How can M. Night Shyamalan's film, Signs, be seen as a work focused on the theme of identity?

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booboosmoosh's profile pic

booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I find that Shyamalan's film Signs has everything to do with identity.

In the first posting, I agree with...

...the film takes the supernatural and brings out a very human notion of identity...

I do not agree with the note from the second answer that compares The War of the Worlds to Signs. The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells deals with the near-extinction of the entire human race. The only commonality I see with M. Night Shyamalan's Signs is that simple things destroy the aliens. For "War" it's the common cold. For Signs, it's water. However, where one theme of "War" is "man vs. machine," Signs is about searching for self and forgiveness and redemption.

The War of the Worlds is predominantly a science-fiction novel. Signs is a story of a man who is searching for a way to accept his wife's death. He has lost his faith in God, which is doubly traumatic for him for he is an Episcopal "priest."

"Supernatural" does not just refer to what we see as "science fiction." The true meaning of "supernatural" is anything that is above or beyond the natural world (trees, birds, etc.). The Romantic poets (such as Coleridge, who wrote the epic "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner") wrote about the supernatural—angels and spirits. Shakespeare saw the supernatural in witches, the Devil and fairies. These writers had no concept of human flight, let alone aliens from outer space. Also, in a religious sense, the supernatural is God.

Graham Hess is trying to find the peace he knew before his wife, Colleen, died. When Graham turns his back on his faith, one can assume that God (the supernatural) assists Graham in his search. First, without God, in his feelings of doubt, and "aloneness" in the universe, Graham has to take care of his children. He is a man of fear and uncertainty. Because he has lost his faith, he does not know who he is anymore. As noted, he believes now "We are all alone." He has to believe this. It might indicate his fear to believe because if he does believe in God, why did his wife die?

Shyamalan's films never leads you directly to the place he wants you (as the viewer) to end up. He takes the long way around, and you may not at first realize his genius—even with films that aren't big hits at the box office (e.g., Lady in the Water). It is only after watching several times that his messages are so much more obvious.

Graham has lost his faith. Because it is such a large part of his life, he has lost himself. He doesn't know how to comfort his children because he has no faith and has no confidence in understanding the world as he did when he was a man of God—things don't make sense now. His wife's dying message...

Tell Merrill—to swing away... meaningless to him until he begins to believe that some supernatural force allowed Colleen to see something important just as she died. However, it is this message—which he had always thought was just the "firing of synapses" in her brain—which allows the family to fight the aliens. In essence, her death saves the family.

(Note—Merrill has also been searching for himself and his place: the incident with the bat allows him to recognize his worth as a man.)

Still, his faith is not complete until Graham is compelled to look to God to ask Him to save Morgan when he's been poisoned. The miracle of Morgan's survival allows Graham Hess to regain his faith, which is so much a part of his identity as a man—and a man of God.

This movie has a great deal to do with searching for identity.

akannan's profile pic

Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

In many ways, I can see the theme of identity as being present in Shyamalan's film.  The central scene in which this is evident is the scene where Graham and Merrill are sitting in the living room, watching the television of the "14 lights."  While Merrill understands these "visitors" as reflective of hope and redemption, Graham takes the opposite view with his idea of "We are all alone."  In this, a central paradigm about identity is evident.  How human beings possess the belief of redemption and a sense of transcendence or a forlorn sense of being abandoned are critically important elements to how the characters view their own identity.  In this, the film takes the supernatural and brings out a very human notion of identity in terms of how individuals view themselves, one another, and the world in which they live.  To this end, the film becomes a study of this element of identity.  The manner in which human beings understand their own sense of self is an element of both their own identity and the identity of others, and this debate becomes of vital importance to the development of the plot of the film.

narukami's profile pic

narukami | (Level 1) Salutatorian

Posted on

"Supernatural" does not just refer to what we see as "science fiction." The true meaning of "supernatural" is anything that is above or beyond the natural world (trees, birds, etc.).

Exactly so, and there is nothing supernatural in Signs.

The alien invaders are not of this Earth, but they are not supernatural in any sense of the word as used by the Romantics or Shakespeare, or Hollywood.

Likewise, every "miracle" in the film has a logical and very ordinary explanation.

It there is anything even close to 'supernatural' it would be the dying wire's words of advice to her husband.

Signs is a riff of the H.G. Wells book, though I will admit, I seem to be a minority voice on this point.  Yes, War of The Worlds deals with a Martian invasion bent on world domination, but what are the aliens in Signs bent on - a vacation by the lake?

What makes Signs interesting is that we watch the war from the outskirts of the action, as most humans would.  No big battles no massed armies, no tanks or alien war machines, just very common humans trying to survive and behaving in irrational ways as most humans would.

Again, I am the minority voice in seeing this connection, and you will probably receive a better grade from your teacher using the other answers as the basis for your own.


narukami's profile pic

narukami | (Level 1) Salutatorian

Posted on

The above answer is very good and it hits the point of identity right on the mark.

However, I would take exception with the notion that the film uses "the supernatural to bring out a very human notion of identity."

In essence Signs is a re-telling of the H.G. Wells classic, War Of The Worlds, but unlike the George Pal or Roland & Emrich versions here the director’s conceit is that we are watching the war from the sidelines, as most people would, rather than from the level of the Generals or politicians.  This is actually more in keeping with the story as told by Wells, and the director has done well to return to the source material. 

Of course, the question of identity is one that runs through all of Shyamalan's films (just as the question "What does it mean to be human?" is a constant in the work of Philip K Dick.) and in Signs, each of the characters is struggling with this very human question: Who am I and why am I here?  In this case, it takes a war to help these characters find the answers to these questions.  That is not uncommon, but Shyamalan uses the crucible of war to great effect.

We are not in the middle of the battle with the marines (Battle Los Angeles) but civilians caught up in something far bigger than we can understand.  This is the same story explored by the film Skyline; however, Shyamalan is not telling a story of alien invasion but of a family struggling to find themselves.  In this respect Signs succeeds where Skyline fails.  We can identify with the characters in Signs for they seem familiar to us.  Those in Skyline do not and so we make no emotional investment in them or in their struggle.

Again, the fist answer gives you what you need for this question.


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