Signs – James Newton Howard – Soundtrack Review
This week I will talk about a fabulous score for a controversial movie from a controversial director, but from a non-controversial composer. I attended James Newton Howard’s “Three decades of music for Hollywood” at the Royal Albert Hall in London on October 9th, 2017 and had great fun listening to his music and his stories about the various movies he composed the music for. He is a great guy and a very gifted composer, and I was touched by his heart-warming and humble attitude.
“Signs” (2002) is an American science fiction horror film written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. After his box-office hits “The Sixth Sense” (1999) and “Unbreakable” (2000), both with Bruce Willis, Shyamalan changed the male actor to Mel Gibson. I read that Shyamalan thought that Gibson was more suitable for this role. Even though this movie was criticised, e.g. for the finale and for the visualization of the aliens, I like this movie more than the following ones by Shyamalan such as “The Village” (2004) or “Lady in the Water” (2006). I am not sure if I was perhaps just spoiled with the previous ones, but after “Lady in the Water” I did not watch any movie from Shyamalan anymore. Perhaps I should start again?
In “Signs” Mel Gibson plays a former priest named Graham Hess who discovers a series of crop circles in his cornfield. Hess realizes that these circles are a result of extra-terrestrial life. Hess lives together with this younger brother Merrill, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and his asthmatic son Morgan (Rory Culkin) and his daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin) who leaves glasses of water around the house. Merrill is a failed baseball player, and Hess has lost his faith after his wife Colleen died in a traffic accident caused by Ray Reddy, played by Shyamalan. Here is the trailer:
When the aliens begin to attack the house of the family, Gibson and Merrill have to fight back. The whole alien attack is not shown with a high amount of special effects than in other SF movies. Shyamalan concentrated on the personal conflicts within a typical American middle-class family and created with “Signs” a very intimate movie. The seriousness of the plot and storytelling resulted in a parody, “Scary Movie 3” with Charlie Sheen.
“Signs” was the third time that James Newton Howard worked together with the Indian director. When introducing this music in the concert, the composer sat at the piano and played the famous three-note motif. When I saw the movie in the theatre, I was immediately caught by this haunting and minimalistic motif. When Newton Howard played this theme, it was even more obvious how great this theme is in its simplicity.
The composer followed the intimate storytelling and used this minimalistic approach during the whole score. Therefore, the music is not written for a big orchestra and mostly features suspense music with some outburst of the orchestra for the frightening moments. The “Main Title” starts with the strings and introduces the three-note motif. With this track that soon gets dramatic and scary, the tone for the whole score is perfectly set. A fabulous start! Here is the main title:
After this start, we have with track 2 “First Crop Circles” a more lyrical piece. It is astonishing how flexible the three-note motif is. In the main title, the composer used it for scary music, here it is used in a more intimate way.
However, the haunting feeling still exists. Track 3 “Roof Intruder” starts with sudden suspense music. Listen especially to the part from 1’00 when we have a shift in the music. Track 4 “Brazilian Video” is again suspense music, but this time for one of the most surprising scenes. Here is the scene:
Track 5 “In the Cornfield” is with over five minutes one of the longest tracks. Here, we have the theme mostly played by the piano. Track 6 “Baby Monitor” is one of the shortest, but also one of the most beautiful tracks, one of my all-time favourites.
Track 7 “Recruiting Office” continues with quieter music and has from 1’10 one of the most beautiful moments of the score. Track 8 “Throwing a stone” is another five-minute suspense track with a nice woodwind section from 3’07, before track 9 “Boarding up the House” underscores the preparation for the alien attack. Track 10 “Into the Basement”, another five minutes piece, brings us first some peaceful moments before we get back to the scary parts.
Track 11 “Asthma Attack” is the last track before the grand finale (track 12 and 13 “The Hand of Fate - Part I & Part II”). This track starts with a shocking moment and continues with more lyrical music. “The Hand of Fate” underscores the final confrontation between the family and the aliens. We see that this attack is a revenge by one of the aliens because it was hurt by Gibson before. The music features the biggest outburst of the orchestra and the greatest performance of the three-note motif. Before that, the music slows down while we see a flashback about the accident of Hess’ wife.
These final tracks are a masterpiece and a benchmark of how to create suspense and very emotional moments with minimalistic but very effective music that scares the hell out of you. It is astonishing how James Newton Howard is able to use the three-motif in a scary, then soon in a peaceful way that underscores from 5’01 the victory over the hostile intruder. Even though this finale does not have the surprising moment of “The Sixth Sense” or the disturbing and philosophical context of “Unbreakable”, it works because it brings the plot to a convincing end.
“The Hand of Fate – Part II” closes the album and underscores that Gibson had found his place and his faith again. Some users commented this finale with “miracles exists”. As a result what he have seen, it is convincing that Hess found his faith again. For another user, the water might be a symbol for Holy Water and the aliens a symbol for demons. Anyway, there is more in this scene to discover. So, if people are just angry because of the fake visualization of the alien, they did not get the idea of the scene.
“Signs” is still one of the best films by M Night Shyamalan, and even though I have to admit that “Sixth Sense” might have the better plot and twist, I like “Signs” better, and the three-note motif is the biggest reason for this.
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