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2 ½ tocks
Stars: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin, Cherry Jones, 
Patricia Kalember 
Director/Scriptwriter: M. Night Shyamalan 
Music: James Newton Howard 
Touchstone Pictures 
Running Time: one hour fifty minutes 
Rating: PG 13 

There are still a few contenders left for the title of best summer blockbuster (XXX could be either really good or really bad), but I'm guessing M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, starring Mel Gibson, might be the
winner. Though it doesn't quite measure up to Sixth Sense, it's a taut, intelligent thriller that reminds us of the importance of craft and storytelling.

Mel Gibson stars as Graham Hess, a Pennsylvania farmer raising two young children named Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). Their mother isn't around, though we don't find out why until much later in the movie. Helping out around the house is Graham's much younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix).

Something is amiss in the Hess household, which we realize in the film's opening moment when Graham sits up with a start. What does he hear? Why is he so jumpy? And where are his children? Those initial questions are soon resolved, but even larger questions arise when Graham finds mysterious crop signs in his field. And when he spots a strange figure at night, Graham's earthy confidence is shaken. Then things get worse when crop signs are spotted all over the world and strange lights start appearing in the skies.
Are aliens coming and, if so, what are they coming for?

The alien invasion movie pre-dates War of the Worlds, but it's fallen out of favor in the last few decades. Sure, we've had Independence Day and its ilk, but those were special-effects movies that were long on explosions and short on suspense. Signs is a much different picture, a small movie that avoids the flashy effects to focus on the thrill and fear of the unknown. Shyamalan understands that it's far better to show too little than show too much, and so we never get a good look at what's behind these mysterious signs, and we know absolutely nothing of their motives. Our only clues are found in an extra-terrestrial book that Morgan finds in a used-book store, and that's far from comforting.

The result is that the characters and audience spend much of the movie in the dark (figuratively and literally), and the effect is to remind us of what a spooky place that is. It doesn't take much in that environment to pull us to the edge of our seats--some low-level, dissonant music (courtesy of James Newton Howard), a fleeting glimpse of something running in our peripheral vision, and long periods of uncomfortable silence. It's amazing how few movies ever get this right, but Signs hits its mark over and over again. My friend Garth used the word 'manipulative' afterwards, and he meant it as a compliment. Shyamalan manipulates us, pushes us where we're scared, whispers 'boo' into our ear, and then drags us into the basement where we know all the bad things are. The ever-increasing nervous laughter in our audience was testimony to Shyamalan's effective direction.

Also helping enormously is the quartet of outstanding acting performances. My friend Garth resents Mel Gibson's politics and overt religiosity, but you can't argue with Gibson's track record of late. He's consistently giving fine performances, and this one is especially strong. You feel his concern for his children and his growing fear as the things approach. Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator) is also outstanding as the younger brother trying to do what he can to protect his family. And let's recognize that Shyamalan might be one of the better directors of children working today. Both Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin give creepy-real portrayals as children looking death in the face. They both have substantial roles, and the fear of a child, when performed well, might be the scariest thing to watch.

Besides being a suspense thriller, Signs also wants to ponder the nature of faith. It does this by separating people into a simple binary--those who have faith and don't believe in luck or coincidences, and those who feel we're all alone and life is meaningless. At the center of this binary is Graham, who used to be a reverend but lost his faith after an accident. It's a simplistic dichotomy and one that might offend the agnostics in our midst, but I found it to be an effective theme within a compelling movie. But lest I paint Signs as some somber meditation on life and death, I should also add that it's genuinely funny (much more than Austin Powers 3), and the humor arrives just when it's helpful. Shyamalan's pacing is extraordinarily assured, and the film never flags.

I suspect that making a scary movie must be harder than it looks, since few directors seem to get it right. But M. Night Shyamalan makes it look easy with Signs, one of the best movies of the summer. 

J. Robert Parks 7/24/2002

One would not like to say that M. Night Shyamalan peaked in his first film, "The Sixth Sense," but succeeding films, "Unbreakable" and now "Signs" don't have the edge of "I see dead people" and the career of this very promising storyteller is starting to sag. In fact, if you’ve seen the trailer for Signs, you’ve already seen his latest story.

The audience knows there is something afoot beginning with James Newton Howard's Psycho-esque slicing strings. Mel Gibson is a member of the clergy who walked away from his faith after the accidental death of his wife. He lives on a farm with his two children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin) and his brother, Joaquin Phoenix. Crop circles appear on the property and at first, the family believes it is the work of pranksters. However, when Breslin thinks she sees someone in the house and Gibson believes he sees someone one night in the cornfield, the word "pranksters" is tossed to the wind and a scary "something else" comes to the forefront.

Mel Gibson has as much emotion in Signs as his farmhouse. Although there are few moments in the film when Gibson gives a moving performance, both stand stoic and alone in their particular locations. Phoenix does well as the brother who has a life of broken dreams. The real find is young Rory Culkin missing his mother and distressed at his emotionally distant father who registers with the audience. When he has asthma attacks, the audience breathes with him. Cherry Jones is the compassionate police officer with townspeople to handle as well as strange crop circles. Patricia Kalember is there briefly in flashbacks as Mel's wife. Director/scriptwriter M. Night Shyamalan does have a small role in the film as a landowner with a secret and is a fair actor.

