U.S. Release Date: August 2, 2002
Distributor: Buena Vista
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Producer: Kathleen Kennedy (executive), Frank Marshall, Sam Mercer, M. Night Shyamalan
Composer: James Newton Howard
Cast: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Abigail Breslin, Rory Culkin, M. Night Shyamalan
Running Time: 1 hour and 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (some frightening moments)

At Last, a Sign
by C.A. Wolski

Like his last movie, the uneven Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan's Signs takes pop culture as its context for its story of the quest to find both meaning and redemption in a seemingly uncaring universe.

Signs derives as much of its inspiration from H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds (down to the "simple" defeat of the alien invasion) as it does a The X Files. Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a minister who has lost his faith after the tragic death of his wife. Like the heroes in Shyamalan's other films, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Gibson spends the first reel or so walking around in a muted daze—even reacting to the crop circles that mysteriously appear in the opening minutes of the film in a somewhat non-plussed way. That's until the crop circles start showing up in the hundreds all over the world simultaneously. Then the alien spaceships show up.

With Signs, Shyamalan takes the fairly simple tried and true premise of alien invasion and reinvigorates it. There are few special effects, the aliens are barely seen, and there are no grandiose scenes of destruction a la Independence Day. What Shyamalan does is much more clever. He shows an alien invasion from the perspective of a regular, down-on-the-farm rural family—glued to their television set and looking to UFO books for answers. The film plays like an extended episode of the old Outer Limits television show, replete with its human-sized story and its focus on morality.

The acting, even Gibson's muted performance—which bothered me at first—is uniformly excellent. The kids, Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin are particularly good, as is the stalwart Joaquin Phoenix as Hess's disappointment of a brother. The picture is an intellectual thriller, but there are appropriate comic touches, including a wonderful scene with Culkin, Breslin, and Phoenix all sitting around wearing aluminum foil on their heads in the hopes of defeating alien mind control. The lack of special effects also makes the appearances of the aliens more special and scary (the first glimpse of an alien on a television news program is truly frightening).

But the invasion story is a MacGuffin and will be a disappointment to the Star Wars crowd. It's simply a vehicle for the spiritual redemption of Gibson's Hess. The question Shyamalan sets before the viewer is simple: is the universe ultimately a benevolent or malevolent place? He pulls no punches and has a clear answer at the end. Whether or not you agree with his viewpoint isn't the point. The refreshing thing about Signs—which I must admit I went to see with less than great expectations—is that Shyamalan takes a moral stand. And this is what makes the movie, along with Road to Perdition, one of the best of the summer, if not the year.

Perhaps Signs is a sign from the celluloid gods that not only can a suspenseful, exciting, brainy movie be made, but that it also belongs on the summer schedule.

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