"Star Formations and Alien Invasions: Mel Gibson and Signs"

Article excerpt

"You actually hear what Jesus said in his original language. You hear what Peter said and what Mary said. And that's gripping," exclaimed Rev. Ted Haggard, executive director of the National Association of Evangelicals, after viewing The Passion of the Christ, released by Icon Productions, a corporation owned and managed by actor-director-producer MeI Gibson ("Gibson's film," CNN.com). Relating the events of the final twelve hours in the life of Jesus Christ, featuring mostly unknown actors, and filmed entirely in Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic, the film was the subject of heated controversy before and after its Ash Wednesday 2004 release because of concerns over its vilification of Jews, a perspective that the pronouncements of the second Vatican Council attempted to halt in their reforms of the early 1960s. While Gibson vehemently denied these accusations, he also self-identifies as a "traditionalist Catholic" who rejects the liberalization of the Catholic Church Vatican II reforms, and who recently built his own $20 million house of worship in Malibu, where mass is held exclusively in Latin. As Christopher Noxon recently wrote in a New York Times piece, Gibson's father is also reported to refute the Holocaust.

The connection between the actor-producer's political agenda and the film project at hand is overtly foregrounded by the conditions of reception that surrounded the film before its release. According to a report from cbsnews.com, Gibson has argued that "my intention in bringing [the story] to the screen is to create a lasting work of art and engender serious thought among audiences with diverse faith backgrounds." Yet the fact that the audiences selected for prerelease screenings were limited to conservative and evangelical authorities, and that Gibson and his publicists denounced the Catholic and Jewish evaluators of an early version of the script who criticized the project on political grounds, hardly suggest the production head's concern with facilitating an open debate on Biblical interpretation. Notwithstanding this prerelease controversy, the film opened to largely positive reviews across the nation, and Gibson's self-proclaimed anxieties that the film might be a "career killer" were immediately quelled when The Passion of the Christ returned grosses of $125 million in its first week and over $370 million domestically in its first year of release. It remains the ninth highest grossing film of all time, with current worldwide grosses of over $600 million.

In its obsession with an authoritative Biblical reading, the righteous sense of self-evidence inherent in presumptions of such authority, and a conservative political perspective disguised as natural, true, and right, The Passion of the Christ is in many ways the logical culmination of a pattern in Gibson's work and thought that has been developing for several years and across many of his recent film projects. This culmination is clearly predicted by the Gibson film that preceded it, M. Night Shyamalan's science fiction film Signs (2002), a film that, thematically and politically, also actively concerns the attempt to control the production of meaning and interpretation. To a genre whose efficacy relies upon the ability to entice viewers to imagine unknown worlds and to participate in the construction and experience of unreal "scenes," Signs brings us a domestic, family melodrama that uses the threat of alien invasion as a means of eliciting its protagonist's personal crisis of faith.

This paper offers an analysis of Signs through an examination of not only the narrative and political strategies that the film itself sets into play, but also, and more specifically, the place that this science fiction family melodrama provides for the emergence of its central star persona in the greater context of the various star texts that have constructed "Mel Gibson." In addition to his role as ex-Rev. Graham Hess in Shyamalan's film, this context incorporates the body of Gibson's projects since his introduction to American audiences through the post-apocalyptic fantasy of George Miller's The Road Warrior (1982), the promotional and publicity discourses surrounding the star, and the more than tenuous connections between the fictitious and the real that such discourses propose with respect to the actor and the film's plot. …