SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Faith or the lack of it?

Mel Gibson in a scene from the film `Signs'.

Mel Gibson in a scene from the film `Signs'.  

HOW "serious" a filmmaker can one consider M. Night Shyamalan to be? A leading British playwright remarked to me a year ago: " `The Sixth Sense' is a film about nothing." I drew her attention to the script's links with Andrei Tarkovsky's classic "Solaris", and forgot the conversation — till I saw "Signs" last week, and saw even more tantalising links with Tarkovsky.

In "Solaris" a manned mission lands on a planet covered by a mysterious ocean. Soon, Earth realises something strange is going on with the mission. Research is not getting done; there are rumours about bizarre happenings. Earth sends a psychologist to investigate. He finds the cosmonauts oddly furtive. Then the psychologist sees her: the woman he loved, who died on Earth some time ago. He spends the night with her and then kills her — because even though her goodness and love for him seem totally real, she has to be an impostor. But she comes back to life, he kills her again — at one point he laments, "I am getting tired of these ... constant resurrections". In the end, the humans leave the planet, defeated by its mysterious, profoundly subversive life force.

To me "The Sixth Sense' did almost exactly what "Solaris" did at a more populist level, using ghosts instead of aliens. Both films explore the way we interpret our mysteries, and how we can be more frightened by a love that is higher than we can understand, than by the greatest evil. The aliens in "Solaris" and the ghosts in "The Sixth Sense" reach out benignly, and man shies away.

An interesting aside: "The Sixth Sense" also reminded me of a short story I read long ago, in which the narrator is the ghost of a woman just murdered by her boyfriend's lover. The ghost describes how she haunts her blood-stained murderess out of her mind and into a police station. Only to find that she is not dead — she, the narrator, is the murderess, and her victim's ghost has haunted her out of her mind and into the arms of the police. I do not know if Shyamalan ever read this story ...

"Signs", like "Solaris" and "The Sixth Sense", is about faith. Graham is a priest who has lost his faith in God after the death of his wife a few months before. To help his grieving family, his brother Merrill, a failed baseball hero, has joined Graham and his two kids in their farmhouse. One morning, Graham's little daughter Bo wakes him up to say that there's a monster outside her room and could she have a glass of water? He gives her the glass. Bo has a fetish for "clean" water, and the home is littered with her half-filled glasses. Soon, the aliens come — in formations of huge spaceships that hover over the earth. The family finally boards itself up in an attic-like room, with the aliens trying to break in. Graham's son Morgan has an asthmatic attack and they can't get his medication from the next room. On the radio they hear that the aliens have been secreting small amounts of poisonous gas, and killing large numbers of people. But a tribe in the Middle East has discovered a way of "defeating" them, as a result of which the aliens are leaving. At the same time, the aliens around their house also depart.

They rush out to get Morgan's medication, and find that one alien has stayed back. He has been watching the family from before the invasion. He grabs the unconscious Morgan and holds his strange wrist above Morgan's nose. Merrill takes his baseball bat off the wall and waves it threateningly at the alien, who immediately sprays the boy's nose with gas from a pipe in his wrist. Merrill hits the alien: he discovers that water burns the alien's skin, and swings at Bo's glasses so that their water falls on the alien. The alien collapses: Graham rushes his son out into the open air: because of the asthma, the gas had been unable to reach the lungs. His son is unharmed.

Graham's family has been saved by its three "weaknesses": Morgan's asthma; Merrill's pent up energy with the bat; and Bo's water fetish. The film closes with Graham going back to the priesthood.

What many viewers miss about "Signs" is a twist in the end. I believe there is a half-twist: a possibility, whether Shyamalan is conscious of it or not, that can be traced back to Tarkovsky: a possibility that whispers on after the movie is over. What if the aliens were just trying to help? What if the gas directed into Morgan's nostrils were designed to aid his asthma, rather than kill him? That would explain the fact that the alien, when being threatened and then bludgeoned, does not lift a finger to harm Merrill, though he has plenty of time to do so. The only moves he makes are of gentle, slow avoidance. Only a few days before, this alien was making giant crop circles and jumping onto the cottage's roof to escape detection: if he had been malevolent, he could certainly move more quickly. This would also explain the sudden departure of the aliens everywhere: that they were trying to help, and were beaten back by man's misunderstanding.

The closest the aliens are shown to violence in the movie is when, as they approach the house, Graham's dog outside barks ... and her barks trail off into squeals, and into silence. Then there are sounds of aliens breaking into the house. Apart from this, there is only the radio report mentioned earlier, which could be the kind of mis-reporting, and mis-mythologising of an encounter with another civilisation that we know from history is almost inevitable.

In "Solaris', fear and interpretation of the unknown are similarly at issue. The human understanding of the nature of the universe, at the most fundamental, emotional levels. Is the alien intelligence malevolent, or benevolent? The ending of Tarkovsky's "Stalker" was similarly a play on one's faith. The final act of "telekinesis" the audience witnesses could be genuine: or it could be an idiot's belief that he is moving an object across the table with mind power when actually it is powered by the vibrations of a passing train. Perhaps the most important trait that Shyamalan and Tarkovsky share is their ability to live with the knowledge of the self-propagating nature of faith, and lack of faith, and the entire fascinating spectrum of human experience in between. It is an ability that also enables them to allow the audience to make their own version of what their movies say.

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