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  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan

from Film Forum, 08/01/02

Director M. Night Shyamalan may be moviegoers' last hope for a meaningful blockbuster this summer. The rising star has directed two films that rose above the standards of their genre to become powerful and haunting dramas. The Sixth Sense looked like a ghost story, but it became a movie about overcoming our personal fears. Likewise, the underrated Unbreakable transcended its comic book style to become a powerful parable about using one's gifts responsibly.

According to advance reviews of Shyamalan 's new film Signs, viewers may not get what they're expecting. Previews show us a movie about the paranormal and spooky invaders. But critics insist that in the end, the movie is more interested in faith than extra-terrestrials.

In a review posted today, Douglas LeBlanc (Christianity Today) finds Shyamalan 's film profound, timely, and surprising. "This astonishing story of suffering, grief, and redemption comes from a 32-year-old wunderkind who was born a Hindu and attended Roman Catholic and Episcopal schools in his formative years. Shyamalan is making brilliant, significant, and provocative films in a time when more experienced directors flood the market with sludge. In a film culture so rife with cynicism and multimillion-dollar product placements, it is a miracle to behold this film."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) is also very impressed. "Besides being a suspense thriller, Signs also wants to ponder the nature of faith. It does this by separating people into a simple binary—those who have faith and don't believe in luck or coincidences, and those who feel we're all alone and life is meaningless. It's a simplistic dichotomy and one that might offend the agnostics in our midst, but I found it to be an effective theme within a compelling movie. [Signs is] a taut, intelligent thriller that reminds us of the importance of craft and storytelling."

"It is in the second act of the film, where the influence of other filmmakers takes a back seat to Shyamalan 's truly original style and story," says Dan Buck (critic for Relevant Magazine.) "This film somehow manages to be the most frightening film I've ever seen and yet have moments of joy, humor, and sorrow alongside the terror. It's as though the director is standing at the front of the theater with a conductor's baton. … Yet it is not emotional manipulation. It is just the realistic intermingling of the sacred with the profane, the tragic with the euphoric, and despair with hope."

In the mainstream press, Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter) takes note of this emphasis on spirituality. "After three major studio films—and four if you count his second feature, Wide Awake, which Miramax released—it's clear Shyamalan can deliver chills. But equally as clear is his insistence upon investing the supernatural with the metaphysical, which, after all, is the original impulse behind most scary stories. For what is a ghost story but a belief in life after death or an alien invasion movie but a struggle between good and evil?"

We'll offer more responses next week.

from Film Forum, 08/08/02

This week, Donna Britt of The Washington Post voiced a question that I have often encountered in conversations with fellow believers: Why doesn't popular entertainment explore issues of faith more frequently? She writes, "In movie after movie, TV show after TV show, people face every manner of terror, crime, illness and betrayal without ever turning to, or even acknowledging, a higher power. Perhaps praying and seeking spiritual counsel are too boring, passive or wordy for today's action-obsessed audiences. Maybe writers and producers fear that viewers with differing beliefs would stay away, offending Hollywood's favorite deity: the almighty dollar."

Britt then claims that Signs, the new box office champion ($60.1 million on opening weekend), takes a bold step toward encouraging spiritual discourse among viewers.

Film critic Christian Hamaker reminded me that Signs comes from Touchstone, a Disney subsidiary. It's the latest of several films from Disney that seem to appeal to conservative—even specifically Christian—audiences. This year alone, the studio has offered The Rookie and the animated hit Lilo and Stitch, both of which portrayed prayer in a positive light. Then there was The Country Bears, which got some approvals as "family safe" (even if the reviews were fairly poor.) In view of the Southern Baptist boycott of Disney films, should we interpret this as an encouraging trend? Is it time to drop the boycott? Is boycotting a productive response to studios that offend Christian sensibilities? I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this.

Alfred Hitchcock. Steven Spielberg. M. Night Shyamalan?

With the release of Shyamalan's third film, Signs, some critics predict the young director is bound to be one of the all-time greats. Whether or not he deserves such high praise, the influence of these great directors on his style is clear. Signs clearly pays tribute to Hitchcock with visual and audio tricks that spook and surprise the viewer, an over-the-top soundtrack that recalls Bernard Herrmann, and Shyamalan's Hitchcockesque cameo appearance. He also wears Spielberg's influence on his sleeve, showing the impact of a series of terrifying paranormal experiences on wide-eyed children.

But most critics are more interested in discussing what makes Signs distinct from other directors' works—namely his emphasis on finding faith in the midst of trouble.

Mel Gibson stars in the film as Graham Hess, a former Episcopalian minister who has turned against his former faith after a traumatic event. (I will be purposefully vague here. The film is a richer experience if you know very little about it ahead of time.) He lives with his two children and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), raises a small crop of corn, and tries to go on without God. But when strange things start rustling the cornstalks at night, and a crop circle appears on his property, he searches for rational explanations and resists his children's imaginative theories. He also refuses to pray. When television newscasts connect the strange occurrence to a broader problem that could indeed be bad news for Planet Earth, fear hits Hess hard. As he prepares to protect his family from some mysterious threat, he is forced to wrestle with his decision to live without God, without a refuge beyond his own resources and rationality.

Critics applaud Shyamalan's boldness in addressing faith, and many comment that, in spite of some illogical plot holes, the film "rings true" in the wake of September 11. It wasn't that long ago when we sat, eyes wide, flipping through news channels in hopes of finding some explanation, some good news, in spite of the devastation in New York and Washington, D.C. I remember the comfort of God's presence, but also the fear of having no answers and seeing no available solutions to the problem. It was a chilling reminder of how fragile we are, and how much of the world lives with similar fears on a daily basis. Shyamalan's film does not exploit such emotions. Nor does he paint as bleak a picture of family panic as David Fincher did earlier this year in Panic Room. Instead, he honestly and gently offers a story that suggests a welcome balm for an audience that is still wounded at heart. (My full review is at Looking Closer.)

