The Essence of Faith – What Signs Was Really About

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In the opening of Signs we meet Graham, a man who lives a quiet life on a farm outside Pennsylvania with his two children and his brother Merrill. One morning he awakens to find mysterious
crop circles in his cornfields. While at first dismissed as a prank, it gradually
becomes clear they are signs pointing towards an imminent extraterrestrial invasion. What in God’s name is going on? I think director M. Night Shyamalan does a
remarkable job at telling a story that begins with a sense of wonder and then slowly builds towards a much more serious feeling of existential dread. But while most discussions have focused on plot-related issues surrounding the specifics of the alien invasion, there is a deeper story here that I feel hasn’t been given the same attention; a story about how we give meaning to the world, and how we struggle when that meaning is lost. This story is established in one of the very first shots, where a cross-shaped mark on the wall reveals a belief that was once there, but is now gone. Please stop calling me father. Indeed, as we learn later; Graham used to
be a reverend until his wife died in what to him felt like such a random and meaningless
accident, that he gave up on his faith. The arrival of the extraterrestrials then
doesn’t just serve to tell a suspenseful and entertaining story, but the series of
extraordinary events and inexplicable coincidences that follow these lights in the sky also challenge
Graham’s resolve on its deepest, most existential level, thereby revealing the fundamental questions
of chance and meaning at the core of our lives. So today, I want to examine how Signs develops
its story from the mundane, to the extraordinary, and ultimately; to the metaphysical, and how in doing so, it creates a reflection of the different ways human beings make sense of the world around them, and gives us a meaningful exploration into
the essence of faith. See what you have to ask yourself is, what
kind person are you? Are you the kind who sees signs, sees miracles? Is it possible that there are no coincidences? I. Acts of Meaning Where are they? Dad! Uncle Merrill! It is no coincidence that Signs starts with
a real life phenomenon. When crop circles first received their widespread
popularity in the 70s and 80s, these natural sources of the unknown were understandably exciting, and even a bit menacing. Despite now considered to be harmless pranks,
seeing as most of them were never claimed, they still retain a sense of mystery even to this day. And it is with this sense of wonder that Signs begins. It was strange finding the crops that way. The kids were confused by it, and, it’d sure take the strangeness away if I knew it was just Lionel and the Wolfington brothers messing around, that’s all. Immediately we witness the basic human function
of constructing meaning from experience; of taking an event and placing it within a larger
context that renders it comprehensible. So what happened to your crops? In this case; Graham assumes the circles in
his cornfield were a prank by some local boys, thereby turning the strange encounter into an event that’s little more than a break from the ordinary; just enough to confuse the kids, but not enough
to cause any real worry. In his book Acts of Meaning, Jerome Bruner
draws attention to the importance of narrative in this process of making sense of the world around us. One of its crucial properties, he writes, is that “it specializes in the forging of links between the exceptional and the ordinary.” Can’t be by hand, it’s too perfect. Doesn’t sound much like Lionel Pritchett
and the Wolfington brothers. This is what we see in most of the first act
as Graham and his family struggle to find a fitting narrative to explain the crop circles
and the strange events that followed them. Lionel Pritchett and the Wolfington brothers are back. What is interesting here is that each person
clearly has their own vocabulary, their own set of reference points to construct a story. How certain are you that this was a male? Oh, I don’t know any girls who could run
like that. I don’t know Merrill, I’ve seen some of
those women on the Olympics. Take for example how Merill shapes his theory
on the intruders based on his own physical capacity, It’s just, I’m pretty strong, and I’m pretty fast, and this guy was just toying with us. and compare that with how Officer Paski
includes a different incident to turn two exceptional occurrences into
one understandable narrative. An out of town woman stopped by the diner
yesterday afternoon, she scared a couple of the customers.
No one’s seen her since. And my point is, we don’t know anything
