a former Episcopal pastor. His faith flew out the window with the tragic death of his wife six months earlier. The film opens with two images. One is that of a window; the other is that of a cross.
The window serves as a metaphor for Hess’ faith. In the beginning, awakened by a noise, Hess looks at the cornfield from his bedroom window. As we see him, from the outside, he is distorted by the window’s aged and wavy glass. It represents Hess’ faith. He can’t see clearly.
A shadow sits on the wall where a cross once hung, a testament to Hess’ loss of faith. Much to Hess’ chagrin, residents still call him “Father.”
Suddenly faced with mysterious crop circles and an invasion of potential aliens, Hess must wrestle with his demons of unbelief. Some might question whether the former are merely a manifestation of the latter.
Ultimately, though, the film is about family and faith. It is about Hess’ relationship to his children and to his God.
Shyamalan uses the crop circles to get the audience thinking about divine providence. Does coincidence guide our lives or is there a pattern to it all?
As the family sits watching the global crisis unfold on television, Hess explains his philosophy. He declares that there are two kinds of people: those who believe in miracles and those who believe things happen for no particular reason. At this point Hess belongs to the second group, convincing himself that humans are alone in the world.
This is clearly represented by Hess’ efforts to board up the home’s windows, to keep the intruders out. His bedroom window is one of the last to be boarded. At this point, Hess has shut out his faith completely.
This is later brought home during a “last supper” scene. Knowing that the aliens are close at hand, the family takes time to prepare each family member’s favorite dish — spaghetti, mashed potatoes, a cheeseburger. For Hess, believing that he is alone in the world, this is all there is — the material world. For his children, however, there is far more. Hess’ son, Morgan, asks him before dinner, “Shouldn’t we pray or something?” to which Hess responds, “I will not waste another minute on prayer.”
However, while the family is holed up in the basement, and Hess holds his struggling asthmatic son, he does turn to God, in anger. “Don’t do this to me again,” he says. “I hate you. I hate you.”
It is only when Hess acknowledges God — even in anger — that God begins to move again in his life. God honors Hess’ prayer.
As it turns out, not only do the details matter, but God is in the details. Suddenly, Hess’ wife’s dying words, his brother’s moving in with them, his daughter’s idiosyncrasy with water, and even his son’s asthma make sense. In the end, the invaders are defeated and Morgan is saved.
“Did someone save me?” Morgan asks his father. “Yes, I think someone did,” his father replies, weeping and glancing heavenward.
In the film’s end, however, Hess’ faith has been restored. The window has been shattered and the view through the empty pane is clear.
Christians have responded positively to the film, and the question remains “why?”
Is it merely the fact that when 95% of the films that Hollywood churns out are such uninspiring schlock, that people will fall all over themselves for films that explore truth, even when they are wrapped in green alien suits? This may be true, but I suspect it’s a bit more than that.
Graham Hess’ story is Job’s story presented for our time. Hess is struggling with Job’s question, “Why do people you love die?”
In Signs, as in Shyamalan’s previous films, tangible proof enters people’s lives demonstrating that reality has dimensions beyond that of everyday. To believe in God, one must agree that there is more to the universe than what we can see. Ultimately, this is what Graham Hess comes to realize.
Perhaps Signs’ box office returns reflect our own self-searching and yearning for meaning after September 11th. After the towers fell and the dust cleared, only a cross remained. In the end, that’s all there is — an empty cross.
In Signs, Shymalan ends the film as it began. As the camera pulls away it reveals Hess dressing in his clerics. While the image of a faded cross is no longer visible on the wall, one is very evident in the architecture of the bathroom door, symbolizing that Hess has again made his faith a part of his life.
One might argue that Shyamalan’s cinematic use of signs is a weak basis for faith. It brings to mind Christ’s question, “Why does this generation seek after a sign?” and his response, “There shall be no sign given it.” For faith, based solely upon signs, would be empty indeed. Faith is being sure of that which we cannot see.
And yet, God has used and continues to use signs and miracles. They do not explain everything, just as the death of Hess’ wife cannot be explained. Some things do just happen. All signs, however point to the ultimate sign — Christ and the cross. They are the sign that we have been given, and they remain a sign of contradiction — a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.
Shyamalan’s films deal with themes of fear, family, faith, and redemption. Yet, even when they deal with the paranormal or the supernatural, they are ultimately about relationships — relationships between a parent and child and the relationship between God and man.
Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota. His new book, Saints of the Jubilee, can be ordered online or by calling 1-888-280-7715.