Inspired by the crop circle phenomenon, the 2002 movie Signs draws broadly from the UFO mythos and, in one of its more comical scenes, has three of its characters huddled together in tinfoil hats, wracked by paranoia. Beyond such cliché, however, M. Night Shyamalan’s film exhibits a deeper—perhaps subconscious—awareness of the UFO phenomenon and of the effects of its mass-mediation in the post-modern world.
In the film, a Pennsylvanian farming family—headed by old-fashioned priest and widower Reverend Graham Hess (Mel Gibson)—is thrown into turmoil when a crop formation appears overnight in their corn field. From TV news coverage we learn that hundreds of similar crop ‘signs’ have appeared suddenly and simultaneously around the world, baffling experts. Graham is quietly concerned and seeks to distance his family from the inexplicable events unfolding around them by refusing them access to the media circus now spoon-feeding the hungry masses. “See, this is why we’re not watching TV,” says Graham, “people get obsessed.” For Graham, despite the undeniable physical reality of the sign in his corn field, and his own gut instinct that something strange is afoot, it is only through their mediation by TV news reports that the bizarre events can assume a sense of the ‘real.’
Discussing Jean Baudrillard’s notions of hyperreality, John Storey notes that, “Representation does not stand at one remove from reality, to conceal or distort it, it is reality”; implicitly aware of this, Graham opts to sever his own access to media imagery, leaving him free to interpret the outside events as he chooses and to continue to inhabit his own secure, albeit emotionally stagnant, reality. It is only when Graham catches a glimpse of an alien in his corn field one night that he submits to his family’s desire to be mediated (“Okay, let’s turn on the TV”). It is Graham’s submission to television that plants him firmly in the “present age” to which Feuerbach refers in The Essence of Christianity: an age “which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence...” For Graham, the grieving widower and priest faced with an incomprehensible threat to his family, now, more than ever, “Illusion only is sacred, truth profane.”
As the family watch live footage of numerous UFOs over Mexico City, Graham’s brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) quips: "the nerds were right"—a reference to the generic UFO believers he had mocked in an earlier scene. Shyamalan’s decision to have the alien craft arrive over Mexico City was inspired by the real-life mass-sightings of UFOs over this same locale during the solar eclipse of July 11, 1991 when hundreds of people witnessed what appeared to be a number of hovering, metallic, disc-shaped objects. Signs again draws from the UFO mythos during a scene in which Merrill reacts with horror as the TV news runs grainy, daylight footage of an alien prowling the backstreets of Paso Fundo, Brazil. This is an oblique reference the famous "Varginha incident" of 1996 in which three teenage girls claimed to have been traumatized by a daylight encounter with an unearthly entity in the Brazilian city of Varginha.
Several scenes later, the whole family has succumbed entirely to the mystical power of their television as they stare passively at the numerous “lights” now hovering over Washington DC and over hundreds of cities worldwide. Such is the magnetism of their TV screen that, rather than driving to the nearest city in an attempt to see the lights for themselves, or even simply stepping outside to glance up at the sky, the family considers it more natural to watch the events on television and, most importantly, to record them. “We have to tape this,” urges Graham’s son, Morgan, “this is very important... the history of the world’s future is on the TV right now,” telling his younger sister Bo (Abigail Breslin), “We need to record this so you can show your children this tape and say you were there.” Clearly, the Hess family understand, as theorist John Fiske does, that the postmodern media do not simply provide, “secondary representations of reality; they affect and produce the reality that they mediate,” and that, “all events that ‘matter’ are media events.”
As the saucer-shaped lights twinkle overhead, the anchorman informs viewers that “This image has not been adjusted or enhanced in anyway. What you’re seeing is real. It’s unbelievable.” Later in the film, Graham asks himself, “Is this really happening?” Such dialogue points to an awareness on Shayamalan’s part that the literal existence of UFOs is difficult to accept, not because of what UFOs might represent (otherworldly intelligences), but because of how the phenomenon has been mediated (i.e. ridiculed) for over sixty years. Shayamalan’s concerns along these lines are expressed subtly in his decision to confine his UFOs and aliens securely to his characters’ TV screen as objects of media scrutiny for all but a few seconds of the film’s total running time.
The extent to which the family’s perception of UFOs has been historically mediated is also effectively illustrated through their inability to envisage what horrors might be unfolding beyond the four corners of their TV screen. When both their television and radio cease to function as a result of the unseen invasion outside, in the total absence of media to guide their perceptions, the Hess family are lost, as demonstrated when a terrified Merrill asks: “What’s going on out there?” A question to which Graham can only respond: “I can’t even imagine.” Indeed, in an earlier scene, when Merrill does attempt to make use of his imagination, he can’t help but fall back on iconographic imagery conjured by classic UFOlogical fiction, describing the scenes on TV as being “like War of the Worlds.”
During the film’s climax in which an alien intruder holds Morgan hostage in the Hess family’s living room, Shyamalan again chooses to objectify the aliens through television—this time quite literally. When Graham finally sees the alien up close it is in the form of a reflection in his TV screen, and, again, when the creature is defeated and lies dying on the floor, we see only its reflection in the glass of the television. Are aliens real, or do they exist purely as media constructs? In Signs, Shayamalan seems to answer the question with a question: “in today’s hyperreal society, does it even matter?”
Signs is an anomaly in the UFO subgenre. Consciously or not, it engages with the UFO subject through the intellectual framework of spectatorship and hyperreality. As a meditation on UFOs as a media abstraction (viewed most comfortably through the filter of television), the film serves as a reflection of popular attitudes towards the phenomenon today, demonstrating that, when it comes to UFOs, even Hollywood in its mass-mediation of the phenomenon is acutely aware that there is no longer a clear distinction between a ‘real’ event and its media representation.