Signs begins silently, the Touchstone logo gives ways to a black screen. Finally, the shrill dissonance of a lone violin cues the fade-in of a lone light source. The orb light allows stark black credits to be read while foreshadowing the play on flashlights that will occur throughout the film. There is nothing incredibly complex about the design of the sequence. Still, the elegiac violin resonates in time, rhythmically, with the light source which glows and then dims as a dying flashlight would. This sequence constantly barrages spectators with alternating moments of light and dark. This interplay of flickering light and shadow is a self-reflexive reminder of the film's own projection. Signs' main character Graham will have to open his mind and reconcile the impossible in this suspenseful mystery. Darkness breeds terror and Signs is a film that is at its core one of lightness versus darkness. More to the point, the round light source foreshadows the visiting alien beings. It graphically mirrors the shape to be found in the crop circles. It signifies dawning knowledge and understanding that comes from learning and enlightenment as in Plato's Allegory of the Cave. As James Newton Howard's score crescendos into a Bernard Herrman-esque symphony, Shyamalan is playing the audience's expectations like Hitchcock and his proverbial piano.
The narrative is fairly classical in its design. A wounded antihero must undergo a significant rite of passage in order attain the necessary growth as a character to reclaim his standing, power, and sense of identity. In this case that antihero is Reverend Graham Hess, a man who gave up his belief in God after a terrible accident claimed the life of his wife. He lives with his goofball brother Merrill; a failed professional baseball player, and Graham's two precocious children on their farmland. When strange crop circles begin appearing in the corn fields, the family struggles to understand what has made them and the larger implications of why they have been made.
The film begins, post credit-sequence, with Graham awakening alone in his bed in the dark. He tours the house completing rounds like a security guard where the mise-en-scene steps up for visual storytelling. The opening sequence is wordless and scoreless allowing the ambient sound of Graham's wake-up routine to dominate. The sparse sounds of his footsteps and breathing emphasize the loneliness. The walls are worn and gray and there is a lack of warm light. The farmhouse does not strike spectators as being particularly inviting from the get-go. The most telling shot in the opening sequence is a static that frames the bathroom doorway just left of center. The frame is devoid of human figures (although the soundtrack features the sound of Graham's urination off-screen). The emptiness leads the viewer to scan the frame for important information: why is Shyamalan showing this to me? After a moment the careful viewer will observe markings on the wall from where a crucifix had been removed. The idea being that this object had adorned the wall for so long it protected the area beneath it from aging. It sets up the plot point that Graham Hess has recently given up on God.
A piercing scream cuts through the somber opening. Graham stamps through the house (again wordlessly). His brother Merrill is awakened from a deep sleep and shoots out of bed like a Chaplin-esque silent comedy star. The men tear outside and for the first time dialogue is spoken, sparsely, when Merrill asks, "where are they?" The loaded question alludes to a lot more than just the missing children as the film will ponder. Still, the single line of dialogue indicates that this will be a story focused primarily on the family unit. The Hess children scream for father and uncle Merrill from deep within the cornfields. Graham and Merrill charge after them through stalks of corn taller then themselves. It is in this opening sequence that the predominant style and visual motifs of Signs will be established.
|(Characters continually stare into off-screen space)|
|(refusal to make eye-contact)|
|(Framing the family unit)|