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In M. Night Shyamalan’s latest glossy creepfest, Signs, Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a minister who takes off the collar after the random cruelty of an absurd universe comes directly home: He’s lost his wife in a horrible road accident. In Big Dumb Movie terms, what this man clearly needs is a cosmic test of faith that will return him to the church. Maybe aliens. Yeah—as long as Shyamalan doesn’t show ’em, because whereas shadows and creakings are scary, a guy in a rubber suit is not.
Well, two out of three is the best the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable can do; however much this crafty child of Hollywood has learned from those who outgross him (but not by much), he’s the kind of director who can’t resist. He can’t resist putting himself in his movies, he can’t resist creating psychologically perfect nesting places for the uncanny, and he can’t resist giving us a full-frontal alien when we were just fine with the shadows and creakings and the occasional, wonderfully icky claw.
Signs is a fan’s reworking of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, little homages and cheap bouquets to the original tucked into every corner. Graham cares for his two children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), with the help of his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), and apparently oversees a wide-spreadin’ crop of corn on his beautiful farm in Bucks County, Pa. (Shyamalan’s hometown pride in Philadelphia is something to cheer about in this age of New York/L.A./London or bust.) No one seems to do much farming, but that’s probably due to the facts that Graham is haunted by his wife’s death, bedeviled by townies who insist on calling him “Father,” and uneasy around his preternaturally self-possessed offspring. The children, both adorable actors with big eyes and serious voices, are not the threat, but their sober good sense is another of Shyamalan’s weak spots: He can’t resist the idea of resourceful kids who are in touch with the fantastic, even if that means one of them dispatches the family dog with a barbecue fork when things start getting weird.
Merrill, too, is perched on a psychological fulcrum—he’s a record-holding former minor-league baseball star whose impulsive hard swings drummed dreams of the big time out of his head. The elder Hesses are both good men with strengths they’ve let lie fallow—until, of course, they’re challenged on a huge scale when they find a peculiar sigil pressed into their cornfield. In a series of scenes that Spielberg should have patented—the family dinner interrupted when little saucer-eyed Bo announces that she needs help finding the TV remote because “the same thing’s on every channel,” an old baby monitor spitting like a wildcat with otherworldly signals—Graham is roused from his cozy domestic coma. Apparently, crops are getting flattened all over the world, and, soon enough, lights are seen hovering over multiple cities. It isn’t long before the three auxiliary Hesses are wearing foil caps to keep their innermost thoughts free from alien invasion.
Shyamalan could have had fun with the process of worldwide panic, but he confines the response to the farmhouse and the occasional news report. On a bigger canvas, the film would have not only lived up to its pulpy potential but also felt at least marginally likely. The director lets the certainty spread too quickly—the mere presence of crop circles isn’t the harbinger of an attack but the guarantee of one—and he avoids showing its external effects: late-night hosts cracking jokes, pundits cramming the events into their political agendas, and nutballs roaming free with accurate-for-once sandwich boards. Graham doesn’t even field a phone call from a concerned friend. Instead, he tries hammering out an earthly explanation with the local cop (Cherry Jones) while his brother hides in a closet mainlining CNN and the children soak up wacko theories from an old UFO book.
The script, meanwhile, is impossible. Everyone sounds half-insane. No scene is so suspenseful that Graham can’t break for a telling parable that supposedly illuminates the situation. (In one sequence, he and Merrill have an extended bout of metaphor-trading—it’s what passes for their conversation.) And Shyamalan unwisely inserts himself into the film, portraying the local veterinarian who fell asleep at the wheel and killed Graham’s wife. In a movie in which almost every seemingly unimportant detail pays off handsomely in the larger picture, it’s nonsensical to make a big deal about the first rash of crop circles appearing around Bangalore, India, and then introduce a resident of this lily-white town who’s clearly Indian and never let the connection add up to anything. (Worse, Shyamalan can’t act.)
But throughout—or at least up until the time Graham confronts an actual alien (twice; the second time, it’s personal)—Signs is a damned entertaining film. Shyamalan is too slick, too smart, and too well-schooled to substantially mess up the kind of grandly juicy horror show offered by an alien invasion, a burnt-out athlete who still has his record-setting bat, and a former preacher. Even the inevitable rubber suit is a hallmark of the director’s commitment: This is not a man who pulls punches. Shyamalan cherishes suspense but scorns mystery, so every Spielbergian tip of the hat—from that sizzling baby monitor all the way up to a heaping bowl of mashed potatoes—is outweighed by the moral certainty of an X-Generation product making sure we know who the bad guys are.
The director’s Big Themes dwindle into unimportance when he’s busy scaring himself, but whether an alien attack is a fitting metaphor for the human condition is a moot point. Man of God conquers beings of space in the name of universal family values, courtesy of a guy who understands the value of a fleeting shadow—that’s all you really need to know. CP