Signs (2002)

B- SDG

One way to describe the thrillers of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan would be to say that they all seek to combine thrilling excursions into the paranormal with effective human drama and character exploration.

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2002, Touchstone. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Mel Gibson, Joaquim Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin, Cherry Jones.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value

+2

Age Appropriateness

Teens & Up

MPAA Rating

PG-13

Caveat Spectator

Menacing scenes and some violence; some crass language and minor profanity; religious questioning.

Shyamalan’s 1999 breakthrough film, The Sixth Sense, was a great success because it succeeded both as a genuinely creepy ghost story and also as the affecting tale of troubled relationships involving an odd little boy, his worried mother, a troubled psychologist, and his seemingly estranged wife. I’ve just watched The Sixth Sense for the third or fourth time, and it holds up well.

So far, unfortunately, Shyamalan’s subsequent efforts haven’t managed to combine these two elements with comparable success. Unbreakable, his 2000 follow-up film, offered an intriguing take on the mythology of comic-book super heroes, but lacked the humanity and heart of The Sixth Sense.

With Signs, Shyamalan’s latest effort, the writer-director has the opposite difficulty. Signs has the heart that was lacking in Unbreakable, but stumbles badly in its treatment of the paranormal, in this case the world of "X-Files" / "Twilight Zone" sci-fi. Glaring practical problems increasingly sap the movie’s plausibility, until eventually suspension of disbelief becomes possible only by not thinking about it.

Fortunately, the movie does have other things on its mind. Like Shyamalan’s last two films, Signs continues to explore the director’s fascination with characters who have somehow failed or fallen from something better and live in the shadow of what once was even as they struggle for redemption. Shyamalan’s last two protagonists were husbands with failing marriages (one said he "used to be" a good doctor); this movie gives us a widowed ex-priest (Mel Gibson) who’s lost his faith and a washed-up ball player (Joaquin Phoenix, Gladiator) whose stubborn insistence on swinging for the bleachers earned him record stats for home runs and strikeouts alike.

Graham Hess (Gibson) lives on a farm in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his two children, precocious Morgan (capable Rory Culkin of the Culkin clan) and precious Bo (adorable newcomer Abigail Breslin). The neighbors still address him as "Father" despite his protestations that he’s no longer a priest. Graham no longer says grace at meals, and a telltale cross-shaped mark on a bare bedroom wall bespeaks the empty God-shaped hole in Graham’s heart. Merrill (Phoenix), Graham’s brother, is living with the Hesses in the wake of their loss.

The movie opens late one morning as Graham and his brother awaken with a start (what disturbs them is unclear — as is what they’re doing sleeping in when they live on a farm) and run outside, where they find large swaths of their corn crop bent to the ground in strange, elaborate geometric shapes. (It’s worth mentioning — since the movie doesn’t bother — that the real-life crop circles made by clever hoaxters have always been made in grassy grains like wheat and oats; the strength and stiffness of the mature cornstalks would make it hard to attribute the phenomenon in the film to hoaxters.)

Later, when it becomes clear that similar crop circles are appearing all over the globe, Graham and his family have to consider the possibility that this time it may be the real thing. In one of the film’s most memorable exchanges, Merrill, accustomed to looking to his older brother for inspiration, asks Graham whether they’re living through the end of the world. Graham’s noncommittal response leads to an intriguing discussion of the difference between looking at the world through the eyes of faith and looking through the eyes of unbelief. This discussion is all the more poignant because Graham knows and understands both points of view — and chooses unbelief. Yet his unbelief will be tested just as his faith was; and how he responds makes for some of the film’s best moments.

Unfortunately, the movie’s religious and philosophical motifs are wedded to paranormal thriller elements that are impossible to take seriously even on their own terms.

Whether there really are aliens in the film — and, if there are, whether they’re hostile or friendly — is something you shouldn’t learn about the film from a review. But at any rate there’s a scene in which Graham and Merrill believe that there are or may be aliens coming to their house with hostile intent; and they respond by boarding up the doors and windows. Can any intelligent person seriously think that an alien raiding party capable of interstellar travel is going to come unequipped to deal with a lightly boarded door?

Later, there’s a scene in which the brothers stand fearfully in the hallway, arms protectively around the two children. If you thought aliens were breaking into your house to get you and your children, wouldn’t you try to do something to protect the children — hide them, perhaps, and try to arm yourself?

One of the pleasures of The Sixth Sense was that it offered a satisfying explanation of what precisely the ghosts wanted and why. You’ll look in vain for such insights in Signs. In fact, the few details the movie does propose only add to the incredulity. I don’t want to go into particulars, but given the specifics of what the movie finally proposes, it’s hard to view the movie’s terrors as particularly terrifying at all. My four-year-old son, armed only with a certain plastic toy in his bedroom, could easily defend himself from a threat of this sort. (It didn’t help that one of the key ideas about the aliens was glaringly similar to a parallel plot device from Unbreakable.)

For many viewers, the climax will be the most problematic and off-putting aspect of the film. So many seemingly unrelated points come together so suddenly that the effect almost inevitably seems contrived. I’m especially dismayed to find that details introduced as character quirks are suddenly turned into plot points. I appreciated certain things about these characters, and wanted the characters to be that way for their own sakes, because it made them vivid, real characters. When it suddenly turned out that the real reason Shyamalan gave the characters these quirks was for the sake of his ending, I felt somehow cheated.

In spite of these weaknesses, Shyamalan and his cast are gifted enough that the film remains more than watchable, and as with his other films I’ll probably see it more than once.

Antisocial Aliens, Drama, Religious Themes, Science Fiction, Thriller

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