Tuesday, December 27, 2016

On Fear and Digital Expressionism In AFTER EARTH

Fear is not an alien theme in the films of M. Night Shyamalan. The auteur has explored fear of the intangible and tangible, the fear of chaos and the fear of complacency. In After Earth, Night brings fear to the forefront. What was originally conceived as a modern day-set vehicle for Will and Jaden Smith to star as a father and son stranded in the wilderness of Alaska, later turned into a high-concept, big budget science fiction film set on a "post-human" Earth. Smith Sr., serving as producer, was allegedly very involved in the screenwriting process and writer Gary Whitta was integrated into the pre-production by Smith himself who was impressed with his work on 2009‘s The Book of Eli. With Night being brought onto the project later on as director/writer the deviations between Night‘s more authorial works and After Earth can be felt, but only to a lesser extent as both the core father-son relationship and the personal journey Smith Jr.‘s Kitai undergoes during his near-suicide mission brush very close to what Night had been working with in his career up to that point. The way the narrative plays out feels more procedural and traditionally structured than Night usually lets on in his stories, but as with each of his succeeding films the development of previously gestured thematics is there. The film‘s title refers to a world that rejected the humanity that occupied it and has now become overgrown with dangerous wildlife. This calls back to The Happening‘s preoccupation with nature turning against us, albeit from a different angle, and The Village‘s community of people returning to a "simpler" life, as Kitai is challenged to work with broken tools and to live in coercion with the dangers of the natural world. The theme of regaining a purpose or "life“ in correlation with regaining a touch with nature has been touched upon countless of times in art, yet one unsettlingly feels it become frequently more relatable as a fantasy and as escapism than a reflection of reality, so setting the story of After Earth as a coming-of-age narrative potentially awards it further nuance. In this context Smith Jr.‘s Kitai is an apt continuation of The Last Airbender‘s Aang.

Yet another youngster forced to bear the burden of adults on his shoulder‘s (now with more external angst), Jaden‘s performance is brimming with emotion and earnesty. Night is aware enough of the young actor‘s strengths to know that letting his expressive eyes magnetize the attention in-frame is the strongest play because, arguably, he has made a Hollywood career out of relaying focus on his actors‘ strengths in the editing room. If previous performances hadn't convinced, Smith Sr. proves his charisma isn‘t reliant on movement or facial (all-caps) expression, but blinding confidence and aura as the screenplay has him trapped in a single location for the majority of the runtime. One‘s minds wanders towards his heavy and stern delivery of a speech Cypher makes to his son... "fear is a choice"... Smith is a pure movie star, able to embed the blunt dialogue that could be taken directly out of an AA pocket-manifesto with unpretentious dramatic flair and nuance. Cypher is a man without fear of the external and, by extension, a man who shuns emotion rooted in fear, but Smith‘s pauses and glances subtly ground him in humanity.

In retrospect, Cypher doesn't really serve a mentorial role to Kitai aside from his speech as much as that of an obstacle in Kita‘s mind. The father-son relationship is built around Kitai‘s feelings of inadequacy next to his fearless father, as he aims to prove to Cypher that he can overcome his demons like Cypher did his. He ends up succeeding not by consciously emulating or avoiding his father‘s triumphs, but by disobeying him. Kitai progresses to inner peace by interacting the antagonistic flora of Earth in his way. "He‘s a feeling boy" his mother says of him to Cypher, echoing both Prince Zuko‘s relationship with his father and his troubled emotional state ("He says I‘m like my mother") in Night‘s previous film The Last Airbender and like many of Night‘s prior protagonists Kitai succeeds in gaining control by letting his previously suppressed feelings flow outwards, he makes the decision to not let his traumatic past determine or immobilize his potential in the now. Only when he realizes fear is the one thing holding him back, not inadequacy, can he overcome the alien predator that caused him the trauma in the first place.