about the person you saw, and we should just keep all possibilities available. To get their minds off the strange events happening
around the farm, the family makes a trip into town. Be back for pizza in 15. Besides serving as an effective way to expand
on the backstories of our main characters, the sequence is also used to further illustrate
how everyone uses their own personal frames of references to solve the mystery, and possible
threat, of the crop circles which are now revealed to be appearing
all over the world. Hearing the townspeople’s thoughts therefore
doesn’t really teach us much about the crop circles, but we are learning something about them. We learn about the bookshop owner who watches the news but only sees an insidious advertising campaign. They’re trying to sell soda’s, it’s
plain and simple. Been watching these reports since morning,
I have seen 12 soda commercials so far, 12! We learn about the religious pharmacy girl who sees the crop circles as a sign of the end of the world and desires to confess her sins. Please, I need to clear my conscience. And we meet the army man who, unsurprisingly,
sees the whole thing unfolding as a military operation. I’ve got it figured, it’s a military procedure. You send out a reconnaissance group, make
sure things are all clear. Clear for what? For the rest of them. While these individuals appear somewhat confident
in their belief of what’s going on, that isn’t to say that the process of
constructing meaning is easy. On the contrary; when it comes to finding
answers to the deepest questions of life, especially in the face of hardship and suffering,
this task can feel quite impossible and even lead to an existential crisis. And unfortunately for our characters; as they
confront the reality of an alien invasion, this is exactly the kind of crisis they’re about to face. II. Staring into the Abyss There is a turning point in the film where
the up until then almost titillating speculations surrounding the mystery of the crop circles
are replaced with the dread of actual alien invaders. But besides posing as a physical danger, the
invasion doubles as an assault on the constructs that give our lives order and meaning. Their presence signifies that which escapes our ordinary language and leaves us staring into the abyss; forced to make sense of that strangeness, that unknown, which, almost by definition, cannot be grasped, except perhaps by looking for meaning
in the largest possible context. People break down into two groups when they
experience something lucky. In this pivotal conversation between Graham and Merrill, Graham divides people into those who see the universe as inherently meaningless where things happen as the result of random chance. For them, the situation is a 50-50. Could be bad, could be good. And into a second group of people who believe
in more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence that there
is someone up there, watching out for them. It is interesting that Graham bases his distinction
on the experience of a lucky event, because the question of whether or not there is someone watching over us and thus; whether or not the universe is ultimately meaningful, is of course much more challenging
in the context of bad fortune. But then again, Graham’s refusal to frame
the question as such is understandable knowing the tragedy that caused him to lose his faith. What do you know? Hello Ray. When we meet Ray, the man responsible for
the tragic accident that killed Graham’s wife, we see that he too has been struggling
with the same questions of chance versus fate. It had to be at that right moment, that 10,
15 seconds when I passed her walking.. Considering the almost impossible coincidence
of the accident, he does wonder if it really was just random chance. It was like it was meant to be. Graham however, isn’t yet willing to consider
it in such terms and specifically mentions the insensible last words of his wife as a
sign of ultimate meaninglessness. Tell him to see. You know why she said that? Because the nerve endings in her brain were
firing as she died, and some random memory of us at one of your baseball games just popped
into her head. And tell Merrill to swing away. There is no one watching out for us, Merrill. We are all on our own. But there’s more at stake than Graham’s
personal beliefs, for it also becomes clear that his crisis of faith is causing a rift in the family. We see the first signs of this when Graham
wants to leave the house to move someplace he believes is safer, but his brother and
children disagree and side against him. All those in favor of home raise your hand. This is ridiculous. While here the conflict is based on a rather
practical decision, it signifies the deeper divide between Graham and the other members of his family who have not lost their faith and are still looking to Graham for guidance
