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” (Quentin Tarantino accurately summarized Lynch’s condition in an interview, stating that the surreal auteur had “crawled up his own a*s”), 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.
“Signs” 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 Gibson’s 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 runner’s high.
That’s not to say that “Signs” isn’t scary. After we’ve lived in the skin of Gibson’s 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 child’s 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 Gibson’s patriarch braces he and his loved ones for a hostile invasion, we learn things about the family that ultimately play into the story’s 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 Tarantino’s 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 farmer’s 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 cleric’s collar?
I’m not sure where I stand on “Signs”. Shyamalan’s 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 film’s climax doesn’t 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 doesn’t quite live up to them.