Giving credit where it is due, supporting players James Newton Howard (Night‘s go-to composer) and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky are invaluable to the emotional mise en scène of the narrative. Howard‘s previous collaboration with Night on The Last Airbender was a masterpiece, and while his score for After Earth doesn't reach those heights it weaves an unmissable tapestry around essential moments for highlighting (the magic a simple piano theme can work on otherwise silent moments...). The way Suschitzky captures the interiors of the utopian science fiction capitol world feels eerily similar to Janusz Kaminsky‘s work on Spielberg‘s A.I. with the illumination of grays and browns subtly reflecting on the faces of the protagonists while rendering the threshold between the practical and green screen sets close to invisible. Once the narrative reaches Earth these illuminations are scaled back and the green forest landscapes, the blue skies and occasional brushstrokes of white take over. Only when the screenplay pits Kitai against the CGI omen that haunts his memories does the color pallet revert back to the gray, with volcanic ashes overwhelming the frame around the young cadet and colliding his internal anxieties with his external ones. It‘s as classically expressionistic as modern blockbusters get.

But all things considered After Earth is a tentpole blockbuster only in budget and occasional scale. What Shyamalan, Whitta and the Smiths made is a coming-of-age action film more reminiscent of Rossellini‘s Journey To Italy and Malick‘s The New World than the modern blockbuster template, albeit in the now more frequently seen post-Phantom Menace/Attack of the Clones way. However unlikely, if After Earth ends up Night‘s last big-budgeted film in the current cycle of blockbuster cinema, it‘s an exemplary one.

Monday, December 19, 2016

On the "Flawed“ Beauty Of THE LAST AIRBENDER

"There are reasons each of us are born, we have to find those reasons"

Cited by many as the artistic low-point of his career, M. Night Shyamalan‘s commensurate of Orson Welles‘ The Magnificent Ambersons and in certain context, perhaps Joel Schumacher‘s 2004 adaptation of Webber‘s Phantom of the Opera, The Last Airbender is an innately "flawed“ and beautiful picture.

Attempting to simultaneously juggle adapting material made by another artist (or in this case, artists) and tackling high-concept fantasy world-building with a $100 million dollar budget for the first time in his professional career, Night took his time in finding what he deemed the right project for him to enter the Hollywood blockbuster machine, rejecting advances from Warner Bros to make a Harry Potter film when the franchise was still young before settling on adapting the Nickelodeon cartoon show Avatar: The Last Airbender for Paramount pictures. Incidentally the adaptation itself  (along with its loose commitment to conventional plot structure) is one many fans of the show seem to take issue with when handing out the now fairly overwhelming critiques on the film stating that Night "didn't get" what made the show good, which should sound eerily reminiscent to criticisms George Lucas received for his authorial work on the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

By comparison, the dialogue here has a less theatrical delivery to it than in Lucas‘ space-opera epics, with Night relying on his usually "straight“ and weighty style of dialogue-direction and writing. While I favor this as Night casually asserting his own style onto the commonly more "bookish“ or lyrical dialogue in the wildly popular teenage fantasy genre, the bafflement many have with this potentially jarring departure from what is now considered the norm is understandable. Meanwhile the consistency of the performances delivering these lines (the younger actors especially) suffers from the alleged forced edits  and reshoots Paramount mandated upon Night once the decision was made to convert the film to 3D. Nicola Peltz and Noah Ringer’s performances are earnest and in-tune enough to sustain the supposed tonal cohesion whenever they’re on screen, and most of the supporting players’ strength retained but the jarring editing inconsistency, while never detracting from the visual narrative, frustratingly undercuts their potential.

„It‘s time we show the fire nation that we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs“

Yet despite these struggles the strong emotional undercurrent is barely ever lost.
By and large, Night‘s oeuvre deals with both personal and wider-scale tragedy, to which Airbender is no exception. Similarly to The Sixth Sense‘s Cole and later After Earth‘s Kitai, Aang is forced to come face to face with the consequences of a life-altering trauma while also taking upon himself adult responsibilities...

