Today, we go back to the early 2000s with director M. Night Shyamalan to explore the heart of one of my favorite extraterrestrial thrillers: “Signs.” In this classic flick, a former priest and farmer named Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), and two young children brave an imminent alien assault on earth. From their home in rural America they make their stand, plagued by questions of faith and purpose in the face of fear. Now, I’ve got to be honest – I don’t usually love alien movies, but this one has a certain mystery to it that stirs the soul and peaks your curiosity, leaving you waiting with bated breath to see what happens next, as do most of Shyamalan’s movies. It is this elusive sense of mystery and it’s affect on humanity that I plan to attempt to tackle in today’s metaphysical adventure.
The movie begins with flashbacks of a car accident, blurry memory-edited clips of Graham’s past, and we see the beginnings of a trauma that we won’t fully understand until later in the film. In this way, the audience immediately is captured by a desire to know – WHAT HAPPENED? – but is catapulted back into the present day where we get the picture of a small, isolated family missing one of it’s most important figures: a mother. What’s more, the family clearly lives by farming but Graham keeps getting called “father” by the locals, and the mystery deepens. That on it’s own is worth talking about, as we all have a deep awareness – if not understanding– of the mystery that is the human soul. We work together, talk together, and often even live together like Graham and his family without ever feeling like we ever really know another person, not to mention how little we know ourselves! This theme develops throughout the story as we realize that Graham has some deep hurt in his heart about losing his wife and that he doesn’t talk to anyone about this. He just goes on living, day-to-day, as though nothing has changed when in reality everything has changed: he has changed, and that is affecting the lives of his loved ones no matter what he says or doesn’t say.
With people there always remains a sense of mystery, partly because we cannot truly know ourselves from within ourselves; it takes a view from the outside. But who can see beyond the surface to tell us what lies beneath? It is this part of us that reaches out for intimacy, for someone closer than we can dream who can see inside of us and tell us what is there, and this is what drives our deep need to find romance and family and belonging in all sorts of places, even though none of these ever quite do it for us the way our soul hopes. The truth is that there is only one who can truly KNOW us. God says in the Bible that “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?”(Jeremiah 17:9) I can resonate with that, can’t you? I know I feel the same way most of the time, though I don’t know how helpful that is! But then, with the next sentence the writer gives us hope. “I, the Lord, search the heart and test the mind, to give to every many according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds,” God says. He is speaking to more than just Jeremiah here, but He actually tells Jeremiah earlier in this same book, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart…”(Jeremiah 1:5). This God knows us, deep down, our desires, our hopes, our fears, and lest we wonder whether He would want us, He tells us that he sent His son into the world not to condemn the world but to save it – to save us.
This idea of salvation and our need for it takes us even deeper into the story of Signs, as the world comes under an attack from alien invaders that stalk in the shadows. The whole world wants salvation, and no one knows from whence it might come. Shyamalan takes us out of the mystery of the human soul to scan the reaches of the cosmos, and the deepest fears of humanity are realized as a race far superior to their own comes upon them by surprise. Sheer terror takes hold of the populace of the city, and, once Graham stops denying the truth of the situation, his family as well. They make tin-foil hats to protect their brains and scramble to grab whatever they can to bar the doors and windows and protect themselves from a coming onslaught. The trouble is, they don’t have what everyone most needs in times of crisis: hope. At one point in the movie, one of very few deep conversations happens where Merrill and Graham speak candidly about what might become of the family and the world with aliens on the loose, and Graham tells his brother, “There are two kinds of people in the world…those who believe that we are deeply, utterly alone, and that when times are tough, no one is going to be there to help… and those who believe that there is always someone looking out for them, no matter what, and that gives them hope.” Merrill wholeheartedly jumps into the latter camp with a hilarious story, but Graham’s silence is far more sobering, as we understand what it seems he believes on the subject.
Since his wife’s death, Graham has blamed God, a fact which comes out in the story. He had faith in this all-powerful creator who claims to love him, and he believes he was betrayed. So, he chooses to think, quite understandably, that there is no such god above and that everything is chance. The problem is that what started his ‘unbelief’ shows just how false a notion it is. He blames God for what happened to his wife, because the truth he tries to deny is that he genuinely believes God does exist, but that God failed him. You don’t blame the Easter Bunny when life falls apart, because he isn’t real. You blame God. It has been said that the fact that everyone needs God to exist is precisely the proof that He does. Everything else a person needs to survive is there, available in a general sense to the human race, but the one thing that we need most in our spirits is to believe in this God that so many of us want to deny and blame. We blame people, and indeed God is the person that we all know, whether we wish to or not, though most of us do not know Him as He truly is, but as we have been taught to think of Him by others. We owe it to Him to let Him show us His true nature Himself, and that nature has been revealed through the man Jesus Christ: God with us.
In the same way that we all wrestle with the unseen God and whether we believe in it, we also all feel a desire to believe in other unseen forces at work in the world, though we may not realize it. Everything in movies that smacks of the supernatural or that deals with aliens is feeding our deep-seated belief that we are not alone, and whatever we might say, I believe we all know this to be true. Yet, contrary to what may be popular opinion, the word of God speaks on this as well. The bible says “…we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” (Ephesians 6:12) speaking to people to help them understand that there are very real forces of evil in this world with spirits just like our own but who are beyond our line of sight. They are even spoken of as rulers because they do have authority on the earth, authority that men give to them unknowingly by foolishly believing these enemies to not exist. We would do well to both acknowledge that any ”aliens” among us do not come from space, but from the spirit realm, and find a way to protect ourselves from them. We are assured in the bible that there is only one protection, to come under the rule of the Creator God, whose Son Jesus speaks to demons and rebukes them with a word of command, and they obey Him.
Since Shyamalan and the writers of “Signs” do not appear to share my opinion that any “aliens” among us must be demons, the movie ends on a far more typical note. When the invaders come and the family faces their fears, Graham realizes that he deeply needs the faith that he once had in God to get through this trial, but it just isn’t there. Thankfully, there is someone up there looking out for his family, whoever that may be, and that someone saw fit to plan the moments of his wife’s death as well as Merrill’s entire life and baseball career and his daughter’s obsession with water all to result in the salvation of their family. The enemy is defeated, and, for whatever reason, the aliens leave the planet. In the end, Merrill’s type of people win the day, those who believe there is someone up there watching out for us all. Yet, I want to challenge this notion, even as I support it.
In movies of a certain kind, we often find that things always “work out” in the end. Why is that? Why on earth should anyone believe that everything is going to be okay when we look at the world around us, especially if we believe in evolution and it’s popular worldview conclusion that everything happens by chance? Yet, many of us deeply believe that things can somehow “work out” for anyone – except when we are depressed or just lost something dear to us, naturally! I submit that the notion that everything will work out on its own is utter nonsense. Like anything else in the world, if something needs to happen, something has to cause it to happen. If things are going to work out alright, I would say that we should expect someone should have to make it so. So, I align myself with the Creator God who has the power to raise the dead as He did with His son Jesus, and the power to change my fate, so that I can hold onto that deep-seated belief that things will turn out alright. I suggest you do the same.