Recent alien-invasion movies seem to have forgotten that invading aliens are -- or should be -- scary. 'Skyline' and this weekend's 'Battle: Los Angeles' went the straight-action 'Independence Day' route. 'Paul' is a comedy; 'Cowboys & Aliens' looks like it will be an action-comedy hybrid. Who knows what the hell 'Transformers' was. It's a boring and disappointing trend, but it's also an excuse to look back at a movie that actually acknowledged the fact that an alien invasion would be an existentially frightening event: 'Signs.'
Everyone seems to have forgotten how scary 'Signs' was. Since the consensus on M. Night Shyamalan's career is currently unkind, what's most often recalled about the 2002 film is the silliness of the notion that a technologically advanced species of invading aliens would not be able to extricate itself from a pantry and would come unprepared for its intolerance of the most ubiquitous substance on its target planet.
These are fair but retrospective complaints, unlikely to occur to first-time viewers in the moment, especially when they're too busy creeping toward the edges of their seats. With its brilliant high concept (alien invasion as seen from the point of view of a single unassuming farm family), masterfully deliberate pacing, and brilliant use of off-screen space, 'Signs' is surely among the most frightening PG-13 horror movies of all time.
Never more so than in the overwhelmingly creepy Brazilian home video that now seems like the movie's centerpiece. The video, purportedly shot by someone filming a kids' birthday party, is aired on the news, the awestruck anchor warning that the footage may be disturbing. We see it from the point of view of the ne'er-do-well little brother, played by a pre-fake-meltdown Joaquin Phoenix. The cameraman, surrounded by a bunch of shouting children, points his camera down an alleyway and captures a brief, blurry glimpse of a greenish, humanoid shape skulking across the frame.
The scene does require context for the full effect; withholding information may be Shyamalan's greatest talent, and here is where it paid the biggest dividends. This is the first look at the alien for both the characters and the audience, but by the time it came along, the movie had already squeezed a lot of mileage out of bumps in the night, whispers in the wind, and static on baby monitors. The home video functions as at once payoff, further setup, exposition and a brilliant set piece.
But it works on its own merits, too. Shyamalan anticipated the likes of 'Paranormal Activity,''[Rec],''The Last Exorcism,' etc., while recognizing that this sort of thing works best in small doses. It's more plausible and chilling than anything in those films. ('The Blair Witch Project' preceded 'Signs,' of course, but that film was after something a bit different; it didn't use the fake home video footage gimmick for "authentic" jump scares.)
More importantly, the scene combines the fantastic with the mundane to capture how earth-shakingly frightening it would be to see an alien being traipsing down the street. Maybe another of the forthcoming onslaught of alien-invasion flicks will do the same -- my biggest hopes are for Chris Gorak's 'The Darkest Hour,' coming this fall -- but I'm not holding my breath.