Year of Release: 2002     Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.               Starring Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin, and Cherry Jones.

Although routinely criticized of late, M. Night Shyamalan is not a bad director.  If Signs and The Sixth Sense are any indication, he knows how to direct a camera and set a scene.  His occasional weakness, which recently has become increasingly frequent, lies in his script writing, which often suffers from mediocrity.  I think he could revive his career by simply hiring a good script consultant.

The Sixth Sense was a brilliant and original ghost story with genuinely frightening moments and, more importantly, characters who created a strong sense of empathy, which increased the sense of danger.  Signs has a great concept, but beyond that, it does not have much going for it.

Grieving father Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is living with his two children Morgan and Bo (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin, respectively) and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix).  Graham has given up his ministry in the priesthood and no longer believes in God or in prayer after his wife’s death from a driver who fell asleep at the wheel.  Since Gibson, a self-professed Catholic, is playing the role it is obvious that Graham is going to have his faith renewed by the end of the film.  All the other characters address Graham as “father,” hammering home the point as well.

One day Graham’s children discover bizarre crop circles cut in his cornfield.  Then one of Graham’s dogs mysteriously goes berserk and tries to kill Bo, but Morgan manages to kill the dog with a grill fork.  If that seems too easy a solution since Morgan is about ten and has asthma, it is a good foreshadowing of the overly easy solutions to the upcoming threats.  The crop circles and the aggressive animals  are appearing all over the globe, causing mass panic and people to speculate that aliens are invading the planet.  (Whether or not there actually are aliens is set up to be a suspenseful mystery.  I thought the answer was immediately blatant, but I will respect the spoiler.)

Signs was meant to be a horror film which frightened the viewer through uncertainty and suspense.  The lack of knowledge regarding a possible alien attack was supposed to create an aura of dread.  Unfortunately, the film is too heavy-handed and predictable to have any sense of fear or suspense.  Signs made such a big deal about characters’ obsessions and past talents, it was obvious those elements were going to play into the film’s finale in an important way.  Perhaps I have seen too many films of this genre, but roughly twenty-five minutes into the film, I was able to predict the entire conclusion.

Not everything in the film is mediocre.   The children played by Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin are very endearing, and both young actors give great performances, forming one of the best onscreen brother-sister relationships.  Joaquin Phoenix is very good as their concerned uncle, and even Mel Gibson shows an impressive range of emotion as their bereaved father, even if his presence adds to the predictability of the film.

Another problem with Signs is its script.  It has several intriguing moments, but too much of it is just bad.  There are several scenes of unintentional hilarity, which were meant to be frightening, such as Morgan’s attempt to save his family from what he believes is an impending alien attack.  His contraption is ludicrous and undermines the intended horror of the scene.  At a point when the family does believe it is being attacked by hostile aliens, they stand next to each other in the hall with dazed expressions instead of preparing to defend themselves.  Beforehand, they ate whatever foods they wanted for dinner, because they were going to celebrate before the end, but this scene also becomes absurd as the examples become increasingly extreme.

The theme of the movie, everything happens for a reason and God is watching out for us, is admirable, but the presentation is so heavy-handed, that in comparison, explicitly Christian films such as Fireproof seem subtle and nuanced.  Every event that features into the finale is beaten to death so that no one can miss the point.  Gibson’s character even explains the significance of the suffering to the audience to make doubly sure that everyone sees the connection.  Every single misfortune is given a positive reason that aids the characters in the long run.  There is nothing wrong with this, and it is great for a movie to address suffering in this way, but the examples are too over the top.

A horror film that explores existential questions of suffering is a terrific idea for a film.  Horror is one of the best genres to raise and answer unsettling questions that plague mankind.  Unfortunately, Signs lacks any genuine sense of horror, and the examples are extreme enough to undermine the worthwhile message.  The film is not a complete waste of time; the performances are quite good and Shyamalan directs the scenes well.  I stand by my initial observation: he needs a good script consultant.

Content Advisory: Some scenes of peril and mildly frightening imagery, three brief comical instances crass language.                      MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: C+


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