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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Signs

I saw Signs the other night. This is a film I've heard mixed reviews about. I think it received a cool reception at the box office too. There are a few obvious reasons it didn't find wings, and a couple that I think are less obvious.

It's been pointed out to me that Mel Gibson tends to make films where he loses his wife (in one way or another) and then acts to avenge this loss. It's also public knowledge that he's a devout Catholic of an orthodox order. I believe these two facts are related.

Q: How do we correlate a conservative Catholic faith with action genre "movies" which portray violence against women that borders on misogyny?
A: Allegory.

"Allegory: is a story or fable that has a clear secondary meaning, beneath its literal sense. Orwell's Animal Farm, for example, is assumed to have an allegorical sense" (go to Google and search with "define: allegory" )

I'll make a broad statement here about action films: they are all allegory. All action films heighten some sort of conflict (usually moral) in order to teach a lesson. American action films, more than any other genre, reach a large and common audience. If Gibson aspires to reach/teach a large and common audience, action films are the best vehicle.

To Gibson's credit, he uses issues of family, faith, and loyalty to engage his audience (in contrast to Stallone, champion of patriotism, independence, politic). In Signs, Gibson plays a minister(?) married with kids who loses his faith when he loses his wife, but regains his faith through deliverance from adversity. That's the core of the film, not aliens.

Watch this film as an allegory of faith, not as a science fiction thriller. Another allegory of faith that crosses the Sci-Fi line is Contact. Contact comes at faith from the opposite direction. Written by Carl Sagan ( a devout cosmologist ), Contact asks similar questions to Signs and suffers similar flaws.

Allegory is meant to reach a broad audience, as such it often comes off as preachy. People don't expect preachy from a Sci-Fi movie. They expect great special effects. Contact delivered (in my opinion) on the special effects (with a nod to Kubrick's 2001 Space Odyssey - which is also an allegory, but much more sophisticated and as such loses a lot of audiences).

I'm not sure, but I think they intentionally shortchanged the audience in Signs. The aliens were somewhat laughable, and this is a criticism I've heard again and again. Some of the shots suggested a nod to 1950's Creature from the Black Lagune'esq monster flicks (the reflection of the alien in the TV), and Hitchcock'esq rustling unseen monsters (see imdb film trivia regarding the score). But when the full frontal alien is exposed, modern audiences were let down (by seeing a guy in a rubber suit). I say that I think this was intentional because I don't believe it was the focus of the film. The focus is on the role of the Father. More directly between the duty of a Father with that Father's relationship to the Holy Father i.e. a strong relationship in faith makes for a good father, able to face adversity and able to lead a flock through darkness. (I haven't seen Cruise's War of the Worlds, but I'm betting it's answering similar questions albeit from a Battlefield Earth doctrine point of view).

Also to his credit, Signs showed leadership in an action film almost totally devoid of violence. The violence is committed (unnecessarily) by his brother. This violence is incidental and ineffective without the aid of the spirit (water), but combined, proves lethal to the aliens (the threat).

Viewing Sings through the lens of religious allegory answers a lot of questions, but not all. I still have my doubts about the uneven-ness of the sense of humor in the film. I never quite got settled with who the brother character was (not sure if that's writing or Joaquin's acting). The local cop, either strange casting or the writing, never let me hit the ground with that character either.

Gibson may have fallen victim to one of the traps of using allegory. There's not much room for shades of gray. It's only safe to use characters that don't need development i.e. minister, cop, alien. We instantly know their motivations and allegiances. I didn't see the necessity in creating a this police character with "closer than just any cop" status. I never got comfortable with the brother character's conflict. One line I still don't understand, when he was being criticized for his "strike-out" records in baseball; "It felt wrong not to swing". I'm sure there's a deep meaning there, but it just sort of hung there.

P.S. Not that I give no credit to the director, writer, key grip, but Mel Gibson is one of the most powerful people in film, not M. Night Shyamalan. Very much looking forward to Shyamalan's Life of Pi.

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