and security. Couldn’t you pretend to be like you used
to be? Give me some comfort. It’s a beautiful way of showing how our search for meaning does not take place in a vacuum but is intrinsically connected to those around us. It shows how much of our sense of self is
given validation by being shared, by being acknowledged by someone else. As a reverend, Graham used to be play an important
role in helping others find that comfort, What’s the matter with everyone? Eat. Maybe we should say a prayer? the value of which becomes undeniable when we experience its absence in what might just be the film’s
most heartbreaking scene. I’m not wasting one more minute of my life
on prayer, not one more minute, understood? It’s happening. III. The Essence of Faith As the aliens try to break their way into the house, Graham and his family flee into the basement, where Morgan suffers a serious asthma attack. I know, it hurts, be strong baby,
it’ll pass, it’ll pass. Having forgotten his medication, Graham does
his best to help his son breathe. It is the first time he acknowledges God again,
albeit it in anger. I hate you, I hate you. And who can blame him? After all they’ve been through, surely he is not going to lose another loved one as the result of some stupid happenstance? Fortunately, they survive the night. And as the sun rises, it appears the alien
invaders have left. But just as they’re about to sigh in relief,
there is one final test waiting for them. An alien has captured Morgan and is about
to inject him with poison gas. For a moment, time comes to a halt, and then
suddenly, it all falls into place. Now, to fully grasp the meaning of Signs’
finale, we must turn to the work of Viktor Frankl. I’ve talked about his book
Man’s Search For Meaning before; I explored his general thesis on our longing for purpose, and examined the more specific topic of finding meaning in a time of suffering. I have, however, not yet discussed his thoughts
on the question of ultimate meaning. Frankl begins by acknowledging that as far
as science goes, we have not yet found an ultimate meaning
to our existence. However, he wonders, given the potentiality of multiple dimensions beyond our limited experience, whether this absence of observable ultimate meaning really implies that we should assume it doesn’t exist. He asks us to imagine a horizontal plane
with multiple isolated points that don’t appear to have a meaningful connection. These points serve as symbols for the things
we at first sight considered random events; like Morgan’s asthma,
Merrill’s baseball record, Bo’s weird habit of leaving glasses of water
around the house, and the insensible dying words of Graham’s wife. Now consider a vertical plane representing
a for us inaccessible higher dimension that intersects with the horizontal plane
and in doing so, places the random points on a curve that does
reveal a meaningful connection. Swing away Merrill. Note that this is not an argument for the
existence of ultimate meaning, Frankl merely explores its potentiality
as a way of reminding us that not everything can be explained
in definitive terms. There will always be an irrational rest, that
which is fundamentally unknowable. Therefore, he poses that if we cannot answer
the question of ultimate meaning intellectually, we as may well do so existentially. And it is at this point that we find
the essence of faith. Frankl writes; “Vis-à-vis the fact that it is equally conceivable that everything is absolutely meaningful and that everything is absolutely meaningless, in other words, that the scales are equally high, we must throw the weight of our own being
into one of the scales.” See what you have to ask yourself is, what
kind person are you? Are you the kind who sees signs, sees miracles? Is it possible that there are no coincidences? And this concludes the ending of Signs; it doesn’t propose factual evidence of ultimate meaning, there is no explicit hand of fate, there is only Graham choosing to see the signs, choosing to again see the world as meaningful. Because ultimately, that is what Signs was really about. It’s a film about recognizing the narratives we create to find meaning in a universe that refuses to provide us with one, about finding stories that bring us together,
that give us strength, give us hope. It’s about acknowledging the grand mystery
of our existence and being open to all possibilities, even the possibility that someday, for us too, there’ll be a moment where the up until then random dots marking the course of our lives suddenly reveal themselves into a pattern that defies
our most reasonable sensibilities, leaving us with an experience that is,
for all intents and purposes, a miracle.