In the world of The Last Airbender, children, born into a repressed/oppressed world (literally and personally) are being delegated to consciously carry the weight of the world while we oppose each other in the name of self-interest. Night doesn't linger on the why or the how it came to this (a more prominent theme in the second season of the television show), but he shows us a representational *who* through Fire nation general Zhao, a man entrusted trusted by Fire-Lord Ozai with leadership in the current colonialist occupation of the Earth Nation. Zhao, in a key moment, takes a stand against the spiritual in favor of control/the material and while he eventually pays the price for it, and while observing Night‘s oeuvre might suggest otherwise (the film critic in 2006‘s Lady in the Water finds a rather unfortunate fate in a similar situation) it doesn't feel like Night is outwardly criticizing materialism over the immaterial, showing sympathy for a kindly monk who makes a choice that ends up costing Aang his freedom, in exchange for money (the monk rationalizes the betrayal by blaming the Avatar‘s 100-year absence for his poor condition, further increasing the mounting pressure on the young airbender‘s shoulders).

„It was not by chance that for generations people have been searching for him and now you have found him. Your destinies are tied Zuko“

The other half of this equation is Dev Patel‘s Prince Zuko. The banished prince seeking to regain his honor by finding and capturing the Avatar with aid from his uncle Iroh, a humble and kindly general within the fire nation ranks. Their relationship is the most important one to divert attention to in the film, with their conversations concurrently mirroring Aang and Katara‘s brief and gestural relationship, with the latter taking on a matriarchal role, and with Iroh relaying to Zuko (and later on in the film, to our heroes as well) some of the key wisdoms that echo throughout the television show and (not so) incidentally Night‘s filmography as well. These are tried and told philosophies of humility, taking personal responsibility and agency/choice but Night concludes all of them in such exquisite and heartfelt visual moments (the revival of the Moon Spirit is one of Night‘s career highlights) that it never wears on the film.


"You stand alone. And that has always been your great mistake“

Zuko himself receives a minor personal growth near the end as well (albeit major one thematically) through his uncle‘s guidance, opting to turn his back on the aggression and violence that his dictatorioal father (who permanently scarred his face) and his current current regime adheres. His decision does not seem permanent at that time, but it‘s a small victory nontheless.
Iroh himself remains illusive as a character throughout most of the running time but Night leaves in a minor piece of info on the aging mentor that gives the imagination plenty to work with at least until the still scheduled sequel releases. Much like Ben Kenobi in Lucas‘ Star Wars (1977) he‘s primarily here to inspire.

And as Iroh inspires the central characters, Aang returns the favor multiplied.

"Water teaches us acceptance, let your emotions flow like water“

In the film's climactic breaths, the apex of Night‘s intentions as an artist and his visual flair come together, with Ringer‘s Aang unleashing his potential power as the Avatar by confronting the horrors and guilt from his past and surrendering the ocean itself to his command (The longer creativity is suppressed, the bigger the consequences when it is released). The act causes the colonialist fire nation to retreat their forces, but on its own that is merely plot contrivance. Night focuses on the awestruck faces of the adults previously caught up in their cyclical violent conflict witnessing the act, being reminded of the capability for raw and sincere expression (and imagination) a child can have when we give them our attention and our support. The children are the future. The children are the avatars of our hope. We must do better, if not for ourselves, then for them...

