‘Signs’ is finally released in the UK today (13 September)! Three members of the Swirled News team were recently invited to the special press screening of the movie in Brighton on the south coast of England. ANDY THOMAS gives his own view on the significance of Hollywood’s take on the circle phenomenon…
A bus has just gone by. On the surface, not much of a moment to report, but this bus is different. As I sit with Allan Brown and Martin Noakes in a Brighton pizza cafe, animatedly discussing the pluses and minuses of ‘Signs’, which we have just viewed with a handful of local journalists and other interested parties, it drives by, with a golden pictogram adorning its side. Crop circles. On a bus. Think about it.
This is one of the effects of ‘Signs’. The circles may simply be advertising the film, but this is vastly symbolic of what Hollywood’s rather Johnny-come-lately interest in the phenomenon is doing – spreading the word that there is something strange out there in the fields, on a scale that no enthusiast website, book or conference could ever attain in these cynical times. It’s a fictional pictogram on the bus, for sure, and Hollywood cares not one jot about promoting the real thing, but from the newly raised awareness, particularly in America, that such things really ARE occurring, there has been a significant leap of interest that is not to be sniffed at, whatever the merits or otherwise of the film itself and despite the rather unfortunate connection with the concept of evil aliens.
Many Swirled News readers have made clear their feelings about ‘Signs’, as previous articles reveal, and it might be argued as to what the point of an ‘official’ review is – surely this demeans the comments we have previously featured? Not at all. Indeed, having now viewed ‘Signs’ for myself, it is clear there is some truth in nearly every view expressed so far, both the positive and (by far in the majority) the negative ones. But, as the editor of Swirled News, I have been increasingly asked what I personally think, and have, quite properly, reserved judgement until a viewing became available. So, at last then, here’s my thoughts, for what they’re worth, though be warned, they may not be quite what some expect.
Essentially, the plot can be summarised thus (WARNING! MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD!): Clergyman (Mel Gibson) loses faith after wife is rather gruesomely squashed by car – crop circles appear in nearby field and across world – UFOs appear over cities of the world – Tall green aliens appear and try to “harvest” people – Ex-clergyman’s family are trapped in house, pursued by alien – Clergyman’s boy has near-fatal asthma attack - alien is clubbed to death by baseball bat – boy recovers – Clergyman recovers faith.
I tried, as much as possible, to wipe my mind of preconceptions when I entered the cinema. I already knew the plot (such as it is), the set-up and the outcome from at least two dozen cerealogical commentators, and had to shake off the weight of this, yet oddly, it was easy when it came to it. I took it as it came and largely forgot I had ever heard anything about it. Others had done the grinding of teeth for me over any misrepresentations of the phenomenon, and I was able to get on with seeing what was there.
In truth, there are many different ways this movie could have been worse for the circle-minded. In conversation afterwards, the manager of the cinema expressed surprise to me that the movie confirms the phenomenon as a non-human enigma. It was his full expectation that the whole thing would turn out to be some kind of human twist, in a kind of Scooby-Doo “you-meddling-kids” revelation. He seemed shocked that the movie allowed the circles to be firmly placed in the pantheon of the paranormal. This must be a major surprise to many other viewers. It is also, for the croppie, the big mitigating factor that really ought to muffle some of the knee-jerk condemnation. The association with a nasty threat from outer space is a problem, but at least the circle phenomenon is portrayed as being REAL, and the doubters, given a little space early on, are seen to be wrong. This is a big step when looked at in context with the mass-media’s usual sceptical dismissal.
Of the doubter’s comments, however, there is one classic statement that surely all circle enthusiasts must learn by heart from now on, to cheer them up during the next inevitable media debunk, when Joaquin Phoenix remarks of the human circlemakers that they are simply “Nerds who can’t get girlfriends”. Remember that one.
