Posted: Tuesday, August 06, 2002

In his latest film, the chilling aliens-in-cornfield drama, Signs, writer/director M. Night Shaymalan asks the same question he asked in his incredibly successful The Sixth Sense and in the mildly successful Unbreakable: what if it really happened? What would it really be like? Forget Poltergeist, or Superman, or even Independence Day. How would it really feel to be a ghost, or a superhero, or under the threat of of alien invasion? If Shaymalan is to be believed, all three occurrences would be accompanied by the same feeling; that of crushing sadness.

Actually, in Signs, which is excellent and frustrating at the same time, the sense of pathos that blankets the whole film is not, at first glance, a direct result of the central plot device, as it was in his previous two outings. What I mean is, the characters are not necessarily sad because of impending alien doom- it goes deeper than that. Mel Gibson is Graham Hess, a recent widower and man of the cloth, whose terrible loss has shredded his faith in God and man alike. His struggle to keep his sanity for the sake of his two small children somewhat parallels the struggle the entire planet goes through when multitudes of bizarre crop circles begin appearing all over the world, including one in Graham's own field. On hand to help out his older brother in his time of need is Merrill Hess, played wonderfully by Joaquin Phoenix. Much of the film takes place inside the family farm house, where Merrill, Graham, and the two kids play out feelings of loss, betrayal, paranoia, and loyalty against a radio and television backdrop of a world turning steadily into a 1950's science fiction movie. One of the overriding themes of the film is the loss of security, and it's not that big a stretch to imagine that much of the fear presented is borne of our own fears from just a year ago, when our sense of security really was tested. This theme runs all through the film and is effectively played out on a smaller scale between father and son, with younger Culkin brother Rory playing the disillusioned boy who has lost his mother.

Like his previous films, Shaymalan has saturated Signs with themes. The theme of loss, the theme of security, the theme of overriding meaning and order versus blind chance. In fact, he gives us so much to think about, it's a wonder he has time to tell a coherent story. And yet, it's that ability that makes him so talented and his films so fascinating. This movie's main strength is in its ability to put us in that farmhouse with the Hess family. You are there with them, and are no longer a passive member of an all-knowing, all-seeing audience. We only know what they know, and while this will irritate those of you who want to see the excitement, to experience the invasion, his technique makes for a far richer movie in the end. Shaymalan subscribes heavily to "the less you see, the scarier it is" brand of filmmaking, leaving most of the details to our incredibly fertile imaginations. By the time we reach the inevitable, but somewhat unsatisfying, conclusion, a good balance between somber family drama and alien terror all the has been achieved.

The acting in this film is well done and typically low key. So much of Shaymalan's work centers on loss and sadness, it almost seems as though his actors are moving through a fog. They are both unwilling participants in the events surrounding them, and ultimately self-absorbed. Mel Gibson turns in another fine performance after his heartbreaking We Were Soldiers, and, as I said, Joaquin Phoenix is great as a young man unsure of where he belongs in the world. The two children also play their parts well, with Culkin avoiding much of the "cuteness" that made brother Macauly both loved and then reviled. Actually, I really only had one problem with this film, and that was the end.

The Sixth Sense was great all the way through. Unbreakable was excellent all the way up to the last few seconds. Signs, unfortunately, breaks down some in its final sequence. I hope this isn't a trend for Shaymalan. I won't reveal the ending and spoil the patented "surprise," but I will say that it's not much of a twist. If you accept the film's final twist at face value (which my wife asserts is not necessary) much of the greater meaning of the movie is cheapened, and I was disappointed that such a fine filmmaker would take as easy and amateurish a road as he did. Little of this criticism makes any sense until you see the movie, but don't let it stop you. Just keep an open mind and hope that Signs doesn't foretell a downhill slide for a talented young moviemaker adept at showing us what might really happen. Grade: B+

,i>Signs is rated PG-13 for frightening scenes and adult themes.

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