Furthermore, when reading the bending of the elements as allegorical for artistic expression, The Last Airbender is as much a spiritual sequel to Night‘s Lady in the Water as it is an adaptation of a Nickelodeon cartoon show. Night's narratives always seem to come down to its protagonists giving each other support to achieve reconciliations with their personal pasts and present selves (Peltz's Katara pleads to Aang "don't give up, we can do this together" and later embraces him in key moments).
To further assert my belief in Night as a storyteller, the abbreviations that set it apart from films that tackle similar themes is not only found in Night‘s usually beautiful compositions (gorgeous close-ups, slow tracking shots capturing the details of the spaces he devotes to the action + characters) and sentimental tendencies, but also his devotion to crafting a storybook that‘s truly for children in a somewhat post-Harry Potter cinematic landscape. He juxtaposes and weaves together ingredients of wuxia, dancing, eastern philosophies and elemental magic in a way that while not entirely set apart from the first season of the show he adapts the material from, ends up feeling like a singular, unique cinematic experience... few movies outside Night‘s own oevure (and even so) compare to it.

"He will begin to change hearts, and it is in the heart that all wars are won.“

Yet as much as I appreciate and champion the film as it was released, I can also sympathise with the current negative consensus on it both in the film-community and among general audiences. Night's consistently strong scene construction is abruptly undercut by a lack of plot cohesion, with screentime devoted to key supporting characters and their stories being sadly uneven. The aforementioned structural looseness is also a due to lack of adherence to the standardized template set by successful Hollywood blockbusters, reminiscing more the avant-blockbuster cocktail of Lucas' The Phantom Menace.

Somewhat reassuringly, people shifting their blaming for these qualities towards the studio interference has been a recent change of pace in the discussion surrounding it, with some claiming to be from behind the scenes of the production coming out and removing most of the negatives from Night himself, while placing them on Paramount Studios‘ demand for reshoots and further cuts after realizing a 3D conversion would cost them too much money with the material they had when Night had made his final cut (removing up to 25 minutes of the runtime). Though i would have liked for Paramount to have released Night‘s cut initially, I selfishly wouldn't trade that for what we ended up with either because upon reflection, the film would lose the circumstantial potential as the powerful meta statement both on belief and against cynicism it ends up procreating.

The Last Airbender offers sincerity, beauty and potential catharsis in exchange for such belief, for as with all his films Night is asking us to take a leap of faith, to believe in human connection, to believe in the potential love we all possess as a uniting force in a troubled world... and in the case of The Last Airbender, to also believe in something "flawed"...

Thursday, December 15, 2016

LADY IN THE WATER: Where Anxiety Intersects With Metacinema

Among the most curious traditions of any director with regards to their home releases, M. Night Shyamalan continued to insist in the early 2000s that one of his old home movies be included on each DVD of his films. It’s rare for a director working inside the Hollywood studio system to treat their work so personally but even more so to the degree that Shyamalan does with this tradition. He doesn’t just trace his evolution from a young Spielbergian home video filmmaker to classicist auteur, but demonstrates how he can use his childlike sensibilities to accentuate the adult themes of his work. It's interesting to see him move from a fight sequence staged with odd old rock in the background to the final, fleeting and beautiful sequence of Unbreakable.  

While a home movie is noticeably absent on the Warner copy of Lady in the Water, it is the film that would showcase the qualities of those forgotten experiments at their peak until 2015’s The Visit. Considering how these elements come together, it’s not hard to see why Disney initially had interest in the project but ultimately dropped it. Lady in the Water is essentially a children’s fantasy film for adults. It remains the apex of all of the director’s trademark powers. Stark humanism, anxiety about failure, and circumstantial tragedy all permeate throughout the film. Within the confines of the bedtime-story narrative are all of Shyamalan’s most memorable elements, both from his prior faith-driven work and his recent family-driven narratives of late. As the characters struggle and resist against the confines of the narrative, The Lady in the Water becomes the ultimate meta-cinematic statement on the director’s work.

