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Signs   A-

Touchstone Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin, Cherry Jones, Patricia Kalember, Jose L. Rodriguez.

Review by Rob Vaux

Submitted for your approval: M. Night Shyamalan's continued effort to become the heir apparent to Rod Serling. Shyamalan once compared his films to feature-length episodes of The Twilight Zone, and his considerable talents seem tailor-made for the sort of mind games that Serling perfected. His technique sometimes gets the better of him, seducing him into craft for craft's sake, but the skill on display is never in dispute. His latest film, Signs, is another showcase for those sensibilities, providing a story wherein the artifice becomes a natural part of the drama. Shyamalan might not be up to Serling's level yet, but Signs represents a big step forward.

The film is ostensibly science fiction, though it uses few special effects and spends the vast majority of its time in a single farmhouse in Pennsylvania. It's a plot that could have been told on a global scale, and had it fallen into such grandiosity, it would have been doomed. But wowing us with visuals is not on its mind. Instead, it revels in pacing and atmosphere, creating unbearable suspense with simple filmmaking techniques. It uses a lot of cheap "boo-gotcha" shock tactics, but also develops some genuinely clever scares, often with nothing more that sound effects and the actors' expressions. More importantly, Signs doesn't settle for merely setting a creepy mood. At the end of the day, it's primarily a character study, placing a troubled former preacher (Mel Gibson) and his family in a truly incredible situation and watching how they react. The situation is less important to Signs than the way it affects the movie's protagonists, and therein lies its strength.

In the abstract, Signs concerns the appearance of a crop circle on the property of the Hess family, whose patriarch Graham (Gibson) is undergoing a crisis of faith. His wife was recently killed in a car accident, and he has begun to doubt the existence of a higher power. But then come the giant symbols -- pressed into the corn with inhuman force -- and reports on the television of hundreds of other circles appearing all over the world. "It's like War of the Worlds," Graham's brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) whispers, and the film elegantly toys with our fears that he may be right. The family's two impressionable children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin) have their own theories, but what is truly out there in the corn? Does it pose a danger to these fragile, damaged people, and can Graham face such extraordinary circumstances without the strength of his religious beliefs?

Shyamalan's scripts are always intricately plotted, and this one proves no exception. It includes a lot of peripheral elements that interlock together in order to create the final product. In the past, that complexity has bitten him a bit, resulting in an impressive mechanism rather than genuine drama. Signs shows many of the same tendencies, but escapes them through the nature of its material. Its various subplots all serve a purpose: Graham's eldest son has asthma; his daughter leaves half-drunk glasses of water around the house ("They're contaminated," she insists); his brother used to play minor league ball. Each of these elements plays a pivotal role in the unfolding story, yet their naked artifice is more than just plotting. They key directly into Graham's struggling faith. Are they just unrelated facts? Or do they serve some larger purpose, something linked to those ominous symbols out in the field? Graham battles with these questions as the tension slowly builds, trying to unravel a scheme he can barely fathom and which may only exist in his mind. Watching him try to piece it all together proves far more engrossing than any spaceship or alien attack. Signs features some truly scary moments (a piece of video news footage, shot at a Brazilian birthday party, may be the most unsettling thing you'll see on-screen this year), but uses them as the garnish, not the main course. The aliens are simply a fulcrum to get at deeper issues, and Shyamalan shows enough discipline to lay off the cheap gratification in favor of meaningful meditation on a serious subject.

The cast provides invaluable support in this endeavor. Gibson may be incapable of giving a bad performance, but lately, his talents have been wasted in some mediocre movies. Signs provides him with a proper showcase, which he takes full advantage of. Graham is one of the most interesting characters he's played, and also one of the quietest. It's the sort of role he should pursue more often. The other performances are uniformly strong (Shyamalan retains his Midas touch with children), and the smart dialogue plays to their talents. The result is an eerily suspenseful, deeply absorbing piece that works as a treatise on spirituality as well as a solid sci-fi thriller.

Shyamalan has chosen this sort of filmmaking as his meat and potatoes, and it appears unlikely that he will change in the near future. I used to believe his magic tricks might get dull, but Signs shows no signs of creative fatigue... and even hints at a much broader range to come. Even if it doesn't, his grasp of his chosen genre has few peers in this day and age. Like The Sixth Sense, Signs is the work of a first-rate filmmaker; I eagerly await whatever he chooses to show us next.

Review published 08.05.2002.

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