A review of “Signs” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ** 1/2

Rating: PG-13 for jumps, adult situations

Run Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

 

 

Director M. Night Shyamalan has a cross to bear, and it’s called “The Sixth Sense”.  That commercial movie debut was the most talked-about film of 1999.  His follow up, “Unbreakable”, was a minor blip on the movie radar, but all seems to be forgiven. Witness the August 5 cover of Newsweek, which hails Shyamalan as “The Next Spielberg”.

Breathe easy, Steven.  Though Shyamalan’s “Signs” is artfully directed and well-conceived, it fails to locate and maintain a consistent tone. 

Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix share most of the screen time as live-in brothers Graham and Merrill Hess. Graham has recently lost his wife to a tragic automobile accident, and has forsaken his faith (he’s the local minister) in exchange for playing Mr. Mom to young Morgan and Bo (Rory Culkin and uber-precious Abigail Breslin).  The house, a brightly painted “Psycho” fortress, sits on the edge of acres of cornfield on a Bucks County, Pennsylvania farm.  Think “Field of Dreams” or “Children of the Corn”. 

Early on, a series of crop circles appear in the corn.  Further investigation reveals similar incidents in India and the U.K., eventually spreading plague-like across the globe. Are the circles an eerie mapping system for navigational purposes? Is this an alien invasion a la “War of the Worlds”?  As the fantasy of extra-terrestrials painstakingly segues into reality, the Hess household must learn to fight back or die.

“Signs” is intended to be a “family thriller”.  I prefer less family and more thrills.  Ill-timed jokes cut through slowly growing reservoirs of tension, rendering the jumpy moments more childish than scary.  The narrative refuses to build off the foundation of a single, strong tangent, and the resulting mismatch in tone is an annoying distraction.  Shyamalan’s penchant for telegraphing the obvious serves only to add to the self-conscious nature of his story.

On a more positive note, the look is lush and the style tautly old-fashioned. Low-level POV angles spell impending doom.  Musical homage to Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann is blatantly refreshing. And those damn cornfields radiate terror just by virtue of being there.

Gibson and Phoenix do their best, but can’t quite find their niche. Shyamalan’s trademark cameo is more of an ego-role than necessary. Breslin is all precocious one-liners (that can’t help but be adorable), but best-of-show goes to Culkin, as a bright, pre-adolescent geek, vulnerable to loss and struggling with yet another potential disaster in his young life.