Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Signs As An Example of Compatiblism

Signs is one of my favorite movies, largely because of the philosophical issues raised in the film. Since I’ll be addressing them, I should warn everyone right now:

Major Spoiler Alert!

In fact, if you haven’t seen the film (it came out in 2002, so there’s no excuse for you!) and wish to do so, then don’t read anything that follows.

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan (before he lost his talent), Signs tells the story of an Episcopalian minister, Rev. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) who has a crisis of faith after losing his wife Colleen (Patricia Kalember) in a tragic accident. Graham’s brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) moves in to help Graham raise his two children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). But all this happens chronologically before the opening scene of the movie.

The Hess family was excellently developed by Shyamalan. In addition to Graham’s struggles with having lost his faith, Merrill is the story of a great baseball player who could have been. He has the record for the longest home run (and the bat is proudly displayed in the Hess house), but also held the record for most strike-outs. As a result, he’s going through life as a sort of drifter, and in one scene he’s flipping through brochures for the Army.

Bo has an odd phobia of water—she takes two sips and says, “This water is contaminated” and puts the glass down. In one scene, Graham finds two glasses of water and picks them up to return them to the kitchen when he finds several other glasses on another cabinet. In frustration, he gives up and leaves all the glasses where Bo puts them.

Morgan is the closest person resembling a “normal” boy, but he has asthma, which makes him somewhat physically weak—a failing he makes up for with his intelligence.

With this backdrop, the story unfolds. The movie opens with children’s screams of terror. Graham and Merrill rush out to find Graham’s children, and discover a crop circle in their farm. This unnatural phenomenon sets the stage for the action of the movie.

The title Signs obviously refers first to the crop circles; they are signs used by aliens to navigate on Earth for a hostile takeover. If that was all the movie depicted, it would be little better than an expensive B-movie. But they are much more than that, as viewers discover. Indeed, while it is almost certainly not M. Night Shyamalan’s intention, Signs eventually becomes one of the greatest illustrations of deterministic compatibalism ever released in Hollywood. The question was first raised in an interaction between Graham and Merrill after alien lights are seen in the sky. Graham says:

People break down into two groups when they experience something lucky. Group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence.
They see it as a sign...evidence that there is someone up there watching out for them.

Group number two sees it as just pure luck, a happy turn of chance. I'm sure the people in group number two are looking at those lights in a very suspicious way. For them, the situation isn't clear. Could be bad, could be good. But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they're on their own. And that fills them with fear.

Yeah, there are those people. But there's a whole lot of people in the group number one. When they see those lights, they're looking at a miracle. And deep down, they feel that whatever's going to happen, there'll be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope.

So, what you have to ask yourself is, what kind of person are you? Are you the kind who sees signs, sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or look at the question this it possible that there are no coincidences?
After Merrill assures us “I'm a miracle man” he asks Graham where Graham stands. After trying to avoid the question, Graham finally responds:

There is no one watching out for us, Merrill. We are all on our own.
After this exchange, the aliens turn hostile. The Hess family boards up their home and is eventually forced into their basement. While there, Morgan has an asthma attack and Graham realizes in horror that Morgan’s medication is in the kitchen, unavailable. Graham stays with Morgan through the night, trying to calm his son. It brings him to his breaking point. Graham, in the basement, is as low as he can go physically, spiritually, and emotionally. He looks up to heaven, thoughts of his wife clearly on his mind, and says:

Don’t do this to me again. Not again. I hate you! I hate you!
But after venting his anger at God, Graham continues, trying to soothe his son:

Don’t be afraid of what’s happening. Believe it’s going to pass. Believe it. Just wait. Don’t be afraid. The air is coming. Believe. We don’t have to be afraid. It’s about to pass. Here it comes. Don’t be afraid. Here comes the air. Don’t be afraid, Morgan. Feel my chest. Breathe with me. Together. The air is going in our lungs. Together. We’re the same. We’re the same.
And Morgan stabilizes through the act of belief. Then morning comes.

The family has a radio and learns that the attack is over. Humans have found a way to defeat the aliens, but the news doesn’t know what it is.

Morgan is still in trouble from his asthma as the Hess family come out of the basement. And as Merrill goes to get his medication, Graham retrieves the TV so they can watch the news, when a remaining alien captures Morgan. As Graham stares at the alien, he has a flashback to the night his wife died, and everything clicks into place:

And here, literally in the last ten minutes of the film, comes the payoff. All the things that occurred beforehand have explanations. Why did Colleen die? So that Merrill would move in with his brother. Why was Merrill able to do so? Because he held the strikeout record and couldn’t make it in baseball. Why did Bo have her strange water phobia? So water would be all over the house in the time of need. Why did Morgan have asthma? So that he never inhaled the poison the aliens secreted. And why did Graham go through his crisis of faith? So that in the end he could “see.” When Morgan asks if someone saved him, Graham responds: “Yes, I think someone did” (a definite reference to God).

