“Is it possible that there are no coincidences?”
Perhaps not a movie that readily springs to mind when considering the subject of occultism, but nonetheless M. Night Shyamalan’s tale of mystic revelation is just filled with archetypal drama. The power of things unseen is experienced through the losses and struggles of very ordinary people living very ordinary lives. It’s just a case of digging below the surface and looking beyond the rural farming community in which this fantastical yet very human story is told.
Indeed, it is to Shyamalan’s credit that he chose a community tied to the earth within which to base his story of extra-terrestrial aggression. It’s the very isolation of the Hess family which makes their story all the more compelling, as it gives a refreshing perspective on the whole alien invasion drama, as the central characters are both far removed from and yet at the very epicentre of the action.
A pre-meltdown Mel Gibson puts in a very believable performance as the embittered Graham Hess, a lapsed preacher who’s come to believe there is little more to this world than what our own senses can reveal. Having lost his wife in a tragic accident, he can no longer accept the idea that there could possibly be a beneficent presence in the world which transcends our rational understanding. God is a ghost to him now. In philosophical terms, Hess has been forced to face the problem of suffering, and he cannot reconcile his own personal pain with the idea that redemption can be found even in the darkness.
The ever reliable Joaquin Phoenix puts in a wisely understated role as Merrill Hess, who can’t stand to see his older brother abandoning the spiritual centre around which his entire existence had previously revolved.
The seemingly routine story of loss leads to an unexpected turn of events as the Hess family find themselves barricaded inside their isolated farm while alien raiders descend upon the globe. With no real training or weapons, they are forced to rely upon their wits and each other to survive, and it slowly begins to dawn on Graham Hess that they might not be completely alone in their struggle after all. They won’t be rescued by any avenging angel, but the signs were always there.
Atmospherically shot and expertly scored, this film’s philosophical strength lies in its ability to bestow profundity upon the mundane, and to remind the viewer that all action and reaction has meaning, suggesting a higher if obscure purpose for all things. This revelation unfolds as Graham Hess finally begins to understand that he, Merrill and even the children have been subtly guided to a time and place where they can at last read the signs and save the day.
Shyamalan expertly exploits the crop circle craze of the nineties and noughties to tap into the timeless idea of an alien invasion. This psychological sleight of hand fools the viewer into thinking he’s watching a monster movie, when the real story is that much quieter and more subtle; as easy to miss as the signs themselves unless you’re really paying attention.
Although not really intended as an occult movie, the perennial message of the wondrous hiding in plain sight is extremely satisfying. It also serves as an important reminder that archetypal influences are often so subtle that it’s very hard to distinguish them from the simple activity of life itself.
Above all, this is a film that teases the viewer with the possibility that life’s coincidences are part of a larger, more complex design we are seldom able to discern. However, every now and then the veil may part, showing us a glimpse of those forces we often dismiss as mere chance or blind luck.