A movie review in a section on books? How rudely irregular!

IRREGULAR TIMESSigns of our Minds: Primal fears, thrills and carnivorous guilt in M. Night Shyamalan's latest film

I'm staying in Roswell, New Mexico for a while on business. Of course, I don't spend all my time here working, and as long as I'm here, it seems to make good sense to immerse myself a little in the only cultural fascination most of the world connects to Roswell: stories about space aliens.

Other than the UFO scene, Roswell isn't a very lively town. The domination of the military in the area squelches expressions of interesting political ideas, and most entertainment is restricted to going out to drink, and maybe boot scoot a little. These things are fine for some people, but I'm not the type, so I figured I'd settle in tonight for a movie, and picked Signs for the sake of its space alien theme.

Oh, I know, there are lots of movies with space aliens in them, but most of them tend toward the hoke of ET (kids on bicycles defeat the U.S. government and eat Reese's Pieces!) or the pat predictability of K-PAX (this guy thinks he's from outer space - is he crazy? Oh yah, baby! Crazy like a space alien!).

I really enjoyed watching Signs, and recommend it to folks who are looking for a suspenseful movie that doesn't rely on lots of on-screen killing. Oh yes, there's some violence against a space alien at the end, but the film's power does not rely on it. Go see, go see, go see.

Caveat

However much I enjoyed Signs, I've got some basic problems with its theological themes. Theologically, the film relies on the audience's willingness to agree that everything happens for a reason, even really bad bad things. Furthermore, the reason we're expected to believe everything happens for is this: God loves human beings more than anything else, and so is willing to put them through a lot of suffering in order to save them from being eaten by other creatures that he created. A strange theme for a film, I know, but there you have it: the core of Signs is God's desire that people not get eaten.

According to this film, God so much wants to prevent humans from being eaten by other things that he is willing to do such monstrous things as rip apart women with pickup trucks just so that they can deliver enigmatic coded messages to their husbands, who must protect their families from carnivores later on. I guess God couldn't just inspire these wives without ripping them apart. I guess God couldn't just write a note.

In another example of this basic theme of strangely indirect protection from being eaten, God is afflicts children with lifelong illnesses that threaten their lives just so that these won't inhale poisonous gases and thus be eaten by space aliens. I guess God couldn't just erect a force field of protection around the Earth. I guess God couldn't just ensure that all human-hungry space aliens got bad directions to the Earth using their own extraterrestrial version of MapQuest, and wound up getting lost and visiting another solar system by mistake, a solar system where the only edible creatures taste like a combination of Spam and Cheez Nips.

My favorite mysterious way in which God works to prevent humans being eaten in Signs is that God gives a little girl a weird neurotic habit of leaving half-filled water glasses all around the house just so that her uncle can break one with baseball bat while clubbing a hungry space alien, thus discovering that space aliens are like the Wicked Witch of the Mess in that water causes all of their delicious evil to melt away. (I've got a couple questions about this plot device: First, what kind of stupid alien race would forget to wear ponchos while invading a planet two-thirds of which is covered by water, and where there are frequent rainstorms, when it turns out that water dissolves them quicker than battery acid? Second, how can these space aliens eat humans, if humans are 90% water? Wouldn't that be like us eating pigs that are genetically engineered to be 90% Drano?)

I think I've figured out the basic theological concept behind Signs, and it's this: God is like a divine Ian Fleming. Ian Fleming loved to write stories about spies who are captured by their enemies, then placed into eccentric machines which would very, very slowly bring them closer and closer to certain death. God, like Ian Fleming, apparently gets a kick out of putting humans at great risk of being eaten by space aliens, while offering them slim means of escape by doing horrible things to them beforehand.

In the theological model offered by Signs, God seems to derive entertainment by watching intricate yet implausible action sequences, just like a human movie-goer. The reason that everything happens, according to this model, is that God is bored and needs to set up elaborate systems that allow certain people he likes a lot to avoid being eaten by space aliens, while most of the rest of the human species gets devoured so as to heighten the sense of drama. "Cool!" God says, "Did you see that old lady get gassed to death? I made that special effect, dude!"