Behind Lady in the Water there’s this deep, authorial insecurity. Or, at the very least, the affectation of it. Shyamalan continues his long-standing tradition of acting in a cameo role, but this time he isn’t poised in the background strategically. He places himself directly into the author stand-in role as a writer named Vick Ran who begins penning The Cookbook, presumably a series of political essays on modern culture, contemporary politics and current affairs. Story, the titular lady in the water who can see the future, tells Vick that the book will be read and loved by a young boy who will grow up into a great orator and an influential leader in the country, that Vick’s words will be “the seed of many of the boy’s greatest thoughts”. When Shyamalan premiered The Sixth Sense to stellar reviews and later Signs, both considered by many to be modern masterpieces, he was championed and revered as one of the next greats in cinema, Newsweek infamously declaring him “The Next Spielberg”.  In later years, his reputation tarnished by one critical and financial failure after the other, it starts to take it’s toll. After The Village, by far Shyamalan’s most personal, disappointed, it seems he’s doubled-down on exactly what it is he wants to be doing. He’s unsure of himself, but confident enough to continue making the films he wants to make, even if he’s misunderstood again and again. “There’s a lot of things in The Cookbook people won’t like to hear” Vick laments. The film postulates what storytellers have been lamenting since the form began: that writers don’t really write narratives or characters in their life. Shyamalan doesn’t conjure up stories; he doesn’t make his characters up, but rather through spontaneous inspiration they come to him almost divinely, and he is therefore given the responsibility to tell their story right. Shyamalan doesn’t place himself in his role as an act of narcissism or to boost his own ego but rather the opposite. It demonstrates the fear of failure from someone who was championed and celebrated after only one successful film whose been slowly abandoned as his heart grew larger, his stories more sincere. Not to say that those who don’t like Shyamalan’s late output are out of their right but that there’s clear, disheartening trajectory seen as his films continue to be misunderstood in intent. It’s quite funny that a film featuring the line “What kind of person would be so arrogant to presume to know the intention of another human being” was voted “Least Scary Horror Film of 2006”. 

It’s about purpose, ultimately. Shyamalan doesn’t only feel misplaced as the writer who “saves” the world but each character finds themselves placed in an arbitrary role struggling to work through the responsibilities until realizing during the Healing that the man who placed them there was wrong all along. The interpreter was never the skilled word puzzle connoisseur Mr. Dury but rather his son, who saw true meaning behind the most coincidental. The guardian was never Mr. Heep but rather Reggie, who worked out only one side of his body in an attempt to be special. The healer was never Ms. Bell but the previously mentioned Mr. Heep, who truly believed in the good humanity even after the death of his loved ones in the most tragic of instances. All of them are trying to help Story return to her home, but even Story doesn’t realize her role until late in the film where she learns she’s the “Madame Narf”, she responds by saying “I’m clumsy. They all make fun of me”. And just like the characters in the film struggle to fit the roles they’ve been given, the author feels the struggle to fit the expectations he’s been given. It’s tempting to read the film critic character Harry Farber as part of some hidden antipathy towards critics on the author’s part, and in a way it’s not far-fetched. Farber, all things considered, represents the opposing philosophy on storytelling, that any story can be boiled down to a series of tropes and storylines lifted from works of past. Shyamalan renders this element without much subtlety when Farber’s misinformation is ripped apart in the Healing scene, setting the grounds for the philosophical platform that explains why the film is so vitriolic. There’s something to be said about the view of Shyamalan’s past career as a series of failures following an initial fall from grace (usually either this film, The Happening, or even as early as The Village or Signs) and how his continued disappointment shaped his filmmaking over the years. The less-than-warm reception of Shyamlan’s most personal film The Village, despite it’s ultimately high appraisal by Cahiers du Cinema as one of the ten best films of 2004, may have planted the seeds for Lady in the Water’s melancholic tone. 

