By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D. | Published May 5, 2021
In “The Dry Salvages” section of his “The Four Quartets,” T.S. Eliot writes one of my favorite lines: “We had the experience but missed the meaning.”
As the number of fully vaccinated people rises daily, and as families and friends tentatively begin to reunite, there is a growing sense that perhaps, hopefully, the COVID-19 pandemic is drawing to a close. People are planning trips, going out, returning to public celebration of sacraments, even in some instances discarding their masks.
“COVID is over,” someone said to me emphatically the other day. “I got my shot.” As appalled as I was by his self-absorption, I realized that this narrow view captured perfectly the intent of Eliot’s line. We have been through—and are still living in—a global nightmare in which more than 3 million people have died and countless lives have been forever altered. We are, many of us, experiencing a post-trauma combination of depression and stress. Yet for many people, this profound event is merely something else to forget, to consign to the past, to become fodder for jokes and memes.
I don’t think I will ever forget this moment in time, and I’m still trying to come to terms with its deeper significance, for as a person of faith, I am certain that the pandemic meant something.
M. Night Shyamalan’s disturbing yet ultimately affirmative film “Signs” offers a brilliant look at how we respond to the traumatic and unexpected, and suggests that our lives depend upon discovering meaning in all levels of experience, from the mundane to the tragic, the ordinary to the amazing.
“Signs” stars the devout Catholic actor and filmmaker Mel Gibson, who plays the defrocked and disillusioned Father Graham Hess, a former Episcopal priest who has lost his faith and abandoned his vocation after the tragic death of his wife in an accident. Father Hess half-heartedly resigns himself to growing corn on a small farm where he raises his two young children and cares for his brother Merrill, who has failed as a minor league baseball player and is searching for purpose in his life. As the four family members hobble through their daily lives, mysterious crop circles begin to appear in their corn.
Convinced that the crop circles are merely the work of vandals, tricksters, or throwback nerds from the 70s, Graham and Merrill try to catch whoever is making the elaborate designs in the corn. When they finally encounter some thing they are amazed at its strength and speed and begin to wonder if the children are in fact correct in their belief that extraterrestrials are to blame. Soon, evidence around the world proves the children right: crop circles appear all over the globe and one night 14 mysterious lights hover over the air in Mexico. An invisible barrier that stops birds in mid-flight appears. And then, in one unforgettable moment, a television news crew captures a glimpse of an alien on a Brazilian street.
Reactions vary from horror to disbelief. Much like the coronavirus, the aliens aren’t initially understood. They are mysterious and fleeting. They don’t seem real, and many people refuse to believe. Merrill is immediately convinced at what he had once mocked and joins with the children. Father Hess is reluctant to believe in the threat, yet ultimately it is the threat that leads him to a reckoning with his deepest values and beliefs.
The lights above
The lights above Mexico most affect Father Hess. In one of the film’s best moments, he realizes that there are essentially two kinds of people in the world—those who hope and those who fear. Some people watching the lights over Mexico see them as ominous, says Father Hess, yet others see them as a miracle. Some cling to hope and the belief that someone is watching over them, others are racked with fear that they are all alone. “What kind of person are you,” asks Father Hess. “Are you the kind that sees signs, miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky?”
As the film unfolds (and I won’t spoil the plot for you) Father Hess has to come to terms with his grief and his loss of faith as he tries to find personal meaning in an extraordinary global crisis.
For those who dismiss the film as simply a sci-fi movie about aliens, I will argue that completely misses the point. The aliens are clearly a kind of Hitchcock “MacGuffin,” Hitchcock’s term for the plot device that leads an audience to a realization of its deeper anxieties and desires. Remember, the film is not so much about an alien invasion as it is about a man’s search to regain his faith.
Shyamalan’s best films—“The Sixth Sense,” for example—are those that employ a successful MacGuffin to build suspense while also leading the audience to consider spiritual themes. In many ways, the film is an homage to two other masterpieces, Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” The aliens, as with Hitchcock’s birds, are not the real threat. The genuine menace is what each represents: family conflict, neurosis, paranoia, unhealthy relationships and our need for redemption.
The aliens are frightening. They are rendered in shocking psychological cinematic technique, and the first glimpses we get of them are brilliant and memorable because Shyamalan understands the principle of “less is more;” there is indeed presence in absence.
While “Signs” deals with family reconciliation, like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake and other films in the genre, Shyamalan also considers the mystery of faith, redemptive suffering, and the importance of vocation. Father Hess’ community needs him, and Father Hess comes to see that he needs his community. At the same time, he is able to come to terms with his grief and doubt and find solace in both his family and a renewed belief in the miraculous. Gibson is particularly good in these aspects, for he clearly draws upon his own faith in crafting a performance that is entirely balanced and believable.
Children are also crucial in this film. The young guide the conscience of the old. Their innocence is coupled with expertise, and they become the ones who lead the adults to believe the threat is real. Gibson and Shyamalan must have channeled the Gospel’s insistence upon the importance of children. The film made me smile at the wisdom of my children, who wear masks around their friends from different schools.
Watching “Signs” again in the pandemic provided a striking reminder of universal religious, spiritual, and familial lessons that are critical to remember as we hopefully are emerging into a post-pandemic era of understanding.
I have a colleague who is fond of a new icon she discovered, a cross with the message, “I don’t want to go back to normal; I want to go back to BETTER.” Granted, the pandemic has been a difficult and tragic time. Yet approached from the perspective of faith, many of us have learned valuable insights about what life should really be like, and we have been reminded of the value of a slow pace, silence and the holiness of the ordinary moment.
“Signs” is informed by this same wisdom. Unlike the doubters in St. Matthew’s Gospel to whom Jesus says, “A wicked generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah,” Shyamalan and Gibson understand that easy and unmistakable clues pale in the presence of the prophetic. It’s easy to be marveled; it is far more difficult to discern.
“Signs” is a fine film that 20 years after its making still leads us to meaningful conclusions. In the pandemic especially, the film reminds us that, as Eliot concludes his line in “The Four Quartets,” “Approach to the meaning restores the experience in a different form.”
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.