At the end of the film, the main character learns his lesson. He learns to regain his faith that God has a reason for everything, and becomes a reverend again. Here's how it works, see: God kills this guy's wife so that he can save his son from space aliens, and thus regain his faith in God. Of course, this character lost his faith in God in the first place because his wife was killed. So was God's reason for killing this guy's wife so that he would lose faith in order for him to get it back after fighting off space aliens? Or was it that God has a reason for this guy to lose faith? After all, he successfully fought off all the space aliens during the time he had no faith in God. So, does God believe that religious faith is incompatible with fighting off space aliens? God truly does work in mysterious ways, like circular causation.

I ought to try this with my wife sometime: "Honey, when I said that stupid thing that made you mad at me and triggered our fight in which you called me ugly, it was just so that you would later apologize to me so that we could make up so that we could be happily married." This reason-for-everything idea could have a lot of uses!

What are space aliens for, after all?

Okay, see, the question I have is that if the basic idea of Signs is that God has a reason for everything, then what exactly is the reason God has for creating a violent race of space aliens and then sending them to invade the Earth and try to eat all its human inhabitants? No, this is not a trick question.

Here's what I have concluded the answer is: In Signs, God's reason for sending hordes of human-eating space aliens to Earth is to strengthen the religious belief that God has a reason for everything. You see, God in his infinite wisdom knows that the only way to prove to people that there is a divine reason for a woman getting torn in two by a pickup truck, for a little boy to have incurable asthma, and for a little girl to be plagued by the compulsion to leave scores of half-finished glasses of water around the house is to send a bunch of murderous space aliens that possess just the right balance of traits to convert each of these painful human experiences into a useful weapon for survival. Reverends will only believe that God has a reason for killing their wives if space aliens invade. Healthy, wholesome religious belief thus is shown to depend on invasions of space aliens! No wonder our society is growing more and more secular with every passing generation!

Sign of a hungry mind

Now, I for one think that it's pretty interesting when a filmmaker inadvertently suggests that horrific tragedies are the essential underpinnings of fervent religious faith. Beyond the cruelties of religion, what this strange idea reveals to me is that human beings tend to have a deep underlying emotional need to have their survival threatened from time to time./p>

return to irregulartimes.comWhether he intended it or not, what the filmmaker reveals through the plot of Signs are not God's reasons for making things happen, but rather our own reasons for wanting horrible, hateful things to happen. This film implies that people are at their best when they are being attacked by a monstrous threat, that people feel lost and confused by everyday kinds of experiences and need something literally out-of-this world to challenge them to rise and become their ideal selves.

At the end of the film, the characters are not just ok. They're improved by the experience of being attacked by flesh-eating aliens. It seems to me that movies like Signs are popular because we are secretly hoping for a cataclysm to come along to transform us, to rescue us from self-disappointment. We like to believe that we have untapped special abilities that just haven't had the chance to express themselves. We know ourselves simultaneously in the ideal form that we believe we are capable of and in the devastatingly imperfect form in which we actually live.

Emotionally, an invasion of carnivorous space aliens feels like a gift from God because it is an opportunity for redemption. We do not believe that we are likely to redeem ourselves when we are safe and secure. After all, we are already safe and secure, and we know that safe and secure times have failed so far to bring us to our higher potential. So, a terrible attack against us, in a surprising emotional turn-around, feels like a chance for salvation. Secretly, we're hoping for it, and that's why we love to watch movies in which everything we know and love sits on the edge of annihilation. We look forward to the chance to become the perfect heroes who can bring the world back from the brink. It's much harder to be a hero when you have to go through the usual daily grind.

