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Signs – paranoid film, 9/11, dumb, war of the worlds, Manchester’s safe

alien invasion foiled again

alien invasion foiled again


This is a new genre of movie – the paranoid film. It’s progenitor is Orson Welles’ controversial mock-realistic radio broadcast of War of the Worlds which notoriously provoked panic and had thousands of frightened, bewildered Americans running for cover.

Signs has given its star Mel Gibson his best ever opening weekend at the box office and the biggest opening of all time for a movie not based on pre-existing material. There was something almost touching about the trusting naivete of those Americans in the more innocent days of the 1950’s. That their grandchildren should be flocking to see this beautifully made slice of pandering paranoia is deeply disturbing with the inevitable backdrop of 9/11 and the present dangerously complex international situation. Signs began to shoot just after September 11th 2001. It is therefore a shameful piece of exploitation in which its Director, the talented M Night Shyamalan can be argued to have exploited his own colour and ethnicity.

It is therefore as a product that Signs is disturbing. As a film, it displays a triumph of craft (camera, editing) and atmosphere, over substance. Mel Gibson is the George Bush of movies. He can do cocky, smirky, wonderfully well. It is what he does. But he can’t do serious. (Mel, not George: George is too seriously scary to be funny). The need to portray ‘serious’ brings Mel out in a kind of creeping rigor mortis. Everything stiffens up and his eyes acquire a kind of thousand yard stare that seems to go right through the audience ending up somewhere in the car park. The tone of the movie is total chaos. Moments of brilliance that really make you jump, collapse into farce such as when the intrepid Mel returns to find his two rather scary kids joined by a bemused (the actor, not the character), Joaquin Phoenix, wearing scrumpled up pointy tin foil hats that make Dr Who props look state-of-the-art. Even a great screenwriter wouldn’t have had a cat-in-hell’s chance of stifling the shoulder-shaking audience giggles at this point. And Shyamalan, who also wrote this tosh, sure ain’t that.

So why take it seriously? Well, let’s leave aside the grotesque flash-back scene where Gibson’s wife or more precisely, the conscious top-half of his cut-in-two wife; the bit which we are told, “shouldn’t be alive” is trapped between a 4×4 and a hard place, and splutters a few dying instructions as if they’re tomorrow’s shopping list, to Gibson’s Mount Rushmore face. This scene is almost too laughably bad to be offensive. Almost.

But what exactly is it that the box office millions are lapping up? Good, God-fearing, harming no-one, American country ‘folk’ are suddenly, without reason, threatened in their own back-yard, by unseen ‘aliens’. There is also an internal threat from the only non-white character in the movie (discounting big green men from another planet) who happens to be a black Asian figure who has inadvertently, managed to bisect the God-fearing Father’s wife. Everything in the movie signals the characters and their community as innocent victims. And there is a humdinger of a clincher on this: flesh and blood aliens, who can be trapped in cupboards, lose fingers to knives and finally be dispatched by a baseball bat; threaten, kill, and ostensibly begin to take over the world – but not a single gun in sight! Arnie could have seen the lot off without even re-loading. I never thought I’d bemoan the lack of guns in an American movie – but this is totally bizarre. Except that it underpins the idea of innocent, good, godly folk unjustly assailed by an unknown, undeserved threat to their way of life. Passive victimhood. The film reeks of cringing indignation. The ‘aliens’ have no strategy, purpose, reasons, or justification. They can’t be contacted, talked to, or reasoned with. They are an unjust, undeserved, but total threat to the community’s way of life. This pure, paranoid victimhood, is relieved, apart from the poor bugger dismembered by a baseball bat – what exactly is that metaphor trying to say by the way? – passively by the aliens’ inability to withstand water. Good navigators though – if they’d landed in Manchester, they wouldn’t have lasted 5 minutes.

Selling is the American genius. Signs, panders to a national paranoia, wraps it up in a pretty package and sells it back to the people for a profit. Aesthetically, intellectually, politically and yes, ethically…it sucks. And that baseball bat? RIP the National Rifle Association, now that all your weapons have miraculously disappeared, long live the NBBA – the National Baseball Bat Association. Lethal Weapons 4.

If any of this sounds familiar – you’ll understand why I think this is the scariest movie of the year.

(February 2003)

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