Is Shyamalan the new Hitchcock?
What the master of suspense and the maverick filmmaker have in common
If you are planning to see Signs, and you want to preserve the suspense of its so-called ending, stop reading right now. On the other hand, if you want some idea of the disappointment in store for you, keep going.
More than M Night Shyamalan's trademark twist at the end, Signs has nothing more than a twisted ending going for it.
When the credits began rolling, I was not the only one in the theatre who said, "That's it? It's over? Hey, wait a minute! There must be
some mistake here." I knew going in there would be aliens. But I did not know Shyamalan would resort to the cheesiest of B-movie conventions --- little green men --- and that once the villainous alien was finished, so was the movie.
Signs is 95 minutes of a good movie topped with ten minutes of a terrible one. To give credit where it is due, Shyamalan is very good at building narrative suspense. There are few filmmakers who can do so much with so little. Give him a locked door, diced vegetables on a counter and a gleaming kitchen knife and he will have you on the edge of your seat with pleasurable anxiety.
He is good at foreshadowing events. Not a word or scene is wasted. Every character, every flashback, every bit of dialogue is put to good use at some point. Every loose end is neatly tied up, perhaps too neatly. A character that was a baseball player in his youth uses his famous swing to good effect with a bat that just happens to be in the vicinity. Another finds a book and a baby monitor that prove crucial to the plot.
In the end we are left with a summer thriller, nothing more, nothing less. Signs is a victim of impossible expectations. And for this, there is nobody to blame but the media and its relentless hype machine. Considering the long build-up to the film's release and the barrage of articles, film clips, documentaries, interviews and ad campaigns that preceded it, only a masterpiece could have survived audience expectations.
Whatever Signs may be, it is no masterpiece.
One of the main culprits in this rolling wave of orchestrated celebration was a Newsweek cover that appeared days before the film opened. The cover depicted Shyamalan, freshly shaved and dapper, standing in a cornfield under a headline announcing him as The New Spielberg. That is a failed analogy at best, and a desperate piece of journalistic sleight-of-hand at worst.
Spielberg at 31, the age Shyamalan is today, had five films to his credit: the 24-minute film Amblin (1969), the television movie Duel (1972), the road movie The Sugarland Express (1974), the summer bluckbuster to beat all summer blockbusters Jaws (1975), and the alien family movie to beat all alien family movies Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
Shyamalan has made the same number of movies Praying With Anger (1992), Wide Awake (1998), The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002). But there the similarity ends. His movies, particularly the last three, are of a piece. They can best be described as supernatural thrillers. He does not have Spielberg's reach or wide appeal.
The question Newsweek should have posed is whether Shyamalan is the new Hitchcock.
Like Hitchcock, Shyamalan is in express control of his tools. He uses music, sound and expert manipulation of human psychology. Like Hitchcock he appears in his own movies. In Signs he plays an important role. He is the man who effectively destroys Graham Hess' (Mel Gibson's) life, causing him to lose his faith and give up the cloth. Of course in some branches of Christianity and Judaism doubt is a central tenet of faith so the scene is set for Hess's eventual redemption.
In Signs, Shyamalan's version of the modern family is made up of Hess, his younger brother Merrill (the absolutely brilliant Joaquin Phoenix), and his two children, played by Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin. Rounding out the family is the palpable absence of Hess' wife, killed in a random accident. Crop circles appear on their farm and in other parts of the world, the family barricades itself in the basement, aliens wreak apocalypse. In other words it's the usual Mars Attacks B-movie scenario.
Late at night, the Hess brothers take on the movie's purported weighty questions. There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe in the cosmic harmony of reason and those who are condemned to the nihilistic hell of chance. The first kind of person believes in the essential connectedness of all beings and the presence of a benevolent creator. The second kind of person believes everything is random and we are all essentially alone.
The question the movie poses is: which kind of person are you? As far as it goes, which is not very far, that may be a useful question. It is Shyamalan's answer that proves problematic, even offensive. Hess is eventually restored from a state of existential doubt to one of abiding faith. He is a man of the church and a father once again, able to rescue his family because of his faith. The problem is the unsaid part of that equation would have us believe that a man without faith is a villainous man who is unable, or unwilling, to protect his family.
In the post September 11 world, questions of faith may be more relevant than before, but this kind of ethical posturing is unacceptable at any time. Shyamalan comes across in interviews as a family man. In fact he refused to answer Newsweek's question about whether he partied at college because he did not want to upset his mother. For her part his mother is quoted as saying her son should make spiritual movies.
Shyamalan should stop trying to please his mom.