Some of the notions about the circles are quaintly warped from the reality, of course. We learn, for instance, from TV broadcasts of the flurry of formations which appear across the world all in one night (an occurrence genuinely hoped for by many cerealogists, eager to silence doubters, alas, as yet unfulfilled), and that the phenomenon was thought to have died out in the early 80s, when, of course, in truth it first came to big attention then and built up to a huge explosion of formations in England throughout the 1990s. No reference is made to this, as if the movie hopes to gain, drama-wise, by pretending nothing in the real history of crop circles has ever occurred. Indeed, England, the very heart of the real phenomenon, is only acknowledged onscreen as having just ONE formation (curiously listed as being at ‘Wakefield’ – an insider joke about one-time croppie videomaker Grant Wakefield, perhaps, who has movie industry contacts?).
The crop formations shown on the TV bulletins (which, rather cheaply, is our only window onto the rest of the world’s peril throughout the whole movie) are all genuinely recorded patterns, but re-labelled as if they had appeared around the world. Curiously, nearly ALL the formations shown are from 1990, including amongst them the first Alton Barnes pictogram. None of the later mandalas or geometric forms are shown, as if the filmmakers fear this might confuse viewers, for whom the early 90s forms, strung out length-wise with their ‘claws’ and rectangular boxes, still make up the archetypal perception of a crop formation.
The pictogram which troubles Mel Gibson’s family is, in fact, little to write home about, and, apart from the fact that it’s laid in the unusual choice of maize, would probably rate as one of the lesser-formations of any season these days were it to appear outside of celluloid. It’s not even particularly well-filmed, the one aerial zoom-out shot of it looking dark and dowdy (as does much of the rest of the film, which revels in its visual and contextual gloom). The new UK movie poster makes much more of the formation than the film does, lit in mysterious golden sunlight and long shadows, which one might have thought a more appropriate treatment onscreen, but it is not to be. As for the lay, I found myself getting worryingly into anorak mode when I heard the characters saying, awestruck, “it’s bent, not broken…”, and I found myself looking closely and thinking, well that stalk looks broken to me, and that one looks a bit scuffed… etc. But that’s what eleven years of field work does for you, I’m afraid. I’m taking tablets for it.
However, the most important thing here is the word “awestruck”, and that’s why I find myself forgiving the movie many sins that might otherwise cause serious niggles. The crop formations are shown to be things treated not with ridicule, but with AWE, which is the correct treatment for these astonishing patterns which have transfixed us for so long. The regrettable taint of fear which comes with this – the formations are essentially, if somewhat mundanely, landing beacons for evil alien craft – is the big disappointment. But the awe demonstrated gains back some points.
What has inevitably most alarmed croppies so far is that FEAR is the big factor in the movie. If someone wanted to engender fear of extra-terrestrial presences into the population, they couldn’t have pushed many more buttons than are pressed in ‘Signs’. The overall tone is one of misery, as signified by the greys and browns which permeate the movie and make the downbeat beiges of Woody Allen pictures look radiant in comparison. Any opportunity for jokes here about ‘greys’ are quashed by the fact that the aliens are, in fact, somewhat unimaginatively, green and tall, recalling 50’s movies like ‘Invaders From Mars’. Indeed, the first sight we get of one of the alien ‘raiders’ (rather than invaders - it is postulated at the end that the attack on earth is simply some sort of quickie human larder raid), is actually laughable (a kid’s party is interrupted by its arrival), which is unfortunate as laughter is clearly NOT the intention of the director M Night Shyamalan. Fear and suspense permeates all. I’ll leave it to the professional conspiracy theorists to draw their own conclusions here as to the film’s message for humanity and what we should do if aliens really do arrive (clue: have a baseball bat at hand). Allan Brown has also pointed out an interesting analogy of America’s current foreign policy to the behaviour shown here – the siege mentality of boarding up the windows against a perceived big outside threat, repelling external influences, but striking out decisively when required.
Quite what the aliens are ‘harvesting’ from humanity – it is suggested they want us for food – isn’t really clear, but if, as shown in ‘Signs’, the aliens descend only where they’ve put a crop circle down first, then it’s probably safe to say that the villagers of Alton Barnes and Avebury probably would have provided the heftiest lunch of all (were it not for the fact that England has largely been disinherited in the film – another interesting analogy).
