I try really hard to be fair as a person and as a reviewer, so after our "After Earth" discussion, where we ended up veering into a Shyamalan showcase of sorts and specifically "Signs" and there were some comments offered like this:
It's been ten years since I saw it in the theater, and at this point I only remembered my feelings about the movie, even while many of the movie's details now escaped me.
@The Ü™, I actually took notes during the movie and wrote down BOTH of the points you mention here. I'll agree that for me they were "minor issues," although give me a few paragraphs here to bitch about what annoys me in regards to them, just to get it out of my system...
For the latter point, it's really hard to believe they don't have ways to open doors or know how to break them down... considering they actually try to do so, and they're larger than human. These guys can flatten crops, build hyperdrive spaceships, and have developed cloaking devices, but they can't bust down a door or open a door and then push on boards that should have pulled right out of the wall. Let's just agree to call this point what it is: A contrivance of the screenwriter, so that the protagonists can secure the house and drive events to the endgame (the cellar scene + the scene in the living). He changed the rules to accommodate his story. Okay, fine.
The water thing is a bit more troublesome, and you don't even need to be a real scientist to understand why. Not only is the planet 75% water or more, but water (water vapor, snow, rain, etc.) is pervasive in the very air. In addition, the human bodies that the aliens are seemingly culling are made of water (according to quick web searches, anywhere from 53-60% or so). Even our blood is water with stuff in it, and we are likely to die in a week without water. We can't even touch white phosphorus with our hands without getting burned (it reacts explosively with water and must be stored in oil), because of the water content even in our skin. Not only is it hard to imagine what an alien race would need from the body of humans and other organics that are essentially poison/death to them (let alone coming to earth without being suited up, in an atmosphere full of water vapor -- it's certainly not "dry" there, the corn is able to grow just fine!), but the aliens are designed to be humanoid, look like they have blood, and would seem to operate according to the rules of water-based life; yet apparently water only burns and kills them. What? Wow. This whole plot device is just non-sensible. (To contrast this with another movie, "The Wizard of Oz" gets away with a melting witch that "looks human" because (1) we don't know that she's actually human, she's likely to be unique, and (2) it's a magical world, so we accept the rules can be very different, but this is set in the real world and the real universe, just with the potential for extraterrestrial life. Shyamalan really cheats here IMO.)
A third minor gripe is where Shyamalan gives himself a crucial role in a film populated by professional actors; Gibson is at the top of his game in an against-type understated role, Phoenix inhabits Merle perfectly, the kids are certainly adequate, and Cherry Jones just pulls off this amazing rural cop role -- she's very believable and sympathetic (and I was also impressed by her in the now-off-the-air "Awake," 2011 or so, as one of the two psychologists treating the main character). Why didn't MNS get a real actor to play this part? It seems like hubris. He's a huge distraction, and the scene loses much of the power it might have had with a better actor involved.
Okay, I'm done, Let's get on to positives.
One of Shyamalan's skills is defining characters by the "little things." Whether it was (in TSS) Cole's having his dad's glasses that he took out of a drawer after his missing father forgot them (says a LOT about him) or the way Elijah kicks the guy out of his store (in Unb) for buying an expensive original art for a 4-year-old... or just the scene where David's wife asks him whether he was with anyone during their separation and promises to be fine, then crying in relief uncontrollably when he says, "no," MNS just has a real good way about giving these indirect bits of external info about someone's internal character and personality. Here, Merle is a minor league slugger with both homer records... and strikeout records... which is why he never made the majors. His reasoning: "It just seemed wrong not to swing." It's hard to judge that kind of explanation even if you can understand why he was never picked up by a major team; it just is who Merle is and describes his character. And Gibson is so wonderfully low-key here as Graham, before his public meltdown in the tabloids; I love how he summons the backbone to ask people to not call him "Father" so many times in the movie (since he left the priesthood over an incident that he can't even really talk about, even think about), yet when people seem to ignore that and continue to treat him as a pastor, he complies. He does it because he still cares, and because at heart he's still a priest, but he's just so angry with God that he can't bear the thought of being identified with Him. These aren't the only examples, but they are some of MNS's best work. He just uses little things in the course of the story that reflect on character.
