Signs of the Times

Film Review: Signs

“There are two kinds of people in this world,” says Graham, the ex-Episcopalian priest played by Mel Gibson in Signs, the new thriller from Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan. There are those, the widower and former clergyman means to say, who see the signs of a Higher Power at work in the world and those who don’t.

“Which are you?” That is the big question for Graham, his brother Merrill, his young children, and each of us sitting in the audience.

It’s a bizarre proposition, a otherworldly film (a la The X-Files ) literally about giant etchings in the corn crops that explores the idea of whether or not the Man Upstairs (as my grandmother used to say) is looking after us or not.

The alien-and-God soup is a little hard to swallow at times. You really have to be good at suspending your disbelief. Be prepared for a little contrivedness; leave your skepticism at home. But hang in there. It will all come together thoughtfully and beautifully. There are patterns in the story to match the patterns in the crops.

Nevertheless, I left Signs with a misgiving. If this is a movie about faith, then it’s about faith in the edgy, post-9/11 age. It is about faith that co-habits with paranoia. I became confused´┐Żthe possibly hostile group who are “out there but we don’t know where,” are they extraterrestrials or Al Qaeda? By the end of the movie I couldn’t remember.

Without giving too much away, let me just say it’s dangerous to mix faith with the perennial battle between “us” and “them.” There is an almost inevitable conclusion that God favors us but hates them (whoever they are). Yet isn’t that what keeps the engines of hatred going in the first place? Isn’t that Al Qaeda’s game?

The film actually doesn’t go too far off in that direction. But there is still reality to contend with. The U.S. remains in a vague state of war, with talk of a more focused war to come in Iraq. Blithely thinking God is on our side and not on “theirs” helps soothe the conscience and makes war easy to wage. But it shouldn’t be easy. It should be the hardest thing we ever do.