If Shyamalan’s true intent was Lady in the Water was to set the record straight about what his cinema is about and how it should be read, then it was an unfortunate and spectacular failure. He would not have his first “true” rejection until 2008’s The Happening which gained nearly no proponents until years later, but Lady in the Water failed to even live up to the niche promise of The Village, save for the flattery of Cahiers du Cinema. It almost feels like Shyamalan bearing his soul in this way sort of sealed his fate for the upcoming years of critical backlash, studio intervention, and poor box office turnout, which is a sad legacy for such a masterful film.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

THE VILLAGE: On Tragedy & Isolation

(Contains Spoilers)


11 Die Overseas in Combat

Man Sought in Multiple Slaying Case

These headlines and more are seen on a copy of The Philadelphia Examiner read by the guard at the desk near the end of the film (played by Shyamalan himself), and they neatly tie up the film’s central thesis when paired with the stories of the villagers that are revealed in the scene prior. Each member of the village shows us their emotional scars as a series of violent family deaths and personal tragedies. As one villager laments: “You can run from sorrow as we have. Sorrow will find you”. Directly following the 2002's Signs and its return-to-faith story, The Village also builds its thesis and narrative platform of off the “trauma that follows tragedy” trope to produce the ultimate post-9/11 statement. M. Night Shyamalan shows the power of trauma to push us into a state of permanent isolation, and how moving further and further into the depths or our anguish only causes additional pain and often irreparable damage.

The film tells the story of a late 19th century village in the American Northeast that remains isolated from the surrounding towns due to the presence of mysterious creatures known only as "Those We Don't Speak Of" that lie just beyond the perimeter, lurking in the woods. When Lucius Hunt, an introverted young man portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix asks for permission to go to the towns to retrieve medical supplies, he's scolded by the towns elders for wanting to travel to the "wicked" outside. Lucius is eventually stabbed by the presumably developmentally challenged Noah Percy (played by Adrien Brody. It is at this point that Ivy, the true central figure of this film played by Bryce Dallas Howard, is given special permission to travel through the woods to retrieve medical supplies crucial for Lucius's recovery. It is then revealed to her, and this is your last spoiler warning, that the monsters in the woods are merely costumes worn by the elders to keep the village in a perpetual state of fear. The film ends with two simultaneous reveals. One shows Ivy climbing the fence to reveal that the village is actually a stable commune existing in modern time completely hidden from the real world. Being blind, Ivy cannot see the world outside and thus continues to believe she is in the 19th century, even as she returns home to bring the medicine for Lucius a guard gives her from the station house. It ends with the elders realizing the feigned attacks in the woods give more fuel to the paranoia that has kept the dream of The Village alive for so long.

The village itself is a sort of towering monument to golden past thinking, but its structure is crumbling. There’s something to be said for the more minor political implications of the film: with America retreating from global affairs into isolationism after a series of military tragedies. Red is shown to be “the bad color” that attracts the mysterious creatures known only as “those we don’t speak of”, possibly representing America’s long-standing fear of Communism. But, Shyamalan retains focus on the social elements that surround the characters. What ultimately motivates the sort of golden past thinking exhibited by the villagers is fear. Jamison is afraid of those of which we do not speak, as are the two boys Ivy takes with her into the forest, and it was previously revealed the violent incidents which caused the elders to seek shelter in the village. The trauma they’ve experienced leads them not only to fear for their own safety but that of the ones they love. For the elders, this means the next generation. The world always seems to be getting worse from where we sit as we continue to romanticize the past. If the violence and degradation we face now is enough to horrify us, one wonders what their children might face years from now. These people don’t seek to return to simpler times because they are guided by primitive principles but because their minds are governed by terror, and an artificial one at that. Looking at the text through a post-9/11 lenses, it becomes a manifestation on the failure to move through grief properly. Like many of Shyamalan’s symbols, this failure is shown to be regressive in a literal sense as they return to the earlier times not from their own lives but from the rosy annals of American history. What’s discovered is not only are those supposed golden times not so golden upon further inspection, but that even retreating into the imaginary recesses of these fictionalized times doesn’t alleviate the very real nature of pain. 

