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Review: Signs

Signs poster

First of all, I must be nuts to review a movie with crop circles in it. The last time I got involved with the UFO community, it touched off an interesting but time-consuming series of emails. Still, "Signs" is the number one box office movie as I write this, so a lot of folks have seen it. Also, it perpetuated a lot of science-fiction movie stereotypes, and I simply can't leave it alone, even though it's only marginally astronomy.

This review contains major spoilers for the plot. If you don't want to know any of the surprises in the movie, go read some other review!

Still with me? Okay, self-indulgent note time. When I saw "The Sixth Sense" I knew M. Night Shyamalan was going to be big. That movie was amazing: creepy, paced well, directed magnificently, and the trick ending absolutely threw me. I had no idea it was coming, and was kicking myself afterwards. "Unbreakable", his next movie, was not as good. It was interesting and moody, but the ending was too abrupt. I liked the movie, but wished he had wrapped it up in a different way.

Now "Signs". I thought this movie was just plain bad. What happened? Well, right off the bat, I thought the acting was wooden, and the direction wasn't as good as his previous flicks. Now, don't think that because this movie deals with crop circles that I walked in being unfair. I love movies like "Independence Day" (yes, you read that correctly) and other UFO flicks. "Close Encounters", for example, is one of my all-time favorites.

It just seems that "Signs" wasn't all that scary. There were some tense scenes, but at no time was I ever really frightened. Now, I've been scared at movies. "Alien" had me sitting literally on the edge of my seat. Go watch John Carpenter's "The Thing" to see the most truly well-crafted terror/horror movie of all time. But "Signs" just didn't have that spark.

Okay, that's it for my personal ramblings (and if you believe that...). Let's get to the Bad Science.

an agraglyph A crop circle appears in Mel Gibson's farm overnight. He calls the local cop, and she says "Two guys with boards and ropes can make circles the size of yours overnight... but there are so many now!"

This line made me smile. What a way to circumvent the skeptics! It has been shown pretty clearly that most if not all crop circles can be made in a few hours using just boards and ropes, as she said. There have been numerous documentaries showing just this. Even the most intricate designs can be done if the makers are clever enough. And they can be very clever indeed! Now, I do not wish to be flooded with emails talking about current research in crop circles, UFOs, vorticity and electromagnetic effects. I am merely pointing out that in the current debate, such as it is, about crop circles, it has been shown that very intricate patterns can be done overnight by just a couple of people, and these circles can have many if not all the same characteristics as any seen in circles.

The point made by the cop in the movie is that the crop circles were showing up all over the world simultaneously, and it would take a massive coordinated effort among the hoaxers to accomplish it, which seemed unlikely. I thought that was neat writing.

The boy in the movie purchases a book about aliens and their motives. It is remarkably similar to how the aliens behave in the movie. It also says that aliens would land and fight hand-to-hand. The aliens didn't want to risk a nuclear war, because that would ruin the Earth's resources, which is why they were invading in the first place.

That's some book! The author must be psychic, to be able to know how these "real" aliens behave. Anyway, accurate or not, the premise is a bit silly. As we'll see in the next two sections, fighting hand-to-hand is unnecessary. Also, they need not fear a nuclear exchange! It certainly wouldn't hurt them (spaceships designed for the rigors of space travel between stars would need protection that would probably also protect them from our weapons). Also, if they have ships that can ply their way in interstellar space, I suspect they could do something to stop nuclear-tipped missiles headed their way. We may not have the technology to create the Strategic Defense Initiative missile-shield, but aliens that much in advance of us would most likely find it pretty easy.
My thanks to several Bad Readers who pointed out that my initial reason the aliens feared nuclear war -- the direct threat to themselves-- was incorrect, and in fact in the movie they were afraid of the environment getting damaged.

Alien spacecraft start appearing over the crop circles. People are worried that this will be the start of an invasion. They're right.

