| August 5, 2002

Upon watching the latest thriller from director M. Night Shyamalan, it quickly becomes clear that he has tried to eliminate the mistakes he feels prevented his previous film, Unbreakable, from garnering the popular support he’d expected. He hasn’t abandoned his deliberate pacing or his familiar theme of finding the extraordinary hidden beneath, between and behind the mundane. But he has certainly infused a bit more warmth into Signs than was evident throughout his subtle and restrained (detractors might say placid and slow) ode to comic books. Signs really has two stories, and both are allowed room for some humor that was missing from his earlier films. One story is about crop circles and their impact on a small family in rural Pennsylvania. The other is about a reverend that has abandoned his faith in the wake of personal tragedy. And while it’s the supernatural allure of the crop circles that has gotten everyone’s attention, it’s the drama of a man rediscovering his spirituality that most interests the director, and that as a result ends up coming through loudest.
The plot starts quickly, with Mel Gibson’s bereaved reverend Graham Hess waking up to find his two kids standing in the strangely altered cornfield in their backyard. Stalks of corn have been flattened out and manipulated in such a way as to create a large symbol of some kind, fully appreciated only from the sky. At first it seems that neighborhood pranksters may be to blame, but it isn’t long before news of similar occurrences is spreading across the globe. Crop circles spring up rapidly in India, Europe, across the United States and in this one family’s backyard. From then on, Shyamalan attempts to keep on the intimate level of something like Ordinary People a story that has more in common with Independence Day, and it’s a tricky balancing act to maintain.
A recent widower, the reverend is at odds with a god and a universe in which his wife could be taken from him. Everything he once looked at with optimism has been shredded into emptiness upon his wife’s death, and there is a revealing conversation with his brother concerning the nature of luck and coincidence that shows just how far removed from his faith the reverend has become. As signs of an extraterrestrial invasion begin to mount and his family and community look to him for support, Graham is unable to perceive the situation as anything but an inevitable disaster.
Shyamalan keeps the story intimate by limiting our focus to the Hess’ themselves. We are always with the reverend and his family, which includes his two kids (a sulky Rory Culkin and the cherubic Abigail Breslin) and his brother Merill (Joaquin Phoenix), a washed-up minor league baseball star. There is no time spent outside of their small Pennsylvania town and the truth behind the crop circles is relayed through television news reports. As the movie progresses, Shyamalan’s knack for drawing tension from the obscured suffers due to a shift in the film’s focus. The director sacrifices his skill at creating suspense in order to delve deeper into the reverend’s inner conflict, filling in the blanks of his wife’s death and illustrating exactly why he lost touch with God. He starts peeling the layers of ambiguity off of the aliens and their intentions, but the scope of that suffer is too large to undertake properly within the intimate confines of the film. So although the creepy sci-fi angle is the movie’s main draw, by the conclusion of the film Shyamalan has managed to strip most of the awe from that situation with an unconvincing resolution that has a few too many plot holes. But he does manage to invest the rest of the story with revelations that, though perhaps facile and contrived, are thrilling nonetheless.
Much has been made about Shyamalan following in the Spielberg tradition of populist entertainment, what with his penchant for big thrills and magical realities, but it has been the director’s similarities with Hitchcock that have always impressed me the most. His ability to infuse every scene with tension and to use silence and stillness as a breeding ground for dread and uncertainty is unmatched, especially when you consider that the world of his extraordinary stories is centered completely around our own exceedingly normal reality. He allows us to imagine the things he doesn’t show, and he is able to manipulate the audience any way he chooses. Unfortunately this time his camera goes a bit too far, and once he’s allowed us a peek at the answers, he loses a bit of control over the explanation. But the actors are at least able to convey the fear and awe that they are feeling, and Joaquin Phoenix’s nice guy turn, along with excellent support from the two kids, works well as the audience’s stand-in, especially when Gibson’s constant air of minimalist pained surrender gets to be too much for us to embrace.
Shyamalan falls off of the fence he’s straddling by keeping such a spectacular story subdued to the point of dilution, but his treatment of the larger plot only served as a detour by which to arrive at the film’s final revelations. He is known for twist endings that function as prisms through which to reevaluate his stories, and Signs is no different. After leaving the theater, even if you end up disappointed in his execution of an alien invasion, you won’t be able to deny how well the director is able to capitalize on his overall theme, which has much less to do with extraterrestrials than it does with our own spirituality.
Some might view the final revelations of Signs as simplistic and superficial; the phrase that kept jumping into my head has to do with atheists and foxholes. And the stance he takes on faith, which allows for no gray area, will undoubtedly unnerve many nonbelievers who survive just fine without religion. Others might be disappointed in the explanation of the circles and the subsequent occurrences surrounding them, and perhaps even as an opportunity squandered. But for all the movie’s similarities to blockbusters like War of the Worlds and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the real meat of this story is in the reverend’s reawakening to hope.

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