The story seems primarily concerned with being a parable about personal faith. The foibles, holes and inconsistencies of the movie’s actual plot have already been mightily investigated and roundly savaged by Swirled News readers, and there seems little need to go over them again here, suffice to say that thinking too deeply about the whole scenario of the aliens’ motives and seemingly bizarre way of implementing them is inadvisable. It’s the movies.
It has already been suggested by more than one observer that this movie is really the flip side of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. Indeed, the vast majority of ‘Signs’ is essentially a vast-elongation of the first half of the Spielberg epic, but with light replaced by dark and without that story’s transfiguring resolution. There’s even a scene where Gibson begins to get weird with food, a la Richard Dreyfuss. Indeed, ‘Signs’ seems to lack resolution all round. The move progresses to nothing more than the economical people-trapped-in-an-elevator-movie syndrome, stuck firmly within the confines of one house for almost half its length. There’s barely a mention - and certainly not a proper portrayal - of the effects of the alien raid on the rest of humanity, short of snippets snatched on TV and radio. Agreed, the intention seems partly to look at the very personal effect such an alien visitation might have on one family, and suspense is accordingly cranked up, fairly successfully, but after a while the claustrophobia becomes stifling rather than exciting, and in the end the climax results in nothing more spectacular than a ‘Goodfellas’-style baseball bat attack and some glasses of water being thrown around.
For all this, ‘Signs’ works on some levels. It would take a brick not to feel some twinge of emotion when we witness, in flashback, Gibson’s screen wife giving her last words whilst sandwiched between a truck and a tree, and it must be said that Gibson does a pretty good job with his moody hang-dog expressions and father-in-distress wranglings. Even the kids manage to engage rather than irritate, most of the time anyway, and Joaquin Phoenix provides younger hunk value. Unusually, the temptation to add in a busty damsel in distress is avoided completely here. Indeed, apart from a fairly minor friendly-neighbourhood-policewoman and the little girl, it’s a very male film all round. Schmaltz does threaten once or twice, but is soon put aside once dealt with, even if fear is its replacement. There is some genuine excitement too, even if, ultimately, little develops from it.
Once the disappointment subsides that the joy and radiance inspired by the real phenomenon is not remotely touched on here, I think what ‘Signs’ will be remembered for by circle enthusiasts in years to come, will be its clarion call to vast sections of western society hitherto unexposed to the crop circles. It will launch – has launched - many into the knowledge that they really are out there, albeit in a different guise and with a seemingly benevolent quality besmirched by this Hollywood take on it. The fear-factor may repel some from wanting to know more, but there can be little doubt that with the US having made ‘Signs’ one of its all-time big box office hits, the amount of people turned onto awareness of the crop circle phenomenon has quadrupled in the States, as website hit-rates strongly indicate. The UK effect will be much less, because the circles are already taken for granted as a seasonal happening and the British have an innate cynicism and the likes of Doug Bower still on their shores, but even here there will be new converts to interest, if the debunkers don’t get to them first.
Indeed, the debunkers have much to fear from this film, which may have set their cause back for a little while, hence their current fightback and the need to become ‘prizes’ in competitions such as movie magazine ‘Empire’s ‘win-a-slap-up-dinner-with-the-official-UK-circlemakers’ wheeze (I kid you not). Fears for the trivialisation of the phenomenon because of ‘Signs’ are certainly not unfounded, and may yet come horribly true, but for a short time, at least, there is new attention and that’s something to be celebrated, despite the regrettable negative associations. The acid test for croppies has to be what people pouring out of the multiplexes will think about crop circles after this. Could it be that next time one or two hear about the phenomenon genuinely appearing in fields around them, they might give it a second thought they perhaps would not have done without the little spark of memory of a film in which the circles heralded big things? ‘Signs’ has put crop circles on buses. Even the fear engendered in the film has one tiny redemptive feature – it at least means the formations are shown some awe and respect in the fictional world of ‘Signs’, a respect they are largely denied by most in our own reality.
For this, whatever its many flaws, ‘Signs’ deserves a little forgiveness.