There’s a reason that this supposedly perfect system of antiquity starts to bend under pressure. The ideal image begins to crumble as time goes on and sorrow begins to manifest within the borders of the village organically, even if the terror itself is artificial. It’s built off an unrealistic pipe dream of leaving behind one’s troubles without resolution. The elders are trapped in this perpetual state of grief, and this drives the next generation to grow up handicapped and disabled in different ways. Ivy is physically blind to the world around her, Noah is shown to be mentally deficient, and Lucius is totally socially inept, reserved, and as emotionally isolated as the elders themselves. The protective enclosure that the children lived under acted upon them to create imperfect and at times damaged adults. They’re not just physically incapable at times but emotionally insecure in their actions, and yet despite all this, Shyamalan doesn’t seem to want to portray them as being fundamentally broken. “I see the world, Lucius Hunt, just not as you do” seems to imply that these people, permanently altered by their environment, are perceptive of individual idiosyncrasies that the others are not. Lucius Hunt’s shyness and social anxiety is perhaps a subconscious recognition of the commune’s artificiality. Ivy reacts differently, her proverbial blindness allows her to hastily ignore the artifice to recognize the attitudes and behaviors Lucius cannot so easily see. It’s the idea that broken people sire fractured families and these families create damaged people that are never-the-less strong of heart and of will. 

Shyamalan’s brilliantly assembled team demonstrates this uneasiness lurking in the village through a number of definitively precise movements. It’s not as direct as in The Happening where the acting, camerawork, and writing all suggest a crooked state in the text. The claustrophobia manifests as crowded framing and sound design throughout the scenes in the village. Once juxtaposed against the openness of the forest, the sound is much more reflective, the framing more vacant. M. Night Shyamalan and Roger Deakins, both masters in form, use handheld photography in the subtlest but most effective ways, never clashing with the polished tone of the film nor used to feign reality but always as a device of deliberate and calculated tension. It plays not only in the moments of very real danger, when those we don’t speak of invade the village and when they terrorize Ivy in the forest, but also when Ivy’s perception of the world is disrupted. When Ivy and Edward walk to the shed and the secret of those we don’t speak of is revealed, this cinematic technique is used just as carefully as its earlier instances. 

In the context of 9/11, it’s easy to try and make some sort of plea for normalcy, for things to return to the way they were, to avoid grief entirely, but it’s this same damaging thinking that leads to the prolonged suffering of the community that tragedy has stricken. The Village postulates that sorrow is, in the grand scheme of things, inevitable, and mourning necessary to regain that sense of normalcy. 

Haydn DePriest is a student at the University of Texas at Austin.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

SIGNS: The Reclamation of Faith in a Time of Crisis

There’s no real definitive exposition before the inciting incident. As soon as the film starts we’re thrown into the heart of it all: crop circles, bad water, rogue pets, and a new world that awaits the family Hess. It starts off like the famed alien invasion film framed through the eyes of a simple farm family but the aliens don’t operate like in this traditional narrative. Every single thing we learn about the Hess’s is seen through the lenses of post-traumatic anxiety. We never get to see them in a true state of normalcy but rather squeezed between the margins of tragedy that grow tighter as the film goes on. The drama and conflict never really steps outside the family. Even as the world ends around them, Hess’s deepest sorrows still lie with his departed wife and disillusioned children. His failure to protect their mother creeps back from the recesses of mind to manifest itself again and again as he realizes he might not be able to protect his children either. Bookended between a tragic past and a bleak future, Graham’s present is marred a total loss of faith: in man, and in god. 

And yet everything ends up in the right place in the end. Despite Graham’s warning that belief in miracles is only really valuable for the comfort it provides, every pain and hardship suffered by the family over the years factors into their survival against a rogue extra-terrestrial. Bo’s picky drinking habits lead to the ultimately lethal substance, water, being available anywhere in the house. Morgan’s asthma ends up closing his lungs when he's captured by the alien, preventing him from inhaling the poisonous gas. Colleen’s death and parting psychosis leads to Merrill’s eventual triumph over the alien with her final words "swing away". Each one of these is its own meticulously devised coincidence that ties back to Graham’s question. Are there divine forces working to protect us, giving us miracles: signs that they’re there, or is it all incidental? It probably doesn't matter, because what M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 horror film Signs demonstrates is the power of the reclaimed faith in times of crises, whether its consequences real or imagined. Graham recognizes, in the same conversation, that faith is really there for comfort and good mental health, not necessarily as a literal, divine protector. 

