With M. Night Shyamalan's third major studio release as director, he once again proved that he may just be heir to the Hitchcock throne of suspense. Do not think I am comparing him to the level of Hitchcock as a film maker, because Shyamalan still has a long way to go to achieve that goal. However, of the film makers today you'd be hard pressed to find a director who could produce such a suspenseful film on such minimalist methods.
Hollywood's mentality has long been the bigger the explosion the bigger the return, and in an age of special effects and showing off what they can do on the computer (take note, George Lucas), Shyamalan bypassed all that and harkened back to a time when the most important thing was the story. Shyamalan constructed the film around the history and idiosyncracies of the family using everyday things such as half-filled glasses, a baby monitor, and other like things. When Spielberg directed Jaws, he learned that by not showing the shark that much made the film much more effective (admittedly, this realisation came to be because JAWS was such a production disastor). In a time when we have the specials effects to envision anything you could possibly dream, this film aptly illustrates that just because you have the technology it doesn't mean you have to use it to tell a good story. The old adage of "less is more" fits wonderfully here. Another wonderful example that incorporates technology without sacrificing the story or characters is Minority Report.
What is so remarkable about Signs' plot? It's the fact that the characters exist in their own right and never feel like just plot devices or mouthpieces. Mel Gibson plays an apostate preacher who suddenly has to handle the fact that crop circles are appearing in his corn field. Simultaneously, all across the globe crop circles are, shall we say, cropping up. His children (Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin) and his brother (Joaquin Phoenix from Gladiator) begin believing in the aliens, and try as he might Gibson's character realizes that these crop circles won't just go away. The movie then moves to the question is are these alien formations, and if so what are they used for? If there are aliens, are they hostile or not? What do they want with Earth?
Because Shyamalan always mades sure the Gibson's character and his family are in the forefront, the viewer becomes involved with them as individual characters to the point where the aliens are more events anything else. More and more scripts have characters taking backseat to the special effects and this is sapping the film industry of vitality. In Signs, when Morgan (the son) has his asthma attack during an assault on the house, we are much more concerned with what effect it would have on the family if they lost him, instead of it being some cheap and lowbrow ploy that is more of a plot device than a character study (Panic Room anyone?).
One of the key themes in Signs is faith. This film deals with the anger that Gibson's character feels toward God and how he must work through that throughout life's circumstances. Shyamalan's character (yes, he acts) is responsible for Gibson losing his faith. The film traces Gibson's progression of losing his faith and then struggling with God over losing his wife. This is illustrated ingeniously in the film's climax.
While my faith in God hasn't left me, my faith in Hollywood has long since evaporated. With directors such as Shyamalan still on the go-around, I find it getting a little stronger everyday.