Before I write this, let me grab a glass of water.
Signs was released 20 years ago, so we’re dusting off our tinfoil hats and celebrating one of Hollywood’s most mercurial filmmakers, M Night Shyamalan.
2002’s Signs revolves around the Hess family, who’s small Pennsylvania farm becomes the epicenter of an alien invasion. To spare you a retroactive review, here are my five biggest takeaways upon rewatch.
- Despite being about an alien invasion, the film somehow brings out the most neutered performances from Mel Gibson AND Joaquin Phoenix; two career provocateurs.
- The ending’s ‘everything happens for a reason’ is just as hackneyed and forced as it is on first viewing.
- As an M Night defender, I try to battle the accusations that his signature twist endings aren’t gimmicky or forced. That said, “THE ALIENS ARE ALLERGIC TO WATER!!” has gotta be his laziest effort. If you’re gonna market a twist, you better make it count.
- This movie is a lot slower than I realized. It’s more of a family drama with a TV news report jumpscare every 25 minutes.
- The crowning achievement of this movie is coining a ton of alien/conspiracy lingo. Tin foil hats alone have become a Shakespearean addition to pop culture in the way that everyone can identify it but might not know where it comes from.
On the lingo point, it really feels like that’s going to be M Night’s legacy when it’s all said and done. More than being remembered as a great director, remember his heavy hand in shaping modern film pop culture. He gave us tin foil hats, two of Bruce Willis’ three best movies, one of the greatest trailers of all time, and he’s even the reason why we see dead people.
About The Sixth Sense, I wish there was a way to quantify just how impactful that film’s twist was on every generation that followed it. It was so jaw-dropping in the moment that it almost ruined the movie for anyone who wasn’t around when it happened.
Being born in 2003, I actually can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the iconic “I see dead people” line and subsequent revelation about Dr. Malcolm Crowe. I ended up still watching the movie when I was about 12 or 13, but it just wasn’t the same. Still great, but I spent the whole time trying to find clues or easter eggs that lead up to the twist.
It’s a remarkable achievement to be so good that you ruin your own product. Ruining might be a strong word. After all, I’m the 18-year-old sitting here writing about a movie and director that I wasn’t even alive to see the prime of.
It might be easy to sit back and play the greatest hits, but a conversation about M Night can’t go on without mentioning the missteps. Signs might be his last work where audiences entered the theater free of baggage.
We can actually prove this assertion using Rotten Tomatoes math. His audience score follows a very predictable pattern, with a perfect ‘V’ curve. It starts high with The Sixth Sense, with each subsequent movie being slightly worse than the last. This trend goes until he hits rock bottom with the potentially career-ruining The Happening. After that, his films have reversed the pattern and have gotten slightly better one after another until recently petering out a bit and slipping back down.
- The Sixth Sense: 90%
- Unbreakable: 77%
- Signs: 67%
- The Village: 57%
- Lady In The Water: 49%
- The Happening: 24%
- The Last Airbender: 30%
- After Earth: 36%
- The Visit: 51%
- Split: 79%
- Glass: 67%
- Old: 53%
It’s worth noting that M Night’s Apple TV series, Servant, stands at an 88% Tomatometer and 75% audience score, but we’re only discussing theatrical releases here.
If this math holds up, it seems like his next film is due for failure already. In this ‘Moneyballing’ of movie reviews, I feel like we know pretty easily when M Night’s set up for success. He excels with a small budget, micro-set pieces, and room to experiment. All his best films fit those criteria. He tends to stumble with too much money, a tighter studio leash, and a non-horror/thriller script. We know the formula, now let’s stick to it.
Back to Signs, it seems like this movie was really his artistic crossroads. Toeing the line between that small budget formula and a big studio budget with an A-list cast, it has all the elements of the good and bad versions of M Night.
Unnerving dread at the sight of crop circles and news reports? Yep, that’s the M Night we love. Slimy nondescript alien monsters with poor CGI stalking a young girl? We could go without.
In a way, the movie is a microcosm of his whole career. Almost purely 50/50 between good ideas and mediocre execution, it’s just the amount of good to keep us hooked but just bad enough to prevent us from anointing as one of the greats.
So how are we supposed to view the director in 2022? To be fair, he’s still working and this article might look brilliant or idiotic depending on how his next decade goes.
His window to become an icon has unfortunately passed. Sure, he never filled those “Next Spielberg” shoes, but who could? He got off to as hot of a start as we’ve ever seen from a mainstream director and we reacted accordingly.
If anything, I view him as a necessary building block for indie filmmakers. He paved the way and gave us the blueprint for Blumhouse, A24, and so much more. Let’s not forget, The Sixth Sense grossed an unbelievable 672.8 million off a wholly original story and unknown director at the helm. Nobody believed an improbable underdog story like that could happen until it did. Without M Night, we don’t get projects like Paranormal Activity or the Saw franchise.
All it took was one breakthrough to launch a low-budget genre film renaissance. M Night was that breakthrough.
It’s important that we recognize his place as a massively influential piece to a larger puzzle of underground filmmakers. He isn’t the final product that the puzzle is building towards, rather the spark-plug to getting this culture built in the first place.
No matter your take on M Night Shyamalan, we’re still talking about him to this day. When he faced his crossroads 20 years ago with the making of Signs, let’s just say he did the right thing.