This is bad tactics. If you are invading, you need to soften up the opposition first. If you are invading from space, your best bet is to drop a few hundred smallish (say, 100 meter) asteroids on the major human cities. Since you are in space, the energy needed to do this is fairly small, but the impact energies are very high. It's like dropping bombs on the cities. People would be easy pickings after this, especially if you wait a few weeks for things to really get bad for humans. This idea was used in Robert Heinlein's novel " The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" and Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's "Footfall".

Also, the ideas of crop circles as position markers on Earth is really, really silly. Can't they do better than that? We don't have spaceships that can travel between stars, but even we have global positioning systems. You'd think they could figure that out. Worse, why do this in rural Pennsylvania? I bet a suburb of Philadelphia would net more people per alien.

But then, as we'll see in the next section, these are pretty stupid aliens.

Our Hero and family, trying to stave off my evil review thoughts The invasion has begun. One person is able to lock an alien in his pantry. When Our Hero's house is invaded, he holes up in the cellar and locks the door, keeping the aliens out.

These aliens can jump from a standstill to the roof of Our Hero's house, but they can't kick down a pantry door? They plan on invading an alien planet, but didn't bring any hand weapons? They couldn't even find a crowbar? Bleah. This is just plain old bad writing. Mr. Shyamalan was looking for suspense, and for a way to get the plot moving to the Pivotal Final Scene, and didn't fill in any of these kinds of glaring plot holes. Normally, small plot holes don't bug me, but c'mon! These aliens have incredibly advanced technology. They can't figure out a lock?

Of course, Our Hero isn't too much brighter. Why didn't he call the cops before confronting an alien in the pantry?

We find out that the aliens have an Achilles Heel: water is like acid to them. In The Pivotal Final Scene, Our Hero's brother splashes water on the alien, killing it.

Take a look at a map of the Earth. What do you see? Water! 75% or so of our planet is covered in water. It's in our air, in the rocks, in all the plant life. Would you consider invading an alien planet that was mostly, say, sulphuric acid? I think you'd either find a protective suit or check your starmap for the nearest other invadable planet. It's just plain silly to think that aliens who die when contacted by water would invade us.

Worse, and I mean really worse, they invade because they are harvesting us, presumably to eat us. We are actually over 80% water! One bite and it's bye-bye alien.

This bit ruined the movie for me. It's such a glaring plot hole that, in my opinion, it just negated anything else that might have been positive in the movie. It's really amazing to me that no one thought of this small problem when making this flick.

I don't expect every movie to be nitpickingly accurate over every agonizing detail. But I do expect there to not be plotholes big enough to orbit a planet through.

Conclusion and Links

I was really hoping this movie would be as good as "Sixth Sense", but it wasn't even close. I don't have too many problems with some inconsistencies in a movie, or even comic-book type aliens (again, I liked "Independence Day"), but this was so bad and so obvious that I was groaning out loud at the end of the movie.

There were some good moments. My favorite scene was when Our Hero's family is eating dinner. The walkie-talkie, which has been picking up alien signals, is sitting on the table. During dinner, it starts picking up the signals again. The camera pans back to show the walkie-talkie, and sitting next to it is a big heaping helping of mashed potatoes. I can't be sure (I haven't seen any remarks about it in magazines) but I suspect this is an homage to the very famous mashed potatoes scene in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind". I got a big smile when I saw that.

But that smile was pretty rare. I certainly would not recommend this movie in the theater, and it might be marginal as a rental when it comes out. I might rent it eventually just to hear the special features on the DVD, but that's just idle curiosity. Other than that, give this movie a miss.

There are some good webpages that relate to the movie.

  • The official movie site has lots of flash animation and the usual movie site features. Some neat crop circle images are there too.
  • Metacritic's website, with links to many other reviews of the movie. Roger Ebert loved it, saying the ending wasn't forced! That's weird; the ending of "Signs" was arguably one of the most forced of all time.
  • is a website by some self-proclaimed circle makers. Amazingly, it was the first site in Google when I typed in "crop circles"; I figured I'd find a UFO-believer site first.
  • This site fits the bill better. I found lots of, um, interesting info there, including a FAQ that has some history of crop circles.
  • The CSICOP website has lots of skeptical articles about crop circles as well.

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