Fantasies of gathering doom

Now, some of you may object to the idea, presented in the last paragraph above, that we are currently safe and secure. After all, the central theme of present-day American culture is that we are all under the threat of imminent attack from secret, hidden enemies. They could strike at any moment, we're told, and thus the government's efforts are diverted from boring, everyday problems such as a lack of health care coverage for many Americans, an under-funded educational system, the degradation of our physical environment and the increasing economic gulf between wealthy Americans and everyone else.

Yes, it's awful when three thousand Americans die in a single event. However, contrary to the popular saying, everything did not change on September 11, 2001. We only wish it did. Almost none of us are under any imminent threat of attack. A tiny, tiny fraction of Americans will be attacked, robbed, raped or murdered today, but there is no plan and only a microscopic possibility for all Americans to be attacked.

There are over 280 million of us. How could we all be attacked? Only a massive nuclear assault could attack all of America at once, and the Russians, who possess such a capability, are not our enemies (At least not yet. Stay tuned, oh reader, as George W. Bush continues to alienate and offend nations like Russia and China with his lack of attention to diplomatic details). No terrorist organization is currently capable of attacking even one percent of Americans. Terrorists don't have nuclear weapons. The United States of America does.

The plain fact that Americans struggle to deny is that 99.99 percent of us were absolutely safe and secure on September 11, 2001. Actually, 3,000 out of 280,000,000 is even less than one hundredth of a percent of the American population. Let's remember than many of the 3,000 who died weren't even Americans. Shall we compare the 3,000 who died that day to the nearly 6 billion who did not?

This perspective may seem cold and calculating, but I happen to think that when it comes to risks of attack, some calculation is in order. The idea that only a tiny fraction of Americans were not safe and secure on September 11, 2001 is offensive to us, but not because it isn't true. This fact is disturbing to us because it undermines the perception that Americans everywhere are under siege.

Americans want to feel under siege for the same reason they enjoy watching movies about cataclysmic attacks by hordes of evil monsters. Americans feel uninspired when they feel safe. They feel average and boring when they feel secure. When Americans feel seriously threatened, they feel that they have a chance to finally rise to the occasion and courageously become their ideal selves. Americans enjoy this emotional feeling even when the threats against them are fantasies.

Attack fantasy as foreign policy

I believe that the primal thrill of feeling attacked by monstrous, evil enemies is at the core of America's current policy of perpetual war. What other explanation is there for enthusiastic support by almost 50% of Americans for an invasion of Iraq by the United States?

Iraq has not attacked the United States, and has made no threats to do so. Even the American Central Intelligence Agency reports that the only way that Iraq would ever attack the United States is if the American military attacked Iraq first. Iraq has no nuclear weapons program anymore - this is confirmed by weapons inspectors. Iraq might have some biological or chemical weapons, but it has no means of delivering these weapons to the United States because Iraq has no intercontinental missiles or long-range attack aircraft. The Iraqi government and Al-Quaida are enemies. Al-Quaida recently released an audio tape which identifies the leaders of the Iraqi government as acceptable targets for assassination. Iraq is not going to hand over any chemical or biological weapons it has to a group of fanatics which has identified Saddam Hussein as an apostate who must be killed.

Even George W. Bush acknowledges that there is no imminent threat from Iraq. Instead, he refers to a "gathering storm" which will threaten the United States at some undetermined time in the future. The core of George W. Bush's military philosophy is that it is justified to invade another nation and take it over if there is a theoretical possibility that that nation could launch some kind of attack against the United States at some time in the future. However, even as the Bush Administration admits on paper to the lack of any current threat from Iraq, Bush and his aides use language that suggests that if the Iraqi government is not destroyed immediately, we could all be murdered by an evil enemy that can attack us at any time.

This idea of a lurking, invisible threat to all of our lives should sound familiar to you at this point, because it's also at the core of the appeal of movies like Signs. Americans go to see these movies to fulfill their fantasies of finding their true selves by being attacked. The same motivation is behind the belief of forty-something percent of Americans that we must muster our military strength or be slaughtered by wicked foreign terrorists hidden within our midst.