 

17 Responses

  1. Like Stories of Old

    December 29, 2018 1:51 pm

    My last video for 2018, what a year it has been! A big thanks to everyone who watched/liked/subscribed/shared…etc., and to all of those who have been following the channel for a while; what were your favorite videos of this year? What do you hope to see in 2019?

    Reply
  2. Victor de Levy Oliveira

    July 15, 2019 9:27 pm

    Most of his films are about faith and humanity… lady in the water, for exemple. Thank you! Your channel is awesome!! Cheers from Brazil

    Reply
  3. Tom Davison

    July 19, 2019 2:51 pm

    Beyond the deeper narratives you’ve so excellently highlighted, Signs is also a great example of how pacing and a foreboding unease around the unseen, creates a deepening suspense more scary than any jump scare or evil nun could ever hope to be.

    Reply
  4. Ahmad Fakih

    July 23, 2019 10:22 am

    The statement that "it is equally conceivable that everything is absolutely meaningful and everything is absolutely meaningless…" doesn't mean that there's an equal chance that for example a certain religion is right and that universe is meaningless. You see when you talk about a meaningful universe you should add a specificity, so the chance that the universe is meaningful will be distributed over all these specific idealogies and religions that most of the times contradict each other leaving little probability for each. While the chance that the universe is meaningless is only one. So don't search for a meaning for the universe through myths and legends, but rather create a real meaning for yourself in this real life by influencing the world and the people around you.

    Reply
  5. Daniel Nenadovic

    August 13, 2019 6:26 pm

    I love your videos, Signs is one of my favorite movies, and you’ve explained part of why. There is even more meaning in the final conflict in that the alien that takes Morgan is missing its two middle fingers – it’s the same one that Graham found locked in the pantry and whose fingers he cut off in fear. While its kin have retreated, it specifically stays behind to take vengeance, and in doing so damns itself to die.

    Reply
  6. rembeadgc

    August 18, 2019 2:30 pm

    Very interesting. I didn't go to see the movie because what the promos seemed to communicate was a mediocre treatment of a well worn subject that didn't seem to bring anything fresh or of depth to it. Now that I've heard this take, I'm happy to know that there was some depth attempted. Mel Gibson's acting falls flat and is all on the surface for me, so I wouldn't see it, in large part, because of that. To have to focus on someone, as a central character, who looks and feels like they're going through scripted motions is…ugh, especially Mel G. With the deeper meaning you shared… my "real life" take (not that MNS was trying to say this) is that we, human beings are the crop circles in this universe, along with all other physical phenomena, that communicates some order and purpose beyond randomness, but "science" itself doesn't directly reveal the meaning behind it all. As exploratory ability grows it only reveals more intricacy within the mechanics of us and the universe. However there is no mystery regarding the connectedness of events. There is nature, with it's strict cause and effect connections based on the implied purpose in it's design, and then there is people who universally and consistently apply their inner universe to the outer universe. There is no mystery "on the ground" as to what is happening. The only mystery exists when human inner dissonance obscures one's inner vision to see a convergence with a transcendent Creator. The only "thing" that seems to fret about it's purpose and meaning is the human being. We have no evident reason to believe otherwise.

    Reply
  7. Xathian

    August 22, 2019 4:11 pm

    Glad to see more people finally coming around to Signs. I honestly feel it is one of the most underrated and misunderstood movies of recent times. It's by no means flawless, it has many issues from script to acting but there is so much more to it than many gave it credit for, it was eviscerated by so many people treating it as a low action alien invasion movie, I was just about the only person I could find at the time of release that enjoyed it.

    Reply
  8. TheSalamikid

    August 29, 2019 4:02 am

    I just happened upon this channel. I subbed. My only regret is not discovering this channel earlier than I did but so grateful that I finally did. Thank you

    Reply
  9. Chris Nelson

    September 17, 2019 10:37 pm

    7:31 I've basically had this happen.

    Never found out who they where or even saw them. Just the reflection of their dogs eyes as they hid to the side of the path.

    Only knew to look because I saw a shadow shift in the near pitch blackness ahead of me and switched my flashlight app on.

    Found it really creepy that I couldn't see the person but I knew they where there. There wasn't enough cover for them to be hidden with my flashlight on.

    I just saw the dog with it's lead held aloft and the lead just vanished into the air.

    When I said hello the dog growled so I turned and went back the way I came.

    This was about 3am or so. Don't think it was just a dog as the shadow I saw moving in the darkness that put me on edge was too high for that.

    Reply
  10. Jason C.

    September 23, 2019 7:51 pm

    There are no coincidences when M. Night writes it that way. Also, when he cameos himself saying, "[I think they don't like water.]" Odd choice of planet to invade, but okay…

    Reply

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