M. Night Shymalan’s masterpiece 20 years later

After huge blockbuster movies The sixth sense and Unbreakable, director M.Night Shyamalan published Panels in 2002. There have been many opinions on the film over the past two decades – some call it overrated, others may call it underrated. However, for many, Panels is Shyamalan’s undisputed masterpiece. From his diverse and controversial filmography, Panels is a movie that’s actually aided by nostalgia and gets better with hindsight. Panels stands out from other Syamalan films which rely on a major narrative shift, such as its near-perfect The sixth sense, where the infamous twist has become so well-known that it doesn’t have the same impact on the viewing experience all these years later.

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Panels stars Mel Gibson as Reverend Graham Hess who abandoned his faith after his wife died at the hands of a drunk driver. He and his brother Merrill (a tall, young Joaquin Phoenix) uncover strange otherworldly happenings near their Pennsylvania farm. They take shelter and prepare for the inevitable with young Bo (Abigail Breslin) and Morgan (Rory Culkin), Graham’s children. While the film brings the alien to life and invites our eyes onto the screen with beautifully staged sequences, the characters are truly the reason we stay and keep coming back.

The characters in Panels

Panels does not feature aliens invading, destroying monuments and wiping out civilizations endlessly. In fact, we spend most of the runtime on the small farm, and the majority of the film is devoted to Graham and his family trying to survive this terrifying event.


Related: Every M. Night Shyamalan Movie, Ranked

Shyamalan does a great job of defining their motivations and developing their story in just a few minutes. There’s no excessive exposition and unnecessary dialogue to fill in the gaps in the story. In the opening shots only, our protagonist and his arc are established with just a photograph and an empty, faded spot on the wall where a crucifix once sat. With our relatable protagonist established, the rest of the characters fall into place in clever and unique ways that all align with the film’s conclusion.

Panels is pure suspense

The suspense in Panels is established through Shyamalan’s intense attention and care for detail. The creation of actual life-size crop circles near this small farm establishes the scale and potential of the rest of the film. Seeing those crop circles at the very beginning of the movie also casts that shadow of tension that doesn’t stop for the duration. The film also pays homage to classic films such as Night of the Living Dead according to an interview with Shyamalan for The Ringer:


“Panels was born from two ideas: the first was for a family to find a crop circle in their garden, then a sort of film about the end of the world, night of the living deadwhere it is from the point of view of a house.”

Shyamalan also introduces the theme of faith and how it was lost in an ancient man of God. It comes as a new callback to the classic 1973 horror film The Exorcist (not to mention Bergman winter light). In the masterpiece directed by William Friedkin, we see a man of God struggling to find his faith in the face of the supernatural. In The Exorcist and Panels likewise, both characters are forced to come to terms with their own faiths at the most desperate times when they embraced otherworldly horror.

Related: How New Exorcist Movies Can Be Good

Shyamalan uses a Hitchcock style of suspense that slowly builds throughout each sequence. Along with little bits of alien tension, we’re also given little bits of Graham’s traumatic past told through flashbacks in the form of dream sequences. While the dream sequences are sometimes used as a cheap trope and gimmick, Shyamalan uses them at very specific moments that almost mirror the beats of the main plot. The realization of what happened to Graham’s wife comes at the same time as we come face to face with the alien holding Morgan. With a climax of brilliant visual effects and a tantalizing score, Shyamalan brings the suspense to its highest and most terrifying climax in the living room showdown.

A well-crafted score Panels

James Newton Howard’s score is brilliantly crafted to build as the tension becomes more intense. Moments of suspense and horror are not accompanied by an explosive sound effect intended to force the audience to react. Instead, moments like the first time Graham sees the alien in the cornfield are paired with a subtle melody that connects one scene to the next. This allows the heartbreaking tension to follow the characters and not relieve the audience of that fear for a moment.

As the film reaches its climax, the music begins to get more intense. The classic “disturbing TV broadcast” and the close encounter in the living room have the scariest and most intense accompanying score because the film has established real tension before, and it deserves those moments of release; it never feels cheap. It also allows the audience to feel what the characters are feeling. In times when Graham is uncertain, which is reflected in the subtle score, which isn’t necessarily scary or heartwarming. However, when we, as the audience, have the assurance that what we see is real and in the flesh, the music also has the horrifying assurance.

The aliens in Panels Are meant to be imperfect

Critics of the film pointed to the aliens’ lack of proactivity and action in Panels. However, a small and subtle radio broadcast heard in the third act reassures the audience of the alien’s intentions. They want to harvest humanity and not the planet, therefore one would assume that they didn’t take the time to establish the surrounding bodies of water on the planet they invaded. This could explain why this show also indicates that the aliens have fled, leaving behind their wounded. The injured aliens, including the one who infiltrated Graham’s house, were stranded. The stranger in the famous living room scene uses the innocent Morgan as leverage to hide his fear and pain, as he recoils back and forth in front of the terrified family.

Most aliens that we fully see are hiding in the shadows or moving from place to place. In perhaps the most famous sequence Merrill sees on the news, the alien revealing himself to terrified children spent most of the time camouflaged in the trees. The alien makes a move when he knows he is being watched by the terrified children and on camera for the whole world to finally see.

Panels 20 years later

Panels has maintained immense popularity over the past two decades. It sits at the pinnacle of Shyamalan’s filmography and is one of the most suspenseful films ever made, and certainly explores a different side of science fiction. Blockbusters like independence day show a more theatrical and explosive side to an alien invasion, and other great sci-fi movies are intellectual or more terrifying with their aliens (like Arrival and The thingrespectively).


While aliens are the evil force of Panels and embody the antagonist of our human characters, Shyamalan’s film is not necessarily about them, in the same way as Jaws not really about the shark. You could say the film is about a family. However, what the film is really about are…signs. This means that the signs represent something miraculous and force the characters (especially Graham) to accept that there are no coincidences. Shyamalan is unafraid of the horror of a miracle, and how wonder at something otherworldly can also be shown through terror.

This film’s ending leaves audiences on a hopeful note, where Graham has returned to his loyal roots. There is a layer of fresh snow carrying away any impurities the aliens may have left behind. However, there is a darker thought on which the film ends. In its final moments, even in an uplifting conclusion, we are left with the idea that we are not alone, perhaps accompanied by God or aliens. Accepting this truth, along with accepting the faith, is enough for Shyamalan to close the book and fade to black.

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