Picks and Pans Review: Signs
Like its predecessors The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Signs is a psychological thriller steeped in writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's dankly poetic sensibility. His characters move as if underwater, all but stooped by the weight of some pervasive, morbid dread. Abnormal, sickly children figure prominently. Below this heavy current flows something chillier—a mystical-spiritual undertow made explicit in a final twist. Without a doubt, Shyamalan is one of the strangest, most original talents to emerge recently in movies.
What works for a story about seeing dead people, however, doesn't fly for one about seeing UFOs.
In Signs Gibson plays a farmer and former minister in rural Pennsylvania who has lost his faith after his wife's death. One day he awakens to find enormous patches of his corn fields flattened into a pattern of circles and rows. You've seen this before in aerial news photographs—a famous man-made hoax that some interpreted as a sign of alien visitation. This time, though, it's no joke. Similar patterns turn up around the world virtually overnight. Glowing lights converge above Mexico City. Invasion seems imminent. Gibson battens down the homestead hatch with his two children—one asthmatic, the other phobic about water contamination—and his nice but feckless brother (Phoenix), a failed baseball player.
Shyamalan leads us on with a teasing, unsettling creepiness. The first alien is glimpsed at night poised on a roof, like a silhouette in a dream ballet. When we finally see one of the creatures in daylight, it's in video footage that Phoenix watches on TV. He gasps and leaps back from the screen. The moment is both deliciously spooky and dramatically real.
But Shyamalan is interested in the aliens chiefly as a plot device, the crisis that will force Gibson to come to terms with his anger at God. It's as if Graham Greene had written Independence Day. When Gibson, a strong actor who could sometimes benefit from a little restraint, wrestles with his faith, you wonder why someone didn't throw down a mat. Oof! But the aliens could just as well be Martians or killer tomatoes as the ones that finally turn up here. In the end the extraterrestrial loses out to the metaphysical. (PG-13)
Bottom Line: Alienating