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Reviewed by Kenn McCracken, © 2002

Format: Movie
By:   M. Night Shyamalan (director, writer)
Genre:   Science Fiction / Suspense
Released:   August 2, 2002
Review Date:   August 01, 2002
RevSF Rating:   10/10 (What Is This?)

Have you noticed that there are three kinds of science fiction involving aliens? There's the kind with little green men, which (especially when combined with books, magazines, and reports from trailer parks everywhere) seems to be prevalent; there's the Star Trek genre, with mostly humanoid aliens; and there's the wildly imaginative alien species that are basically monsters.

Anyone else wonder why the little green men never get their due on Star Trek?

It's okay, though, because they (and the crop circles that conspiracy nerds have taken too much credit for) get plenty of attention from M. Night Shyamalan in his latest, Signs. It's a pleasantly surprising offering from Shyamalan, bearing his trademark direction (and, in the footsteps of Clive Barker and Stephen King, a requisite cameo appearance) but with a slight departure from his previous writing. Anyone who has seen The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable will recognize the long, brooding shots, the understated characterization, and (at least in the case of Sixth Sense) the muted palette on the screen. Very different this time around, though, is the story; gone is the last minute twist that makes your head spin, replaced with a more traditional story.

More traditional, thankfully, does not equate with less enjoyable. Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, an ex-reverend raising his two children on a farm in Pennsylvania with his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix, in a role that he carries nicely). Graham has given up his position in the church following the loss of his wife and his subsequent loss of faith. The appearance of a crop circle in his cornfield, and the events that follow, change his life in an equally profound way.

Though it sounds like a simple plot—and at its core, that's exactly what it is—Shyamalan brings a lot more to the table than a simple science fiction mystery. More than a alien-based thriller, the film is a study in family, in faith, and in some ways, in destiny. This brings some potential predictability to the story, but, in the end, not in an unsatisfying way. Along the way, Shyamalan does manage to provide a reasonable theory behind the crop circles that remain unexplained, as well as presenting a genuinely spooky movie that is more War of the Worlds than Independence Day.

In look and feel, Signs is more comparable to The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan's debut, than Unbreakable. While the latter was garishly colorful, a study of a man who goes from nobody to hero thanks to the imagination of a sick man, Signs is a tense, slow paced story that relies on light and shadows and brief glimpses of the unknown to build suspense. Like Sixth Sense, it is an excellent horror movie—not apt to inspire nightmares, like The Exorcist or The Shining, but capable of startling even a jaded horror fan. Once again, Shyamalan takes advantage of strong acting by children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin as Graham's son and daughter) to provoke an even stronger sense of fear, relying more on their reactions than direct shots of the terror.

This use of children might be considered manipulative (though it might be noted that all's fair in love, war, and suspense films). If that's your opinion, it's not likely to be helped by any of the rest of the film. James Newton Howard's score is taut and well placed, chillingly unobtrusive. On the same level, the sound department did a tremendous job with the sound field placement—make damned sure that you see this film in a Dolby-equipped theater. Tak Fujimoto's cinematography is excellent, showing a phenomenal amount of detail given the amount of light (or lack thereof) that the story calls for. From a technical standpoint, this is easily the summer's best film.

If there is one flaw with Signs, it's Shyamalan's growing presence as an actor in his films—not that he's notably bad, but the average quality is unavoidably down a notch for his presence. In a film that features Joaquin Phoenix and one of the Culkin siblings in positively shining performances, the debut of cute (but not cloyingly cute) Abigail Breslin, and Mel Gibson in his most human performance since The River, Shyamalan comes across as flat and uninspired. In his previous two films, his parts were brief enough that it didn't really matter how well or poorly he acted, but his part is pivotal enough in Signs as to create a distraction.

Signs will certainly not threaten Spider-Man or Attack of the Clones at the box office this summer. It's not a blockbuster event, and Shyamalan is now a well-enough known name that the film won't benefit from the surprise word-of-mouth that drove Sixth Sense to near the three hundred million dollar mark. It's a film that eschews the trends of big budget digital effects and once-a-minute explosions, instead relying on acting, direction, cinematography, and score to advance the story and draw in the audience. It's not necessarily Shyamalan's strongest effort, but it is one of the best of the season—perhaps of the year.

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