Other religious media critics offer the film varying degrees of praise, but beware. If you link to some of these full reviews, you may stumble onto spoilers.

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) raves, "I was tense from the first frame to the last and spent hours afterward discussing the many layers of the story with my teenage boys. Don't go expecting all the pieces to fit into place and the questions to be answered in the end." Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) also finds it challenging, calling it "a double-edged sword of a movie: One side cuts with sci-fi and thrills, the other with spiritual questions and quandaries. The latter will surprise those expecting the former."

"In my years as a film-lover and critic, there have been only three films that I consider near perfect. Now I've seen four," says Dan Buck (Relevant Magazine). "This film somehow manages to be the most frightening film I've ever seen and yet have moments of joy, humor, and sorrow alongside the terror. Yet it is not emotional manipulation. It is just the realistic intermingling of the sacred with the profane, the tragic with the euphoric and despair with hope."

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) also uses the word perfect and puts the film on a level with Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia, Key Largo, Schindler's List, and other classics. "Rather than merely using the supernatural to scare us, he incorporates emotion and humanity into the thriller to give us a drama that suggests the importance of faith and spirituality in our journey through life. His film is about finding our way—or finding our way back."

Others offered mixed responses. Plot problems, according to Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films), "increasingly sap the movie's plausibility, until eventually suspension of disbelief becomes possible only by not thinking about it."

Paul Bicking (Preview) has a different complaint, withholding a full endorsement due to "a few obscenities."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says Signs is "a tense and oftentimes surprisingly funny tale." Although he perceives Shyamalan implying that God causes suffering in the world, Elliott still concludes, "Signs is a thrilling tale of supernatural mysteries … and can be used as a springboard for a myriad of biblically enriched discussions."

A critic for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says, "Shyamalan is certainly a fine storyteller … He understands that what the audience doesn't see is a lot scarier than what it does." But the writer calls Shyamalan's treatment of faith "superficial" and concludes that "the tale slips into stock scary-movie mode." Similarly, Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) complains of "ambiguous spirituality." He explains that Hess's faith is "a windblown faith based less on God's remarkable and unchanging character than on how smoothly life is going at the moment."

But there's a clear enough resolution for Ken James (Christian Spotlight). "Fun, engaging, and sympathetic to the Christian faith, it's a film that teens and their parents can enjoy together, even sparking great discussions on chance vs. providence, God's will, why do bad things happen to good people, and other stimulating topics."

That's not enough for Ted Baehr and Tom Snyder (Movieguide). They claim viewers should not be surprised that Hess's faith collapsed—after all, he was Episcopalian. Baehr says, "Having gone to Episcopal seminary myself, Graham's faith seems as flimsy as many of the ordained members of that denomination." They also conclude that, because one character has dreams about the future, Signs is "undergirded with Hinduism." One of the recurring themes—"There is no such thing as coincidence"—is a Hindu belief, they say. Certainly Signs' fictions are in some ways consistent with Hindu beliefs. But those same elements, as they appear in the story, are also arguably consistent with Christian faith. After all, believers affirm that "all things work together for good" rather than by coincidence. And aren't there a few prophetic dreamers in Scripture, as well as books that paint vivid pictures of future events? Such storytelling devices should not alarm us, especially if they are used in the context of a world governed by a benevolent deity.

But it seems Baehr and Snyder are asking for Shyamalan to be more specific, to offer a clear sermon about the gospel as the answer to our fears. This betrays a misunderstanding of the difference between preaching and art. It is the responsibility of the preacher to deliver a message. Artists ask us to use our imagination, and they allow us to interpret their work in a personal way. One tells, the other shows. We need both.

Shyamalan's story avoids preaching about a specific faith. Instead, it suggests a compelling possibility—that there is a God, that he is sovereign, that he cares about you and your family, and that, even if the bad guys do strike, we are in good hands. In a secular cinema that avoids religious themes, should we not be grateful for this? Very few blockbuster summer movies invite discussion of such themes. Spider-man, which Movieguide's critics celebrated as profound, only referenced God in customary terms like "godspeed" and "God bless you." There are no deeper explorations of faith in the film Baehr and Snyder's site currently recommends more highly than any other major studio release—The Country Bears.

Film critic David Shepherd (Chiaroscuro) concludes, "Shyamalan has crafted a work of strong metaphor and insight. The physical realities embody the battle taking place in Hess' soul as he wavers between faith and unbelief." He adds, "In retrospect, all of Shyamalan's films have been very much about relationship and human interaction, and the struggle to find one's purpose and meaning."

Mainstream critics are applauding the director's boldness, but some (like A.O. Scott of The New York Times) are troubled by the emphasis on faith. Others, like Andrew O'Hehir ( and Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) find the conclusion too convenient and contrived. But Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) raves: "Signs is the work of a born filmmaker, able to summon apprehension out of thin air. When it is over, we think not how little has been decided, but how much has been experienced."

from Film Forum, 10/31/02

This month, Roy Anker (Books & Culture) offers an exploration of M. Night Shyamalan's work, including the recent blockbuster Signs. Read his new article titled "Signs and Wonders," but beware of spoilers if you haven't seen Shyamalan's films.

Related Elsewhere:

A ready-to-download Movie Discussion Guide related to this movie is available at Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.