The movie then wraps up after some amount of time has passed. Children’s screams are heard again, but this time they’re screams of joy. And Graham leaves the bathroom wearing his priest’s collar, his faith restored.

Within the context of the story, all the events are determined. By this I don’t mean that M. Night scripted the events—obviously that’s true, but irrelevant to our discussion. Instead, if you consider the story as if it were true, the end is still deterministic. It all served a purpose, and there were no coincidences.

More importantly, however, and what sets this movie apart from others such as Final Destination is that this determinism is not fatalistic. That is, the characters are not trapped by fate and unable to alter their final destination no matter how hard they strive. Instead, every single member of the Hess family behaved exactly as they would have under those circumstances. Indeed, they acted freely and were never coerced.

Yet they did exactly what was determined that they must do.

As the characters proceed through the story, there is no indication that they feel that they are being manipulated by some higher power or purpose. Bo’s water phobia, for instance, is never perceived as being intended for some end result; it’s just a “weird tick” that she has. It is only in the end, looking back, that the hand of God can be seen working through all the events that occurred.

As a result, Signs exemplifies the Christian concepts of predestination, foreordination, and compatablistic free will.


  1. Awesome illustration. I'm definitley going to use this one!

  2. Good thoughts here and good for illustration's sake. Have you seen the more recent film "Knowing" with Nicholas Cage? It has the same compatibilistic overtones and seems to serve as another good illustration of this concept.

  3. Mark,

    I haven't seen Knowing yet, although I believe Steve has (if I recall, he did a review of it and how it related to Ezekiel). It is on my list to watch, however. :-)

  4. Is this the same movie that's about an alien race fatally allergic to water, who, despite having the advanced intelligence required to mount a planetary invasion, choose to invade a planet where the 25% of its surface which isn't water gets repeatedly showered with deadly H2O on a regular basis?

    Just checking...

  5. Yes. Although it's possible that sea water isn't harmful and only pure water is (but yeah, you'd still have to account for the rain and air humidity--you'd think they'd have brought, I dunno, space suits 'n stuff). Furthermore, how can an advanced civilization make it to another planet and conquer it without knowing how to get through locked doors?

    That's why I said if it weren't for the philosophical redeeming value, this would just be nothing more than an expensive B movie :-D Still, the positives far outweigh all the negatives IMO.

  6. I always thought Night's Village movie was a good one about the spiritual perils of separatist fundamentalism. That's just me.

  7. Oh, and in response to the aliens taking over a watery planet. I understood they were just kidnapping people in a "Mars Needs Women" fashion and leaving. They weren't like the bonehead aliens in "War of the Worlds" who didn't take into consideration germs when they launched their attack.

  8. I've been telling people exactly what you posted since I first saw Signs in the theater. What I find even more interesting is if you compare the philosophical undertones of Signs with Minority Report, which came out that same summer. Signs is all about predestination, etc. Minority Report is all about free will. Signs is by far the better movie.

  9. Bah! I missed this all along, I was too caught up in the sci fi aspect (and plot holes) to see what was being said. Thanks Peter! Oh... and what about Lady in the Water?

  10. Lockheed,

    I haven't seen that one. My friends have offered mixed reviews. My brother told me you have to take it as a fairy tale and then its a good movie.

    All I know is I watched The Happening and it's the first time I've ever asked for my money back from a movie. it wasn't because the movie offended me, but because it was so...what's the word? Oh yes--stupid. I don't know what M. Night was thinking when he did that movie. Thankfully it wasn't his first movie, or we'd never have gotten his good stuff.

  11. Seth said:

    What I find even more interesting is if you compare the philosophical undertones of Signs with Minority Report, which came out that same summer. Signs is all about predestination, etc. Minority Report is all about free will.

    Speaking of Minority Report, James Anderson has a cool review.

  12. I agree, I think this is MNS's best movie, and it is still one of my all-time favorites, and the predestination presentation is the number-one reason.

  13. Fred,

    I've also seen The Village. While there were some obvious plot holes, I thought it was in many ways a fine movie. Distinctive in a way that so many forgettable, interchangeable blockbusters are not.