Wednesday, August 29, 2012

'Signs': UFOs, TV, and Hyperreality


By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers

Hollywood was slow to catch onto the ‘crop circle’ craze. The often spectacular formations (most common in the South West of England) had been making international headlines for over two decades and the theory that they were of extraterrestrial origin had been widely discredited in the mainstream media by the time director M. Night Shyamalan made Hollywood’s first – and, to date, only– crop circle blockbuster. Signs(2002) was the industry’s first major UFO film since the events of 9/11 and its fear-based narrative situated the alien threat directly within the American family home. Inspired by speculation in the UFO community in the 1980s that crop formations were alien navigation coordinates, 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, Shyamalan’s film exhibits a deeper -- perhaps subconscious -- awareness of the UFO phenomenon and the effects of its mass-mediation in post-modern America.

In the film, the lives of a farming family in rural Pennsylvania – headed by old-fashioned priest and widower Reverend Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) – are thrown into turmoil when a crop formation appears overnight in their corn field. From blanket 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 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”;1implicitly aware of this, Graham opts to sever his own access to media representations of the events, leaving him free to interpret them 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 terror prompts him to submit 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.”2
Glued to the screen: The Hess family.

As the family watch “live” footage of numerous UFOs over Mexico City, Graham’s brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), in reference to the generic UFO believers he had mocked in an earlier scene, quips: “the nerds were right.” Shyamalan’s decision to have the alien craft arrive over Mexico City is clearly 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. At least 15 people filmed the objects from different locations and, despite their thorough investigation by the Mexican media, the sightings were never explained and have since become a text-book case for UFO researchers.3Signs 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 traumatised by a daylight encounter with an extraterrestrial in the Brazilian city of Varginha.4
Several scenes later, the whole family has succumbed entirely to the transcendental, reality-defining 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 that the postmodern media do not simply provide, “secondary representations of reality; they affect and produce the reality that they mediate,”5and that, “all events that ‘matter’ are media events.”6

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, for many people, difficult to accept; not because of what UFOs may represent (alien life), but because of how the phenomenon has been mediated (i.e. ridiculed) for over 60 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.
Terrifying and comforting: ET on TV.
The extent to which the family’s perceptions of UFOs have 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 only as media constructs? In Signs Shayamalan seems to answer the question with a question: “in today’s hyperreal society, does it make a difference?”

Signs differs from most films in the UFO subgenre in Shayamalan’s bold decision to engage with the UFO subject through the intellectual framework of spectatorship and hyperreality, and, 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.”7

Copyright © 2012, Robbie Graham

1. John Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction (Fourth Edition) (University of Georgia Press, 2006), p. 136.

2. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity: Translated from the Second German Edition by Marion Evans, 1890, xiii, in Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 1967, Marxists Internet Archive.

3. Dolan, UFOs and the National Security State: Volume 2, pp. 559-560.

4. Matt Moffett,Tale of Stinky Extraterrestrials Stirs Up UFO Crowd in Brazil,’ The Wall Street Journal, 12 July, 1996. Available at:

For a popular accounting of the ‘Varginha Incident’, see Roger K. Leir, UFO Crash in Brazil: A Genuine UFO Crash with Surviving ETs (California: The Book Tree, 2005).

5. John Fiske, Media Matters: Everyday Culture and Media Change (University of Minnesota Press, 1994), p. xv, in Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, p. 135.

6. Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, p. 135.

7. Ibid.

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