Starring: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Cherry Jones, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin
Director: M Night Shyamalan
After a tepid start to his movie career (1992’s “Praying with Anger and 1998’s “Wide Awake”), director M Night Shyamalan was afford the chance to make his breakthrough with 1999’s surprise hit, “The Sixth Sense”. When his audience failed to acclaim his under-rated follow-up “Unbreakable” with the same awe, Shyamalan did not veer from his blueprint for movie-making, and subsequently his latest supernatural release, “Signs” has been eagerly anticipated for some time.
Graham Hess (Gibson – “What Women Want”, “Braveheart”) lost his faith when he lost his wife (Patricia Kalember- “Jacobs Ladder”, “Fletch Lives”) in a car accident. Now the former Reverend lives on his farm with his two kids Bo and Morgan (Breslin and Culkin) and his brother Merrill (Phoenix – “8MM”, “Gladiator”). One morning he discovers crop circles on his land and immediately suspects that someone in the town is responsible. Within hours the TV is full of similar scenes from around the world and it soon becomes clear that the episode is a prelude to an alien invasion. Feeling unsure in an uncertain time, and defenceless without his belief system of the past, Graham attempts to reassure his family that everything will be ok with or without God. But will it?
Although it is a familiar celuloid blueprint at this point, Shyamalan’s movies continue to impress. While the story might not be quite as strong as his previous two outings, the film-making itself is becoming more intricate and thought-provoking. The characterisation is notably strong here, carried forward with wonderful subtlety by Gibson and re-inforced through the helplessness of Phoenix and the determined vulnerability of Culkin and Breslin. It’s actually Rory ‘Brother of Macaulay’ Culkin who surprises the most here, showing a lot more potential than his older brother did at his age. Credit again to Shyamalan who seems capable of making child stars on demand.
If the supernatural subject matter of his previous movies scared you, then the aliens should work similarly. News of the alien arrivals are shown through live TV footage of lights in the sky and an eerie home video of a hideous creature captured in South America. The only actual news outside of these jumbled newsreels comes via hearsay, opinion and theory – the end of the world is coming.
The tension is interspersed with helpings of comedy, occasionally out of place but a welcome angle from Shyamalan. The usual flashbacks, especially in the last ten minutes, help piece together vital information at the right times, and when it all falls into place you smile knowingly. If the twists do not quite have the impact of “The Sixth Sense”, you can forgive Shyamalan for creating such lofty heights for himself.
Although some viewers probably won’t read beyond the alien invasion story, Shyamalan’s work is once again deeper than it appears. He has investigated most supernatural themes at this point, so one wondes what the director will try next time. Too popular to be a cult favourite, Shyamalan is due to be remembered for simply a maker of clever and entertaining pictures.