Signs works best because of it’s simplicity. It’s not just that Shyamalan mostly confines the events to a single farm-house and the small commercial space downtown. The down-scaling is obvious not just in the low-key acting but also the dialogue itself. Shyamalan seems to adore messing with these two elements, because wherein The Village a simple school teacher delivers a line like “What manner of spectacle has attracted your attention so splendidly”, a professor of science in Signs will deliver a line like “or basically…it’s for real” on live television. Even the central monologue given by Graham demonstrates the power of simplicity. It’s written as a series of simple sentences occasionally punctuated by a complex, two-clause sentence. These dedicated, stylish embellishments don’t just contribute to the atmospheric tension but contribute in coordination with Graham’s attempt to return to a past, simpler time. 

The sheer number of times that Graham Hess tries to protect his kids from learning that the world might be ending is as staggering as it is heart-breaking. The one thing he wants for his family is to return to the way things were, not before the advent of alien invasion but before the death of their mother. He constantly shields them from news, he tries to keep their minds occupied, and he even disregards and discounts their safety concerns when they do come up, not out of malice but out of fear. Similarly to the elders in 2004’s The Village, Hess is doing everything in his power to circumvent the stages of grief in an attempt to return to normalcy. He brings them to the town for an afternoon to try and alleviate the stress but only ends up adding fuel to the fire. The turning point is when Morgan hears the signal from above the car and Merrill surrenders all previous skepticism as Graham is left alone. What’s also telling is Graham wanting to sweep his family away from the family house to the lake, finally pulling the veil back on the true internal conflict of the family. The literal real danger of the aliens is not what causes the schism in the family dynamic, it’s the expository collective loss of Colleen. Graham mourns the loss by retreating from his faith, at first by denying the existence of the divine and then, in the cellar scene, being openly antagonistic towards God. The children and Merrill choose instead to stay with the memories of their mother at the farmhouse, even at danger to their lives. It’s an alien invasion film that really could have taken place without the invasion at all. 

The most fascinating part of Shyamalan’s depiction of faith is its general subjectivity. It’s not outright declaring the power of god ultimate as opposed to something like The Conjuring series, but rather the fate experienced is demonstrated as a series of coincidences that all happen to lead to the ending salvation. The most telling scene in the film is Merrill’s conversation with Graham after seeing the UFOs on television. When he asks for just a little comfort, Graham describes the dichotomy central to the film’s thesis. Some people look at the extraordinary and see miracles, knowing in their heart that some greater being is watching over them. Others look at the extraordinary and start assessing the outcomes, never letting go of the fear that agnosticism brings, that whatever might happen could bring something terrible, something tragic. In the end, neither group is held as genuinely correct but the hopeful miracle seekers are somewhat vindicated in their right to hold faith. Shyamalan recognizes that faith isn’t important because it has a measurable effect on anything in the real world but because of the internal health it brings to the faithful as well as it’s ability to foster and grow external relationships. His eternal sympathy, even for his antagonists and ideological opponents, keeps him from totally writing off their worldview, and maintains the film as one man’s extended conversation with god.

If one looks at the film as a depiction of a totally omnipotent God, who without question intervenes in the most direct ways, it can appear quite circular. A reverend loses his faith and later has it restored but a wife had to die in the process with no real change in his life. Conversely, if it’s viewed as a series of controlled coincidences that just happen to save four people from forces outside the control of the divine, it becomes a reflection on the healing power of faith.