|In Signs, the new film from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, an Episcopal pastor who loses his faith after his wife is killed in a car accident. Living with his two young children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin) on his Bucks County farm, along with his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), Graham rejects any notion that God is watching over them or that life is anything more than a chain of coincidences. In true Hollywood fashion, his newfound unbelief is so adamant that, of course, we wait for the moment when his faith will be renewed. But because this is a movie by the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, we don't get the usual routes to renewal. We have instead a movie that blends supernaturalism with religiosity; it's as if the Praise the Lord network had mated with the Sci-Fi Channel.
Science fiction, in books and movies, has been used in the past as a vehicle for all kinds of message-mongering, and usually some schlock also manages to poke through. Shyamalan is unique among contemporary filmmakers in that he seems to have no interest in the pulp pleasures of the genre. In Signs, Graham discovers that the cornfield behind his Victorian homestead has been imprinted with mysterious circular patterns. Similar crop circles soon show up on the TV news in places like England and India; before long, UFOs are hovering over Mexico. Throughout all this, as Graham's family takes refuge against the aliens, we're reminded of The War of the Worlds and Invaders From Mars and a million other such movies, but the tone is quite different. Shyamalan is interested in sci-fi only as a way to hook audiences into having a "higher" experience. That's why this movie, like his two previous forays into the supernatural, is so laden with dark and doomy imagery and cryptlike silences. Graham is meant to be an iconic ordinary guy, but for Shyamalan, iconic comes across as zombiefied and slow is the same thing as meaningful. Mel Gibson gives a ponderous, stunted performance that is probably just what the director wanted. Every aspect of this movie, even what at first seems unimportant, ends up fitting into Shyamalan's fanatically rigorous design. No wonder crop circles intrigue him; he's created a crop circle of a movie, with every stalk bent just so and nothing left to chance.
What redeems Signs is its occasional overtones of humor. The creature-feature effects and the byplay between the children as they try to be brave have a ghastly, off-kilter funniness, and sometimes Graham's staunch cluelessness has its charms, too. Shyamalan doesn't make movies like anybody else except himself. And that may be his biggest problem right now. For all his smarts and command of the medium, he seems to have boxed himself into a corner. The Sixth Sense, his best picture, had a marvelously successful story gimmick that became clear only in its final moments. With somewhat less success, he staged another end-game switcheroo in Unbreakable, and now he's at it again. It must be terribly confining to work in such a way, to diminishing returns. Shyamalan wants to be the metaphysical poet of movies, but he's dangerously close to becoming its O. Henry. The best surprise ending he could give us in his next movie would be no surprise ending at all.
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