Well, Mr. Shyamalan, you’ve done it again. You’ve taken a well-used blockbuster genre, the alien invasion, and given it your signature spin that ultimately focuses on the human psyche rather than the big-time surrounding events. Did I mention Signs is also the funniest movie I’ve seen all summer?
Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is at a crossroads in his faith. A former reverend in the small Pennsylvania town of Buck’s County, he’s bitter towards the big guy upstairs for allowing his wife to die. Now Graham is a corn farmer, living with his two children and younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). When crop circles start popping up in his fields, Graham is quick to dismiss it as a prank by some neighbors. But his son, Morgan (Rory Culkin) thinks it might be a sign from invading aliens. As more circles start popping up in all parts of the world paranoia spreads that the apocalypse just might be on its way afterall.
Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan showed with his first two major releases, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable that he has a knack for taking familiar genres (the ghost and the superhero origin stories respectively) and giving them a human side, rather than a truckload of snazzy special effects. The result with Signs is a frightening meld of Hitchcock suspense and Spielberg warmth.
In the past when I wanted a laugh I wouldn’t think to raid the Shyamalan section of the video store. I might think twice once Signs hits the shelves as I laughed harder here than I did in Mr. Deeds and Men in Black II combined. Whether or not it was the much talked about Gibson pranks that made the cast comfortable with one another or not is a secret I will never know, but there is a strong chemistry with all the main players that comes through. Much of it is the interaction between Phoenix and youngsters Culkin and Abigail Breslin, who plays the youngest of the Hess family, Bo. While Phoenix is mature in his adult role as Merrill, he is still stuck in a junior role as the visibly younger brother to the Gibson’s Graham. As the middle-man it is imperative that Phoenix work on both sides and the moment where Graham walks into a room and sees Merrill, Bo and Morgan sitting on the couch with foil hats on their heads and smug looks on their faces proves just that.
Shyamalan is a master manipulator. No matter the movie, he takes you on a masterful ride of thrills and self reflection. He knows the tense moments, draws you in, making you fall for it, even during the moments in Signs where there is no sound or no light and a frightful outcome is about as obvious as the gouging prices I face whenever I’m in line for a bucket of popcorn.
Something is going to happen, I know it. More silence, more darkness. Anytime now.
“My apologies for the flying popcorn.” Dang, I fell for it again.
Shyamalan knows that we know that he is trying to toy with us, our reactions, emotions, our beliefs. So what makes Signs differ from, say, something like Patch Adams where there’s got to be big red lights just off the frame of the picture signaling the comedic, sad and happy points? Frankly, the emotions Signs creates are completely genuine. I knew I was being toyed with, yet the scary bits were suspenseful, the tear-jerkers were sad and the gut-busters were funny, whereas in PA they were supposed to feel genuine but came across as canned. In Signs I would have been scared with or without James Newton Howard’s memorable score. I don’t think I can say the same for Marc Shaiman’s work on PA, where it was a signal to laugh, cry, whatever.
The question that needs to be answered is whether or not Signs is really about aliens. Well, I’d argue that The Sixth Sense isn’t about ghosts, nor is Unbreakable about superheroes. They’re both human stories that deal with coping and loss. Likewise, Signs’ soul is with its heart. As much as I dug the alien sideshow, I was sucked in by Graham’s search for faith, by Merrill’s search for a future and Morgan’s search for a father that he could relate to.
All the signals are there for Signs to be another extra terrestrial movie to sit alongside Independence Day or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but all things point to the fact that this movie is a whole lot more.