In The Sixth Sense, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan delivered a movie that began at a crawl but ended with a bang. In his follow-up film Unbreakable, he presented a paranormal tale that started strong but ultimately fizzled, turning out to be more ridiculous than remarkable. Now, in his movie Signs, we get the best of both worlds: a creepy, unsettling setup with a conclusion that, while not necessarily shocking, at least lives up to its premise.
In the rural tranquility of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) has made an astounding discovery: giant crop circles have mysteriously appeared in his corn fields overnight, and all the evidence suggests that they are extra-terrestrial in nature. Without warning, these inexplicable signs begin to pop up all over the globe, and the entire human race is suddenly faced with an unparalleled event: aliens from another world may be coming, and no one knows their intentions or abilities.
There are essentially two stories at work in Signs, each one at opposite ends of the reality spectrum. On the one hand, you have the notion of alien invaders who want to do God-knows-what to earth's populace. On the other hand, you have the story of a family who is coming to grips with the tragic events life has dealt them. In the end, this latter storyline concentrating on character drama is the stronger focus of the entire film.
Graham Hess is a reverend who experiences a monumental crisis of faith after the horrific and untimely death of his wife. Believing that there can be no benevolent force looking out for man, he renounces God and turns his back on the church. Embracing fear over hope, he is a pessimist to say the least. Living with Hess are three members of his broken family: his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a failed baseball player whose lack of discipline kept him out of the majors; his son Morgan (Rory Culkin), a young boy afflicted with health problems; and his daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin), a little girl who is curiously paranoid about contaminants in her drinking water. When Hess and his kin are confronted with the threat of an alien invasion, the failures and heartbreak of the family come to the surface in a volatile mixture of blame, guilt, and anger.
Gibson delivers a more interesting performance than the trite "preacher who loses his faith" character might suggest. A scene in which he curses God with a guttural "I hate you" is dripping with venom, and his refusal to pray even in the face of certain doom effectively conveys his contempt of religion. Contrasting the solemn Graham Hess is the character of the little girl, who frequently steals the show. Children often figure into Shyamalan's films, but she proves to be the most entertaining. Between her obsessive quest for the perfect glass of water and her almost drugged-out way of talking, she's quite funny, and offers a breath of comedy in a movie that is otherwise suffocatingly grim.
What makes Signs such an odd but enthralling film is the way its story is open to interpretation. Taken literally, it's War of the Worlds populated with characters carrying a lot of baggage. At the same time, it's a metaphor for faith and an examination of how beliefs shape reality. In fact, the surreal and detached atmosphere offers debate for what exactly is "real" in this movie. Enough peculiarities pop up here and there to make you wonder...
If you're not interested in symbolism with your cinema, rest assured that Signs also boasts a good deal of thrills at face value. Tension and unease abound, and the movie has its fair share of sudden jolts and monsters in unseen places. One scene in particular (the camcorder footage from Brazil) absolutely turns my stomach when I look at it--not because it's disgusting or gory, but just because it's strangely realistic and yet so unright at the same time. However, don't expect a constant flood of sci-fi horror or a fully satisfying explanation of what the deal is with the aliens. The concept of extra-terrestrials takes a backseat to issues of faith and fate, and those looking for "an alien flick" may be disappointed.
Of all the paranormal thrillers to date from M. Night Shyamalan, Signs is the strongest, offering a good mix of human character drama and strange sh** for your entertainment dollar. If you enjoy atypical stories in which the real world touches upon the unreal in an intelligent manner, then this is definitely a film worth checking out.
Rating: 8 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)
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