Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:47 - Released 8/2/02

A thoughtful and textually rich film about the phenomenon of crop circles and their possible origin, M. Night Shyamalan's Signs allows Mel Gibson another chance to play a widowed single father trying to protect his kids in a war he doesn't want to fight. In The Patriot, he was guarding them against the superior army and sophisticated tactics of King George's Redcoats. In this film, the enemy is an army of interplanetary travelers.

Writer/director Shyamalan's take on the War Of The Worlds scenario is certainly thrilling and contemplative, with plenty of his trademark style elements (previously seen in his films The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable), including deep, meaningful silences, minimalistic use of music, jump scenes, and people with inner powers they don't fully understand. Its plot and characterizations are somewhat simplistic, with odd, twisty details designed to be more interesting than believable. It's a difficult subject to address intelligently—Independence Day and Mars Attacks! used humor and pyrotechnics to generate box-office receipts; Shyamalan accepts the more difficult challenge of a psycho-thriller standpoint. His treatment doesn't always make perfect sense, but what his film lacks in logic is more than made up for in atmosphere.

Graham Hess (Gibson) is a former pastor and father of two who has renounced religion after his wife's death in a senseless car accident. Living with him and his two young kids, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), is his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), who has come to help on their Philadelphia-area farm. When Graham discovers "crop circles" in his cornfield (the plants are laid down in a gigantic geometrical pattern of interconnecting circles, but the stems are not broken), he notifies the authorities, thinking it is simply a very well-devised prank played by local hooligans. But soon the TV news reports that crop circles are appearing in great numbers all over the world, all at the same time. Then other weird things start happening, like the dog going nuts, the baby monitor making unearthly noises, and Graham waking up with a sore rectum. Just kidding. Soon the family, like everyone else on Earth, is forced to prepare for the very real possibility of a visit from not-so-little green men, who may or may not be intent on wiping out the entire human race. Or maybe they just like corn on the cob.

As with all of Shyamalan's protagonists, Gibson's character is faced with a spiritual dilemma as well as the physical one going on around him; his ability to deal with the situation is dependent on his resolution of the conflict with his inner demons. As in The Patriot, Gibson is not really up to the challenge (his acting style, whether he likes it or not, is better suited to action movies), but he doesn't do too badly. He has trouble telegraphing the psychological struggle, but he can portray a loving father in an unthinkable situation, and that he does. Phoenix is underused as the brother/uncle; perhaps in the original draft his character had more to do, but apart from an important scene near the end, he seems mostly there for the ride. The kids are believable; Culkin carries on his siblings' tradition with a nice performance as the asthmatic but intelligent Morgan, and Breslin is irrepressibly sweet (without being sugary) in her debut appearance.

As a thriller, Signs is generally effective, with Shyamalan using his subtle, understated writing style and talented cinematic eye to great effect. As an intelligent psychological drama, which is what I suspect he would like it to be, the film is a little wanting, but it still represents another step in a promising young career that will be interesting to watch as it matures. ****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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