I know that there are differences between these two scenarios. Movies like Signs are mere fantasies, but an invasion of Iraq would be all too real. In the movie theater, we can sit and cheer on as a space alien is brutally clubbed to death. In real life, when we cheer on American troops as they invade Iraq, we are cheering on a real slaughter in which real human beings, including children, are being killed by our soldiers.

The other important difference between the emotional satisfaction derived from movies like Signs and from an attack upon Iraq is that in a war against Iraq, the burden of the sacrifice is taken care of for us. In Signs, the characters are forced to fight against aliens themselves, in direct hand-to-hand combat. In an invasion of Iraq, almost every American will remain safe, secure and comfortable in their living rooms, watching the war on TV. Even the American soldiers in Iraq will for the most part not be physically threatened. They'll attack from tens of thousands of feet above the ground, far out of range of the primitive weaponry possessed by the Iraqis.

Carnivore, Me

Holy cow! An attack from the sky against a technologically inferior enemy - that makes the invasion of Iraq sound an awful lot like the kind of invasion by space aliens envisioned in films like Signs. I don't think this is a coincidence.

A basic principle of psychological analysis is that when people become attracted to ideas of external struggle, it is because there is an internal struggle which mirrors the literal fight. For example, in Rocky, the main character struggles to defeat an opponent by beating him with his fists in a boxing ring. However, this literal struggle is mirrored by the main character's battle against himself, against the fallen corrupt self that his opponent represents.

Just so, in Signs, the main characters struggle, with God on their side, against evil opponents who wish to harvest the Earth and eat its inhabitants. God must hate creatures who harvest the Earth and eat its inhabitants, right? Well, actually, the main character harvests the Earth, and we all eat the flesh of other inhabitants of the Earth, don't we. We are able to judge this carnivorous behavior to be monstrous and yet engage in it ourselves by externalizing it into the form of external monsters like aliens from outer space. We hate the space aliens for wanting to eat us, yet we eat other creatures. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that our hatred of carnivorous space aliens is at least in part derived from a redirected self-hatred of our own carnivory.

A similar pattern emerges in the American government's rush to attack Iraq. We say that the Iraqis must be killed because they might possess weapons of mass destruction. However, every American knows that the United States itself possesses the world's largest arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. In fact, it is the United States alone who is guilty of using nuclear weapons against civilian populations. If weapons of mass destruction are a true threat to global security, then the United States must be disarmed. Yet, Americans are loathe to give up their own nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. We feel that we need them, and yet we hate ourselves for keeping them. As a solution to this psychological conflict, we externalize our own sense of guilt in the form of vicious Iraqis who must be destroyed. It's no coincidence that the technology the Iraqis are accused of attempting to use was invented in the United States. In a war against Iraq, we may feel that we are fighting our demons, but we're really only lashing out at shadows of ourselves.

The appeal of fantasy and the need for reality

There's a reason for everything. There's a reason that films like Signs are so popular, just as there are reasons that a large minority of Americans supports a war to devastate Iraq. These things appeal to us emotionally even though they defy rational explanation. We want these space alien and Iraqi enemies to be real because when we have enemies, we feel vital and excited. More than that, we feel righteous, able to push our own guilt aside.

George W. Bush tells us that, in the upcoming war, God is on the side of Americans and wants the Iraqis to be defeated. In Signs, the human characters come to believe the same thing: that their victory is designed by God.

Like I said earlier, I enjoyed watching Signs. It's a well-told story and a fun fantasy, and I have no problem with that. I encourage other people to watch the film and play with their own fantasies in this way. No harm is done.

Harm is done, however, when we sit back and allow ourselves to be entertained by the emotional thrill of identifying a real enemy and watching as that real enemy is slaughtered. I don't think it is okay to allow George W. Bush and his team of advisors to appeal to our vain fantasies of achieving greatness through the killing of an enemy monster. Real people are going to die if we do. Tens of thousands of them will be killed by our armies, and that's no fantasy.

Fantasy has its proper place. Our government's foreign policy is not one of them.




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