The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
Shyamalan's latest has all
the 'Signs' of a great film


August 8, 2002
By Franklin Harris

Last week, Newsweek proclaimed filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan to be "the next Spielberg."

He isn't. Steven Spielberg takes '50s B movies and '40s serials and elevates them to contemporary, A-list blockbusters. Shyamalan does something different. He uses ghosts, superheroes and, in his new movie, "Signs," extraterrestrials, as props in stories that have nothing to do with the supernatural or the super-scientific.

"Signs" is easily the year's best film, and it may be the best of Shyamalan's career, which includes two masterpieces, "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable."

Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a farmer in rural Pennsylvania and, we soon learn, a former Episcopal priest. Hess is raising his two young children, Morgan and Bo (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin), with the help of his younger brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix, in probably his best performance).

The family's mother is noticeably absent, and it's obvious that her absence is the reason Graham is no longer a clergyman.

The Hess clan has settled into a somber status quo, abruptly interrupted when a crop circle mysteriously appears in their cornfield.

At first, Graham suspects pranksters are responsible, leading to one of the funniest scenes in this surprisingly funny movie. Graham and Merrill run around their house, shouting at the top of their lungs, trying to frighten the assumed pranksters. Amusingly, Graham cannot bring himself to curse convincingly, even to scare juvenile delinquents. He is having a crisis of faith, not of character.

If anything, the tension in "Signs" is even greater than in "The Sixth Sense," so Shyamalan wisely fills the film with humorous little moments and scenes, just to insure that the audience makes it to the end without any nervous breakdowns.

The chills come from what we don't see, or what we think we see, rather than from what we do see. No one has used sound to such frightening effect since the 1963 version of "The Haunting." If you wait for home video to see "Signs," you won't see the same movie, unless you have surround-sound speakers.

Of course, Graham and Merrill don't find pranksters, and what they do find, glimpsed in the shadows, jumps off the roof, onto a swing and into the cornfield before they can react.

The next morning, the TV reports start. Similar crop circles are appearing around the world. It's either the largest, most carefully orchestrated prank in history, or it's real. The aliens are coming.

This time, Shyamalan isn't out to trick audiences with a twist ending. Midway through the film, it is clear what is really happening. But Shyamalan lets the story unfold slowly. We learn things as the Hess family learns them, often the same way we learn anything nowadays — from television. Our first good look at an alien comes from televised home-video footage, inspired by the infamous "Patterson footage" of Bigfoot.

In terms of the crop circles and what they represent, the family's story is only a small and inconsequential part of a larger tale. But the movie isn't about crop circles or UFOs. It is about belief and Graham's lack of it.

Shyamalan again succeeds at casting an action star in a restrained role and at coaxing wonderful performances from his younger actors. Gibson may be better looking than your average priest, but he is nonetheless believable. His performance is subtle and sometimes chilling. Meanwhile, Culkin and Breslin each seem to have a natural sense of comic timing.

Some day, a magazine may say some young filmmaker is the new M. Night Shyamalan. That magazine will probably be wrong. But whoever gets the nod should take it as a compliment.

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