There are also beautiful parallels between the son's relationship with Graham (the "father" in both senses), and Graham and God the Father. His son is losing faith in Graham, just as Graham has lost faith in God; and yet we have these scenes were ironically Graham is playing the role of God amid his son's discouragements and trauma; the obvious signal is that God is still there with Graham, it's just that Graham can't see it. It looks like the irony is not lost on Merle, based on his own facial expression.
Finally, getting down to "craft," MNS does an amazing job with the suspense here. He hits all the right beats. He only insinuates the presence of the aliens for a long time (the image on TV doesn't count because it's blurry, out of context, and fleeting). The dog is killed by inference, which is creepy as all-get-out... you just hear what happens and have to imagine the rest. There are noises around the house, shadows through the cracks, the rattling door knob, a hand through the vent. The light is shattered in the basement. I honestly don't think I've seen this kind of show better done; he really pulls it off, it's as creepy as any horror flick. And of course he's been building to this through the whole movie, whether it's with the TV footage of the alien ships or the alien sourcebook being read by the son or all the previous scenes with the dogs and running through the corn and whatnot. (And then, the way that Graham's traumatic experience is only doled out a little portion at a time... but you know it's bad, because he can't even dare to remember it.) in comparison, the last five minutes of the movie kind of are like the magician teaching you how to do his trick right after you're wowed by it -- we get an alien in full view, for a lengthy period of time, not doing much that feels that threatening except swaying on his feet. At LEAST change the camera angle so that we can't see all of the alien ever -- the full body shot seemed to waste all the tension that the movie spent time building.
But here's what irked the crap out of me about the movie (and the comment from a forum member who insinuated I was just being prejudiced against faith, which is entirely the WRONG conclusion to be drawn); the problem for me is that I value faith TOO much to have it trivialized with a contrived ending especially considering how WELL the question of faith was handled in the movie to that point.
I still wrestle with faith myself and spent so many years within the church, agonizing over these very kinds of things. The kind of answers presented by the movie really offer nothing, it's the same crazy logic that many people in church confuse and blind themselves with when they can't deal with trauama -- they make up some crazy chain of connection that can explain everything away so that now they have an excuse to believe. And in the process they usually hurt themselevs and the people they love because they can't deal with real trauma or the real effects of trauma or get past it in a way that involves real acceptance and growth.
MNS of course backed himself into a corner here; he called his movie "signs," and had all of this "sign" imagery throughout the movie, so of course his resolution had to hinge on signs. That's unfortunate. Is there a different way it could have been handled? I don't know, right now.
But I think it would have been a lot more honest for Graham to realize that the "sign" of God here was exactly the one that I described above -- when his son was badly hurt and couldn't breathe and was panicking, and Graham stepped in and was PRESENT with his boy -- "Feel my breathing. Feel my body. We're the same, we are the same." I teared up during that... THAT is the presence of God, and if Graham has any depth (and I can tell he does), he would realize it.
The reality of life is that we really don't get "authentic signs" aside from the ones we make up for ourselves; the reality of life is that it is ambiguous, yet we choose sometimes to step out in REAL faith. Because Graham could play the role of God in the life of his son, and because he could recognize how much he loved his son, felt his pain, was willing to die to save him if need be, he should have been able to recognize that God could also exist and feel the exact same way towards Graham. Even if he never got an answer as to why his wife died. Even if the alien invasion could never be explained.
Here is where a man of real faith would choose to believe without needing a bunch of manipulated and contrived 'signs' -- which in effect actually remove the need for faith, as you are using these contrived events to justify the risk you are taking rather than stepping out solely on conviction and thus faith.
So the ending to me claims to be faith, but it is the exact opposite of faith -- and it's even more painful, because I could clearly see REAL truth in the movie in regards to Graham's search for meaning as well as the way he takes the role of God in the life of his son. I feel like I watched a virtuoso performance by a top-notch football team that fumbles the ball in the last 30 seconds of the Superbowl after an entire game of excellent play.
I honestly don't know how to rate a movie like this. I might even suggest that the first 95% of the movie is better than Unbreakable (which is saying a lot). It would have been better than "Knowing" by Alex Proyas, which is actually a very similar kind of movie (it deals with an apocalyptic event, weird foreshadowings, strange visitors, and explorations of faith vs atheism), it's just that Proyas actually makes a CONSISTENT movie throughout, so while his first part is weaker than Signs, at least the story retains tone and the ending actually does what it claims to do rather than the opposite.