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Saturday 3 August 2002

Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

Warning: Review contains spoilers

On the special features of the DVD of The Sixth Sense, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan reiterates several times how the making of the film seemed blessed. Like "it was meant to be" that the film be made. And he's very earnest about it. He sincerely believes this.

Such a candid admission of superstitious belief (worse, of egocentric superstition; i.e., mysterious powers want MY film to be made) creeped me out a bit, but there was a fragility to his naked admission. And it's that fragility that Shyamalan tapped into to create both The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, two uncommonly moving supernatural films, grand in scope, yet intimate in execution.

Fine. Let him indulge. Obviously, it's what makes his muse sing, and twice in a row it sang a marvellously beautiful song.

But, in Signs, his muse no longer sings: it preaches. More precisely: it preaches Shyamalan's own superstitious belief that everything is "meant to be" (a phrase that recurs a few times in the movie). Spread throughout the film, there are several condescendingly didactic pieces of dialogue serving entirely the director's propaganda: basically, that everything is "meant to be", that "there are no coincidences", that everything happens for a reason, that God is looking out for you, that if you don't share these beliefs then you are not only secretly alone and fearful but also irresponsible towards those who love you.

If you fall asleep at the wheel and murder an innocent bystander (this happens in the film): you're not responsible, it's "meant to be". If you're the victim of that accident, it's not really a tragedy for you or your loved ones (or even for the one who unwittingly murders you): it's "meant to be", and it will ultimately serve a greater purpose.

Thinking through the consequences of such a worldview is that we are never responsible for our actions, nor can we hold anyone accountable for the crimes they commit. Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust? Meant to be. Enslaved or tortured? Serves a greater purpose. Bombed out of your home by the world's superpower? Part of God's plan. Homeless and starving? Don't worry, God's looking out for you. Really he is.

The main plot of Signs is an updated retelling of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds — filtered through UFO mythology — and it's surprising how close it sticks to the structure of the novel. And a lot of that adaptation is actually quite clever. This source is not officially acknowledged, although a character does allude to Wells's book. Woven through this is the story of a Protestant preacher, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), who lost his faith after his wife died in the aforementioned car accident. The film opens six months after the tragedy, when Graham and his family discover mysterious crop circles on their farm. Ultimately, Graham renounces his atheist ways (for which he is reprimanded over and over again) and once more learns to trust God after he realizes (and I'm not making this up) that God arranged his wife's death so Graham could later save his son (Rory Culkin) from an evil alien by remembering the clues provided in her dying words and that Graham's son has been afflicted with debilitating asthma all his life so that his lungs could be closed when the alien sprayed him with poison gas. Once he realizes that the divine murder of his wife and his son's asthma were in fact acts of Godly compassion(!), he resumes his ministry, secure in the knowledge that God is looking after him.

I couldn't help but yearn for the ending of Michael Tolkin's The Rapture, where the protagonist literally confronts God and tells him that if these are the rules, then she wants no part of his salvation.

The worldview Shyamalan expounds in Signs is a kind of wishy-washy New Agey theism meant to mindlessly comfort and reassure. If you do evil things, don't worry: God meant you to, it's not really your fault (in the film, this is the story arc of the character who ran down Graham's wife). If you suffer unspeakable tragedy: rejoice! God means well, even if you can't see it yet. You are not responsible for your actions and neither is anyone else for theirs. Don't question what happens, just accept it. Great deeds are not an accomplishment, and atrocities are not really evil deeds. It's all planned by a greater power.

According to Shyamalan's film, the only really bad thing you can do and be held accountable for is losing faith in God's love.

Preaching this kind of malarkey is not only misguided, it's downright evil. People do make a difference. They accomplish great things through determination and compassion. And they should be proud. God didn't do it: they did. They, not God, are responsible for disgusting atrocities because of fear and hatred. And they should be ashamed. People need to question events, so they can act. Because their actions matter. There's no secret feel-good meaning behind the chaos of the world. But every time we do something — anything — we create meaning. We are responsible for the meaning we create. And, contrary to what Shyamalan preaches in his film, that's not scary. It's empowering.

The idea that some sadistic God is pulling puppet strings and that I am not responsible for anything that I do: now that's fucking scary.

In this film, Shyamalan is as manipulative as the God he postulates. The whole alien invasion is, ultimately, nothing but a prop, and his characters are reduced to being mouthpieces. At least if Shyamalan had left some room for the audience to interpret the events, to decide for themselves. But no, ideology is crammed down our throats, coated with a sickly-sweet sentimentality to make it go down smoother.

It made me nauseous.

Also offensive is the conservative appropriation of Wells's politically subversive The War of the Worlds. In Wells's novel, the alien invaders are metaphoric mirrors. They do unto England what England has done to the rest of the world: colonization. In Signs, the aliens are cardboard evil monsters, representing the worst kind of xenophobia, that the other is always repugnant.

In other words, Wells's rational metaphor for the evils of colonization was turned into a xenophobic, superstitious, feel-good fable.

There's no questioning Shyamalan's talent. The film is beautifully shot (except for a few cheesy "clawed hands" creeping through the door/window sequences that reinforce the xenophobia). The pacing is confident, haunting, and gripping. The acting is mostly top notch (despite some of the awful dialogue). But Shyamalan has turned his talent away from honest fiction and storytelling and towards proselytization and manipulation.

This film made me angry. Angry at having sat through a manipulative film by someone obviously capable of much better. Angry at the irresponsible, copout worldview being shoved down my throat. Angry at the appropriation of Wells's classic by someone who betrayed its meaning.

To discuss this column, and genre fiction in general, visit Claude Lalumière's Critical Speculations on the TTA Press message boards.

Claude Lalumière is a writer, critic, editor, and translator. His Lost Pages fantasy stories have appeared in Interzone and Other Dimension. He is coeditor (with Marty Halpern) of Witpunk: Stories with Attitude, forthcoming in 2003 from 4 Walls 8 Windows. See his website for news and links to his online publications. Publishers: please send review material to 4135 Coloniale, Montreal, QC, Canada, H2W 2C2.

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