review by KJ Doughton, 2 August 2002
Like a one-hit wonder
desperately clinging to the pop charts as its lone hit fades into
history, M. Night Shyamalan appears to be grasping at straws with Signs.
Impassioned, bold straws, but straws all the same. The
Sixth Sense was a nearly perfect movie, tightening its bolts for
a tense slow burn, only to launch itself onto another plain
altogether with a brilliant finale.
Without its last-minute denouement, The
Sixth Sense would still be a good film.
Adding that mind-bending wrap-up, it became a classic.
With his follow-up, the grim
superhero thriller Unbreakable,
Shyamalan appeared to be chasing his own tail, struggling to heap up
another transcendent ending that only partially succeeded.
Like David Lynch, who made psycho space cadets his stock in
trade after the success of Blue
Velvet, it appeared that Shyamalan was agonizingly straining to
top himself with slow-building revelations and kick-butt cappers to
seal the deals. With Signs,
the incredibly ambitious talent again tries to create an experience
where the whole becomes much more than merely the sum of its parts.
Does he deliver? Well, sort of.
follows a rural Pennsylvania family dutifully harvesting its
jungle-dense fields of corn crop.
Right from the get-go, Shyamalan cunningly navigates viewers
into his narrative with a lean, economic sparseness. His camera
snakes through the airy farmhouse occupied by a twitchy widower, his
unemployed brother (Joaquin Phoenix), and two adorable, dedicated
children (Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin).
Passing by a family photo, we are
informed that the farmer is (or was) both a husband and a minister.
Shyamalan is one of those storytellers gifted enough to
convey information without dialogue.
With Mel Gibsonís expressive blue eyes at his disposal, the
director opts for personal, soul-searching close-ups of faces and
common domestic images, such as the door of a pantry room, or a
piercing flashlight beam. His quiet, mise
en scene approach is a refreshing contrast to the cluttered,
caffeinated assault on the senses most often favored for sci-fi
features. If most
movies are the onscreen equivalent to a line of nerve-jolting
methamphetamine (think Independence
Day), Signs is the clear-eyed calm following a healthy runnerís high.
Thatís not to say that Signs
isnít scary. After
weíve lived in the skin of Gibsonís close-knit clan, we share
their bewilderment and horror as crop circles haunt their
cornfields, and media communications are jammed with eerie reports
of UFO sightings. All signs point to an impending alien invasion.
The subtle way in which such a takeover is hinted at - with
distraught radio announcers describing unsettling close encounters
while television stations air Sasquatch-style home video footage of
what may or may not be an alien terrorizing a childís birthday
party - brings to mind Night of the Living
Dead. As with that
George Romero masterpiece, arguably the most frightening film ever
made, the dread feels real.
As Gibsonís patriarch braces he
and his loved ones for a hostile invasion, we learn things about the
family that ultimately play into the storyís attempt at a Big
Finish. His brother was once a baseball player. His wife was
recently killed during a devastating auto accident.
This last incident introduces a parallel concept that wraps
itself around the sexier, more commercial "aliens are coming" vibe
cast out by Signs: that
every person is given the choice to embrace faith, or lose it. In an
unlikely, family values contrast, Signs
studies the same underlying theme as Quentin Tarantinoís Pulp Fiction, where two hit men pondered whether their surviving a
bloody shootout was merely random chance, or some type of grand
miracle - a "divine intervention," if you will.
Gibson is angry with God for
allowing the death of his wife, and has all but lost his faith.
The seemingly supernatural events that plague him in Signs are like one final test of the farmerís true loyalties. Will
he give in to despair as threatening hints of Armageddon appear
right around the corner, or cloak himself in the reassurance that
everything has a spiritual meaning while re-applying his clericís
Iím not sure where I stand on Signs. Shyamalanís claustrophobic, "micro" angle to a "macro"
theme like extraterrestrial war, in which he examines a decent
Eastern-American family huddling behind the corn husks instead of
jerking about between a school of noisy starfighters, is commendable
and unique. But the filmís climax doesnít quite justify all the
buildup, even a buildup as refreshingly understated as that which
Shyamalan employs. Like
the recent K-Pax before it, Signs is
a sci-fi movie with grand, out-of-this-world ambitions that
ultimately doesnít quite live up to them.
M. Night Shyamalan
R - Restricted.
or adult guardian.