The same cannot be said of his directing skills. Shyamalan’s direction is contrived as though following someone else’s blueprint. Signs combines elements of Close Encounters of a Third Kind and The Outer Limits and the audience feels taken along for a ride. There is the obligatory flashlight-that-won't-light and one door that everyone forgets to lock. A being that resembles paper-mache borders on silly. I wonder if "Signs" could have been a stronger film if Joaquin Phoenix had been cast as a widower with weak faith and two children and Gibson the older brother who came to live with him. Religion is part of Shyamalan's plot, but it is not handled well. Gibson was presumably an Episcopalian priest, but he looks too grim to function. One has to assume he is disillusioned because the phrase, "I just don't pray now," doesn't cut it. There is more beneath the surface on this issue but the story doesn't probe. It just leaves the viewer puzzled. Nevertheless, there are good moments in the film such as when the brothers have a heart-to-heart talk with the camera a silent eaves-dropper to inner feelings. Overhead camera shots show the town laid out in triangles and rectangles contrasting with the crop circles but Signs is a film that hasn’t found the answer. 

Copyright 2002 Marie Asner 7/27/2002

Director M. Night Shyamalan’s third film, Signs, focuses on crop circles that mysteriously appear on a farm owned by Graham Hess (Mel Gibson). His eerily wise-beyond-their-years children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin) and his brother Merrill believe an alien invasion is imminent. 

While Gibson is saddled with a stock character (the preacher who’s lost his faith), he manages to add depth to the role by turning in a surprisingly understated role, rather like Bruce Willis in both Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. This is because Shyamalan is a director who can get excellent performances out of his cast. Both of his two previous major films had only four or five characters with more than a couple minutes of screen time, and Signs follows that pattern. The film stays with Graham, Merrill, and the children almost all the way through. The small cast allows Shyamalan to focus his attention on drawing out the performances.

Shyamalan has a Hitchcockian habit of appearing in his own films, usually in a throwaway part (a doctor in Sixth Sense, a drug dealer in Unbreakable). This time, though, his appearance goes beyond a cameo and into a minor supporting role, which he handles deftly.

Signs is a thriller in the truest sense of the word. Shyamalan makes a genuinely scary film that surprises quite often without stooping to horror film tactics. You can see some of the jump scenes coming, but overall, it works. There’s one shot near the end of the film of a reflection in a television set that had audience members at my screening jumping out of their seats.

Unbreakable was unfairly condemned by critics for trying to stick too closely to the Sixth Sense formula. Shyamalan avoids the twist ending in Signs, driving the story ahead in a straightforward manner. He succeeds at crafting a chilling story with some humor sprinkled in, once again showing his mastery of the art of filmmaking. Signs is a success on all levels.

John Wilson 8/03/02

Although it is a bit early in his career to hail M. Night Shyamalan as the next Steven Spielberg, his potential may far exceed Spielberg in the final tally. Shyamalan has progressed quickly from his 1998 debut independent film Praying with Anger through the somewhat disposable Wide Awake and on to his three major releases: The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs and even diversified a bit by writing the Stuart Little screenplay.

In Signs, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) lives on a farm with his children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). Graham is a former minister of some sort who has renounced the church and now lives quietly until strange events, most notably large crop circles,  begin to occur around the farm and around the world. As aliens invade the earth.

This sketch of the plot sounds like a disposable sci-fi thriller, but this is simply not the case. Emotions run the gamut from thrills and tension to subtle yet hilarious comedy to heart gripping fear. The performances are very strong. Gibson is a perfect balance of restrained emotion. Phoenix is extremely funny without trying too hard. The children are both on the same road that Shyamalan paved for Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. Each delivers lines full of more understanding than children are often given credit for in a believable manner.

Back to the Spielberg comparison. Minority Report deals with some very weighty subject matter for a science fiction vehicle; how intent and emotion translate to action, thought police paranoia and fair treatment of all individuals. Yet action and plot are in the forefront. While the characters are interesting and generally consistent and the filming is superb, the emphasis is on a fast moving story.

Like Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Signs is also a science fiction movie with underlying moral themes. But he has moved past trickery and takes the giant filmmaker's leap of letting the characters do the work. Unlike Minority Report, plot is only an underpinning. More important to the movie than the aliens landing on the earth is Gibson's character's ongoing crisis of faith and internal turmoil. The questions raised here go beyond the human side of life that Spielberg explores and delve deep into spiritual issues such as the link between coincidences and a greater plan and the very existence of God. These are remarkable subjects for a director who does not consider himself a religious man.

"Signs" is funny, tense, intelligent and well-acted. While Shyamalan is still proving himself to Hollywood and moviegoers, his work has the potential to bring films to a higher level and away from the standard genres we have come to define. "Signs" is a sure sign of this promise, and the best movie so far this year.

Jeff Edwards 8/14/2002



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