Signs is considered by many to be the last good movie from M. night Shyamalan (though I staunchly disagree). Even though his alien invasion thriller made all the money and was the flashpoint of Shyamalan blending Spielberg and Hitchcock into his own thing, there was always one thing people took major issue with:
“It was good, but that ending…”
Yes, for all the terrific atmospheric work, all the tension and the vibrant characters and lean direction from Shyamalan, the reveal at the end just about ruined the entire experience for so many. It turns out that these aliens – who have been leaving road maps in crops all across the planet and causing mass hysteria before they eventually attack – are fatally averse to water. H2O. And, well, Earth is 70% water. The idiotic move from these extra terrestrials, seen as a colossal mistake in terms of plot and screenwriting from Shyamalan, was too much for some to handle. They scoffed at such a ridiculous twist and may have decided, right then and there, that Shyamalan had lost his twisting touch.
But what if you take the ending of Signs from a different perspective?
Audiences, whether they wanted to or not, brought preconceived notions regarding aliens into the film with them. Aliens in cinema are always advanced technologically, seemingly thousands of years ahead of human beings in every conceivable area. They are ten steps up on the evolutionary chain, and they are here to either help us or destroy us. But those aren’t the aliens in Signs. These visitors from the stars are desperate, maybe even dying, and they aren’t all that superior to humans.
Think about the way we see them all throughout the movie. One of the early hints of their presence, besides the crop circle that pops up in Graham and Merrill Hess’s (Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix) cornfield, is when Graham and Merrill hear one plodding along the roof making all sorts of racket. They try and corner it, but it escapes. This seems like a pretty low-rent reconnaissance mission. Later, Shyamalan’s Ray Reddy character traps one in his pantry. Would some sort of advanced being with the intellect and technology beyond human comprehension not be able to get out of a wooden pantry?
These aliens are not transcendentally intelligent, and they may also be desperate. They are always spotted alone, never working in groups (save for the one news footage of their ships flying in formation), maybe because there aren’t many of them left and they’re simply trying to find materials for survival. Not advancement. Or they’re just a small team of scavengers. Several possibilities, but almost none of them make their decision to land on a planet that’s three-quarters water enough to upend the entire picture.
From this perspective, Merrill’s explanation that the aliens just left “like they were in a hurry” further emphasizes their desperation. Perhaps they knew this planet was deadly for them, but they had no other choice. Because they needed food, or supplies, or something to get back to their planet or on to a safer one.
Say what you will about the prophetic final words from Graham’s dying wife, or Abigail Breslin’s deified reluctance to water, or Joaquin Phoenix’s batting stance and weird swing, the reveal in Signs makes perfect sense if you don’t think of the invaders as Close Encounters-type superior beings, or evolutionary perfection like the Alien xenomorph, but as just another society living somewhere in the galaxy that sent out a team for supplies. Or what if they’re rogue agents from another planet that had no other choice but to stop here? Like I said, there are several explanations for their presence on Earth, but just calling the twist stupid is to undermine M. Night Shyamalan’s fresh take on invasion thrillers.
M. Night Shyamalan’s latest, Split, comes out this Friday.