We’ve all heard the jokes about the aliens in “Signs” and their inexplicably shortsighted decision to invade and wander naked through a planet that’s 71% covered in a liquid that can kill them from mere physical contact. But coming from a director who consistently asks us to regard his stories with a childlike acceptance of the impossible, such causes for incredulity are practically part and parcel with the underlying message.
To appreciate an M. Night Shyamalan film on any level other than the ironic requires a leap of faith, and as this recent video from Like Stories of Old demonstrates, the director will often ask as much from his characters. For Malcolm Crowe in “The Sixth Sense” and David Dunn in “Unbreakable,” this faith concerns the fantastical stuff of genre fiction, be it ghosts or superheroes. In the case of former reverend Graham Hess, the embittered lead of “Signs,” this faith takes the more traditional form of theism, but more generally, it’s a belief in the notion that the universe has order and meaning, even when its plans are beyond our comprehension.
Like psychologist Malcolm Crowe dismissing his young patient’s otherworldly visions as delusions and Graham Hess blaming the crop circles outside his house on local kids, Shyamalan’s heroes will often try to fit strange new phenomena into narratives they can understand, until reality forces them to alter the stories they tell themselves. Think back to that famous scene in “The Happening” when Mark Wahlberg’s character converses with a houseplant. Does he honestly believe that the plant can hear him? Probably not, but when the world no longer makes sense, sometimes it takes a little experimenting to find a fresh narrative that fits with the reality before you.
Of course, Shyamalan isn’t above letting his own ego sneak into his mystical musings, and it certainly doesn’t help that the man’s message, though usually earnest, can sometimes come in the most clunky of forms. Take the risible moment in “Devil” (a Shyamalan-produced work for which he provided the story) when toast landing jelly-side down is presented as proof that the Antichrist is near. Is it really the viewer’s fault if they can’t leave their skepticism at the door and accept this silly notion on its own terms, or does the responsibility lie with the film to convince us of the absurd? Perhaps Shyamalan already answered this question in “Lady in the Water” when he sentenced a cynical movie critic to be mauled to death.
To be fair, this particular filmmaker knows all too well what it’s like to be on the receiving end of such a slaughter, and the critical reception to “Glass” suggests a partial return to the old status quo. But if “After Earth” was somewhere he had to go to in order to make “Split,” then perhaps this latest misfortune was all part of a larger plan that we just don’t see yet. As Father Graham himself might say, swing away, Shyamalan.