When subtext is the soul

When M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs came out, I encountered several people (critics and acquaintances alike) who complained about the illogicality or plot holes in the alien invasion story. Let it be known that I find no such flaws, and I find it a perfectly thrilling “threat-from-worlds-beyond” tale. My real issue with such complaints, though, was that in dwelling on the invasion storyline, these people were failing to grasp what was, in my opinion, the actual story of Signs. Namely, the restoration of a man’s faith and family.

I guess, in fairness, that “story” would be better labeled the “subtext” of Signs. The plot and premise are inarguably concerned with alien invasion. But it begs the question in such instances (and there are many) of what the story is exactly: is it the movement of dramatic events on the film’s surface, or the subtler things happening to the characters in between and because of those events?

I find that I love many films for their “subtext,” films that are disliked (or at least judged) for their surface plot. In such cases, the critic or fellow filmgoer and I are essentially talking about two different films. Critics scorched What Dreams May Come for its flaccid New Age handling of death and the afterlife. I saw a film that paints an interesting portrait of the life to come, but one that is primarily about a man who rescues his wife from slavery to pain by joining her in it. To me, What Dreams May Come is all about love, relationship, and the endurance of hope—the afterlife elements a mere (albeit creative) backdrop for those themes.

It certainly requires a powerful, and powerfully executed, subtext to redirect our focus from a film’s foreground to its background (or is it the other way around?). But much like I can embrace a film with a strong story and questionable (or even bad) science, I can easily embrace a film with a gripping subtext even if the surface story has weaknesses. It’s true that oftentimes subtext is belatedly or obligatorily soldered onto a film (name your favorite unnecessary, paint-by-number love interest)—but sometimes it is the very soul of a film. And I propose that it is better to judge a film—as it is a person—by its soul, rather than by its face.