THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


A few hours before going to Signs, I saw the cover of Newsweek which proclaimed writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, "The Next Spielberg." That's awfully high praise, I thought to myself, especially since I consider Steven Spielberg to be a genius. After seeing the movie, I kind of understand what the magazine was getting at. Like Spielberg, Shyamalan has a strong sense of restraint. He's not afraid to hold back, to leave the audience with a sense of mystery and uncertainty. Only when the moment is dramatically perfect does he put all his cards on the table, dazzling you with the wonder of his imagination. I was reminded of the way Spielberg never let you see what E.T. looked like until he was ready; Shyamalan also strategically hides things from us until he is ready to make the biggest possible impact with them.

Mel Gibson stars as Graham Hess, a former priest who left the church after his wife was killed in an accident. The incident - and the way it played out - caused him to lose his faith. He no longer believes that there's a God watching out for us. Graham lives in a Bucks County, Pennsylvania, farm house with his two young children, Bo (Abigail Breslin) and Morgan (Rory Culkin), and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). Although they are together, it's a sad family. Graham has essentially given up, which sets a bad example for the kids. Merrill tries to watch over everybody but can't compensate for the sadness and grief that permeates the home.

Crop circles could spell trouble for Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix in Signs
One morning, Graham wakes up and discovers that someone has put a gigantic crop circle pattern in his corn field. He writes it off as a prank, until the TV news station reports that crop circles have suddenly appeared all over the world. Someone floats the theory that the circles might be a navigational map created by aliens from outer space. Morgan, in particular, believes that extraterrestrials are to blame. Graham and Merrill try to convince him otherwise, but there are more strange occurrences, including some inexplicable sounds coming from a baby monitor Morgan finds in the attic. Could it be possible that aliens are in the first stages of an invasion of Earth?

(SPOILER ALERT! - Skip this paragraph if you do not want key plot points revealed!) Later on, Merrill watches the TV coverage and learns that strange space crafts have been spotted hovering over a city in Mexico. Images of an alien being are also captured on a videotape (I was reminded heavily of that grainy film of "Bigfoot" that was so famous when I was a child). Graham encounters one of them himself and promptly boards up his home with his family inside. They listen to news reports of alien attack, and then there is a pounding on their door.

When you describe it, Signs sounds like a big action blockbuster - a high-tech, effects-laden Hollywood thrill ride. In actuality, it's much more than that. Shyamalan does use a few special effects but does so sparingly. He is not interested so much in the possibility of alien attack as he is in telling the story of how Graham considers regaining his faith. As his family faces the eerie possibility that other life forms may be approaching the planet, he flashes back to the night his wife Colleen (Patricia Kalember) died. He relives the moment he last spoke to her, searching for answers as to why she was torn away from him. The loss of his belief in God also affects his brother and children, who fear the unknown and look to him for strength that he doesn't have.

It's a master stroke that Shyamalan lets the suspense build. He's not particularly interested in delivering big special effects moments or what the Hollywood establishment refers to as a "scare beat" (a regularly timed shock generated simply to meet a perceived quota). Graham and his family don't know what's out there - or if there's anything out there at all. Even when we (the audience) find out what the truth is, we are still never shown the whole picture. That's why Signs works; it forces your mind to wander into uncomfortable areas. I was reminded of Sept. 11, when I watched the news in fear, not knowing if what happened in New York that morning was going to start happening in other cities that afternoon. Of course, the movie doesn't even begin to affect you on that emotional level, but I think that feeling I had is the same feeling the characters are supposed to be having. It's anticipatory dread, a fear of something awful happening. They have it, and we in the audience get a small dose of it too.

In recent years, I've been somewhat critical of Mel Gibson. Although a talented actor, he has chosen movies that repeat certain formulas (Braveheart and The Patriot seem very similar, as do the films in the Lethal Weapon series) . It's nice to see him stretch as an actor again. He's very good in this role, bringing anger and sadness and loss to the forefront. For Graham, the possibility of aliens attacking is only the second most pressing crisis he faces. Joaquin Phoenix is strong, too. Merrill is a difficult part because you have to believe his faith in Graham is shaken by Graham's loss of faith in God. It's a very internal kind of thing. Phoenix is one of the best actors around and he brings that quality out in Merrill very naturally.

Signs packs an undeniable wallop. Although it falls squarely in the sci-fi category, it works on a more emotional level because it deals with something we have all experienced at one point or another: fear of something really bad happening. Above and beyond that, Shyamalan's movie is hopeful enough to suggest that things happen for a reason. We may not understand them at the time, but they serve a purpose that can only become clear later on. Those things - and not the crop circles - are the real signs.

( 1/2 out of four)

Signs is rated PG-13 for language and some frightening moments. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.

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