DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
SIGNS (director/writer: M. Night Shyamalan; cinematographer: Tak Fujimoto; editor: Barbara Tulliver; music: James Newton Howard; cast: Mel Gibson (Father Graham Hess), Joaquin Phoenix (Merrill Hess), Rory Culkin (Morgan Hess), Abigail Breslin (Bo Hess), Cherry Jones (Officer Caroline Paski), Patricia Kalember (Colleen Hess), Jose L. Rodriguez (Radio Host), M. Night Shyamalan (Ray Reddy, veterinarian); Runtime: 100; Touchstone Pictures/Buena Vista Pictures; 2002)

 
"It's a credit to the actors that this nonsensical thriller/sci-fi story comes off as reasonably well as it does."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The wannabe auteur M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense/Unbreakable) takes the safe path in "Signs" by not going off the main road and exploring something beyond a newspaper headline. There are two stories intermeshed in one pic: one is a superficial fantasy sci-fi tale used as a red herring that coincides with the more important realistic dramatic personal story. Both stories are aimed to give the audience a reason to feel good about all the critical events facing mankind in today's world. Night does this by the magic of saying nothing insulting about anyone's beliefs no matter how ridiculous or childish they are and by driving his point home that there is a God if one has faith. He drives that point home with a sledgehammer. To hold the audience's attention, he conjures up a constant diet of fright as something to be felt in the ordinary events of the day. The whipping sounds of the wind bring on a chill, a dog barking at an invisible enemy brings on a sense of something terribly wrong out there. Tension builds until the surprise endings Night has become known for is supposed to materialize. But in this film there is no surprise ending like in his other blockbusters. The film is one big setup of fright, so Night leaves his audience without even a surprise payoff for sitting through this soppy sermonizing tale of an emotionally wounded man struggling to regain his faith. In this film bereft of a shock ending, the ending is pure hokum and makes the sci-fi tale seem embarrassingly inept and makes the contrived emotional dramatic story seem all the more ponderous. But by using this proven formula for success, of mixing reality with the supernatural, he has seemingly tapped into a consumer market that is readily willing to buy into his manipulative misuse of the horror type of film.

Night's pop-culture way of looking at things only on a surface level is just one of the things about this disappointing film that left a bad taste in my mouth. His fright scenes are creepy but never really scary, they just seem to be 'movie things' that require no thinking. Night does not have much of an imagination or a sense of poetry or a particular gift for handling actors, he's all about telling a comic book type of story in a sweet and stylish manner. He shuns special effects, which is not a bad thing. Instead, he relies on everyday events and recognizable common man types to coat his films with enough reality so that the paranormal he introduces as a fright device will seem as if it belongs in the everyday world he creates. The problem with "Signs" is that the story was weak and the plotline was never much of a factor.

When Night uses the arcane mysteries behind the crop circles as a backdrop for his story about a man who is despondent and has lost his faith and calling, the man he casts for this role is the everyman actor and movie mega-star, Mel Gibson, whose best roles have been as action heroes. Nevertheless, he plays his grieving dad role with great skill, as both Mel and the director work very well with kids and the kids steal this pic thanks to Mel's genuine interest in them and his good instincts to be still and let the kids do their cute things (Bo leaves glasses of unfinished water all over the house and Morgan makes pointed hats out of aluminum foil to protect him and Bo from alien waves).

Mel is Graham Hess, a kind-hearted cheeseburger kind of guy, who is an ex-reverend, of probably the Episcopalian faith since he's married, whom everyone still calls Father. But that is not the way he wishes to be addressed since he has abandoned his clergy duties, yet the locals still fondly think of him as Father. That includes the sympathetic bumpkin lady cop (Cherry Jones), whom he has to correct several times not to be called Father when she comes over to observe the crop circles in his cornfields. He lives on a farm in exclusive rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his precocious young daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin), her protective older brother Morgan (Rory Culkin), and for the last six months with his respectful younger twentysomething brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). What's not to like about this fine family? But do you really believe Mel is a farmer?

Bo is cute and is amusing when she pulls her paranoid phobia routine and refuses to drink the tap water because it's contaminated. Morgan suffers from asthma, has a big heart, and wants in the worst way for his dad to love him. Merrill is a former minor-league slugger who failed to make the Bigs because he struck out too much, but despite his stubborn trait of not listening to his coaches he's a decent regular guy who responds well to the family and seems to be thinking about joining the army as his next career move. Graham six months ago lost his faith in God after his beloved wife was killed in a tragic car accident while taking a walk. The local veterinarian (M. Night Shyamalan) fell asleep behind the wheel allowing his runaway vehicle to pin her to a tree. Since then Graham has turned all his energy to raising his youngsters and farming the rich land. Money doesn't seem to be a problem. His problem is that he no longer believes in miracles and in God, and he has chosen to dispense with prayer as a waste of time. He has shed all hope and believes he's alone in this fearful world. The two choices one has according to Graham are: you either have faith or you don't. Knowing how schmaltzy this director tends to be, you can easily figure how this self-pitying patriarchal minister's story will be resolved.

The film opens as Graham discovers giant crop circles in the form of hieroglyphics in his vast cornfields which alarm him and his children, and it also affects his pet dog and other animals who become violently agitated. There seems to be only two choices about how the circles got there: the supernatural or as a hoax. Graham is a firm believer in the latter, thinking some local nitwits did it. But soon the TV is broadcasting such strange events happening all over India and in many other parts of the world, and there's even a sighting of strange lights over Mexico City. Morgan purchases the only occult book in stock from the town bookstore and believes that extra-terrestrials have landed on earth to either attack or make friends with us. 

To show you how serious the filmmaker is in his alien story, the book's author is named Dr. Bimbo. Meanwhile, Merrill at first believes it's nerds who don't have girlfriends who thought up this prank and have formed a worldwide conspiracy, but later sides with the kids that it's extra-terrestrials after seeing green men on a TV report. None of these arguments are done with any conviction, and the serious emotional trauma of the man of the cloth losing his faith over a crisis in his life didn't seem all that convincing, either.

Night is trapped by his own pretentious filmmaking devices, as he has to do something with the mysterious crop circle story he brought up. What he does is avoid any search for truth and instead shamelessly deploys the B-story horror film conventions but in not the same fun way it is usually done. He does it to give his two stories a Hollywood look and coverup how shallow his main story really is. He has in the film's showdown apocalypse scene, the perplexed and overly sentimentalized family board up their farmhouse and try to survive a night of being attacked by the green men from outer space (Yes. He had the gall to show the green men as dangerous visitors--even late night talk show host Art Bell, a noted and knowledgeable conspiracy buff, might sneer at going that far afield). At the same time as the aliens attack, the family comes together in a syrupy and approved family value way to resolve all their emotional problems. There's some humor thrown into the mix, some chatter about miracles and luck, and some heavy-handed scare scenes with blaring music from James Newton Howard to indicate for those who might be deaf and dumb that it's time for all to be frightened and to get with the program by having some faith.

It's a credit to the actors that this nonsensical thriller/sci-fi story comes off as reasonably well as it does. All the signs point to a big box office take and that the filmmaker successfully pulled off this hoax on the public. Night's forced and preachy message seems all wrong. Looking inward and finding enlightenment might be even a saner way of looking at things than what Night leads you to believe. 

Also, I can only warn you to beware of filmmakers who can't act but insist on taking talking parts in their films. All the signs point to Night being an egotist and someone who can't get away from thinking how clever he is. The more I think of this flick's pseudo-spiritual message about keeping the faith, the worst it seems.

REVIEWED ON 8/8/2002     GRADE: C

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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