It is amazing to see today how 20 years ago ‘Señales’ was received, today available at Disney+, by a section of the public and critics who considered that the third film in the fantastic M. Night Shyamalan was not up to his two previous successes, the masterful ‘The Sixth Sense’ (1999) and the much-loved ‘ The protected’ (2000). Either because of the change of Bruce Willis for Mel Gibson, or because for the first time i didn’t have a twist of any kindIt was lukewarmly received.
Seen now, it’s scary because of how it still works and that idea that at the time it was treated as a minor Shyamalan production. The truth is that not only is it light years away from everything he would do later, but it already improved his ideas for later works more laureates over time. It is a film that, like it or not, has aged better than ‘El protege’, which is retroactively a bit naive in its analysis of the superhero myth at a time when, unlike the beginning of the century, it is more than engulfed by mass culture.
However, ‘Signs’, unfortunately, has taken on a new dimension after the arrival of the covid pandemic, in some ways, its development bears an eerie resemblance to the steps in which humanity faced the unknown in 2020, harboring striking parallels with many of the phases experiencedfrom the first initial signs —here some marks in the fields taken as jokes or deception— to the first news in which it seems that there is something more serious.
Quarantine of the worlds
The externalization of the “problem” from North America to other countries —here in Latin America, with the covid in China—, or the disinformation and the conspiracy theories, which here become a self-conscious joke with the albal paper hatswhich in the worst stage of the pandemic resulted in Dantesque images with people in astronaut suits shopping in supermarkets, or shopping washed with bleach dilutions, let’s not talk about drinking that mixture to eliminate the virus on the recommendation of the President of The United States of America.
Logically, few films have been able to glimpse the madness of Donald Trump and its ramifications except for the most delusional apocalyptic scenarios of John Carpenter and George A. Romerowhose ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (Night of the Living Dead, 1968) is, along with ‘The Birds’ (The Birds, 1963), the main influence of this film, so it is not surprising that ‘ signs’ be a perfect summary of all the fantasy and apocalyptic horror film obsessions to come in the 2000s, summarizing the phases of television information, isolation and the idea of global terror.
This conception of a large-scale event was not very common in the genre, although now we have more than assumed it, at that time it was a novelty. Precisely that 2002 was ’28 days later’ (28 days later, 2002) the one that would connect that idea of global fear with the zombies of George A. Romero, conceiving in a single film a condensed of his trilogy, which in the case of Shyamalan is coded with aliens, but with the social effects in a very similar way, especially when locking up.
Both the idea of the television eyedropper, like the boards in the windows, like the dilemma of going to the lake or locking oneself in the basement comes from Romero’s classic, who in turn was highly influenced by Welles, both in his use of chiaroscuro, and in the idea of his broadcast of ‘The War of the Worlds’, which is quoted here in a meta way, but without stopping feeding on his idea , of the feeling of shared panic and recreation of the experience of the unthinkable bursting into everyday life at an apocalyptic level. And that brings us to the Spielberg connection.
The Spielberg Connection
Although the director of ‘ET, the extra-terrestrial’ made his interpretation of the HG Wells novel in a more visceral and visual way, integrating the concept of catastrophe through post-9/11 imagery, he also took the story to a third act minimalist in a barn, which is still very similar in many ways to ‘Señales’. But of course, this very idea of a family locked in a farm that is suddenly visited by aliens It was no longer a variation of the most terrifying and darkest piece in ‘Encounters of the Third Kind’, when a woman is assaulted by a UFO that takes her son.
And it is that in a certain way Shyamalan is doing a little extension of that sequence, with the idea up his sleeve of making his own version of what ‘ET’ was really going to be, a horror film that under the title ‘Night Skies’ explained how a family from a farm was assaulted by aliens with not necessarily good intentions. An idea that the director of ‘Jaws’ brooded over for years after the Kelly-Hopkinsville meeting, where a Kentucky family claimed they had been terrorized by gremlin-like space visitors, creatures that, by the way, like the Critters, were also born as a cluster of the defunct project.
It is in its use of the media and the sense of disruption of the western lifestyle where ‘Signs’ was already marking the main lines of the zombie cinema that was coming, without using any zombies. In fact, everything that he tried in ‘The incident’ (The Happening, 2008) was already sketched here, so always more elegant, more harmonious, superior in his reading of science fiction with John Wyndham in the compass. No wonder there are parallels in its pandemic dynamics, both in its way of reflecting the quarantine, and in the paranoia and vicissitudes of coexistence.
But above all, Shyamalan got a more terrifying piece than many today with a PG-7 rating. His moments of horror are the most exquisite that has been seen in the last 20 years on the big screen, led by the mythical found footage segment integrated into the news, with a birthday in Brazil altered by the visit of an alien walking with the same posture as the bigfoot of one of the most famous photos of the mystique of crytozoology. Three years had passed since ‘The Blair Witch Project’, but almost nobody used the resource in the commercial cinema of the big studio.
But the news snippet isn’t the only memorable moment. The silhouette of the ceiling, the little leg in the field, the crack under the door, or the hand in the basement boiler… They are all a master class in sustained tension, pareidolia, and indelible imagery. Shyamalan goes further in his architecture of fear and prefigures one of the most used scares in the era of what we would later call “terror wan“, that of the television reflection, which first recycled ‘The Warren File 2: the Enfield case’ and then we will also have ‘Verónica’, ‘Malasaña 32’ and a few others.
But in addition to being a great horror movie, what is most surprising today in ‘Señales’ is verifying Shyamalan’s elegance and patience in introducing his themes of grief and loss of faith. While in the genre cinema that today seeks to be loaded with drama, substance and meaning, its ideas are expressed literally and with crystal clear intentions, here almost until the middle of the film there is no clear reference to the past moment that haunts the protagonist and becomes the key to deciphering his dilemma of faith, and how he struggles not to pass it on to his children.
A unique moment of grace
Something that was criticized about the film is its religious background, but the truth is that it is is treated with a little more ambiguity than is assumedsince Gibson’s character does not have a divine epiphany, but decides to enter into his own definition of types of people, explained to his brother in a (magnificent) previous dialogue, those who want to see hidden threads directing life and No, he wants to see a coincidence and decides that it is not such when he considers that the “Merrill bat” that his wife transmitted to him was the consequence of an arbitrary synaptic connection of a dying woman.
But when he really faces death, he accepts that coincidence because he has the memory of his partner saying goodbye, which is something that affects him, and he is conditioned to see that “magic” moment. That laterality is perfect cinematographically, it plays with the mystical fantasy in the ending where the baseball bat lines up with his brother—a tremendously powerful moment. Stephen Kingon the other hand—but his theses of “not believing” are also very eloquent and leave you with the possibility that these signs are something that deep down he wants to see, as a way to finally give some meaning to his wife’s death.
‘Signs’ is probably Shyamalan’s only film that really lives up to his ‘The Sixth Sense’, already advancing the themes of fear as a manipulation tool of the Bush era and the isolation that concentrated the discourse of ‘The Forest’, only that when it was released it had barely given time for the war in Afghanistan to begin. Much more visionary than that without resorting to underlining, he knew how to combine tenderness with humor in a brilliant way, connecting Romero with ‘The Twilight Zone’ in a scalpel-written script in which even his eccentric humor works. It hurts to see how the author has never come close to this moment of grace.