READER ADVISORY: This review reveals key plot points
Signs, the lushly ominous new alien-visitation thriller, is a very well-crafted tease. Written, produced, and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, it’s a high-octane doomsday vision built almost entirely around our sense of anticipation, and that’s both its strength and its weakness. Set in the clear-skied American Gothic farmlands of Pennsylvania, the movie is all tricks and premonitions; it plays on our primitive desire to see what’s coming next in a way that proves a lot more compelling than what actually comes next.
Early on, when Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a widowed farmer and former reverend who is grappling with his misplaced faith, discovers a gigantic, interlocking array of circles and lines carved into his cornfield, we view this enigmatic configuration from the ground, with the stalks smashed down as if a hurricane had blown through them, and also from the sky, where it resembles an occult skeleton key the size of a football field. Actual ”crop circles,” which some believe to be the work of extraterrestrials, have dotted the globe for a while now (there’s a photograph of one on the cover of my Led Zeppelin vinyl boxed set, and let us not forget ”Chariots of the Gods”), and Shyamalan exploits them for the full, suggestive power of their eerily anonymous, too-perfect-to-have-been-sculpted-by-hand symmetry.
Here, as in ”The Sixth Sense” and ”Unbreakable,” Shyamalan slows the pace to a hypnotic semistandstill, composing each shot with meticulous formality, focusing on a single element — rows of corn lit by a flashlight, otherworldly scuttling claws — so that you’re as aware of what may be hovering just outside the frame as you are of the shots themselves. That signature style can be chillingly effective at creating a mood of terror, or wonder, or both. At the same time, the Shyamalan Trance is starting to look a bit like a tic, a honeyed, hermetic fusion of the techniques of Kubrick (notably ”The Shining”), Hitchcock (”Vertigo”), and, especially, early Spielberg. ”Signs” is a virtual homage to ”Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” but Spielberg, in his stirring and magical 1977 sci-fi daydream, took a classic B-movie premise — beings from another world are coming! — and delivered something close to transcendence. Shyamalan, in his gloss on Spielberg, sets us up for transcendence, or at the very least a major wow, and delivers, instead, a highly portentous B movie.
For a while, the portents are captivating. The credits feature slashing violins reminiscent of the ”Psycho” soundtrack, and then, before we’ve even gotten a chance to know Graham, his live-in brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), or his two saucer-eyed children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), sinister events begin to take place. The family’s German shepherd growls without provocation, and an old baby monitor, which one of the kids has dug up for use as a walkie-talkie, transmits a mysterious conversation of clicks and pops that sounds like an otherworldly version of aborigine-speak. Little Bo, who keeps tasting mysterious contaminants in the tap water, starts to leave half-finished glasses all over the house. It must be said that none of these occurrences is necessarily much more oddball than Mel Gibson’s performance. He makes Graham, whose belief in God took a critical blow after his wife was killed, into a weirdly stylized straight arrow — a gentle, caring father who, with his low robotic voice, nevertheless sounds stilted by fear and gloom. There are moments when it looks as if he’s the alien.
Meanwhile, crop circles are being sighted everywhere from Bucks County to India. Are they a conspiratorial prank, or do they signal the arrival of something unearthly? As Graham and his family stare at the television set, watching eerie footage of lights in the sky, many in the audience may find themselves reminded of Sept. 11, yet the zeitgeist foreboding doesn’t necessarily work in the film’s favor. If anything, the threat of an intergalactic reign of fire seems trivial by comparison, especially when you consider that Shyamalan’s aliens take over the planet in days yet can’t seem to figure out how to unlock a pantry door. Nevertheless, in our childish moviegoing hearts, we do all want to touch the unknown, to believe. Joaquin Phoenix’s Merrill catches a broadcast of home-video footage taken at a kids’ birthday party in Mexico, and when he sees what they see, he rears back in terror and shock. The main shock I experienced, however, was feeling that I’d been tricked into watching ”The War of the Worlds” remade as ”Creature From the Black Lagoon” with mystical dawn-of-the-end pretensions.
”Signs,” with its floating unease and pseudo-amazement, turns out to be a parable of rediscovered faith and the hidden unity of events. But this kind of thing worked better in ”Unbreakable,” a movie that made knowing use of the outlandish conceits of comic books. Here, even after we’ve learned that Merrill was once a minor-league slugger and that the final words spoken by Graham’s wife were ”Swing away,” the moment in the film when all of that connects may leave you drop-jawed in its goofy, contrived formalism. Shyamalan, at his best, has a sixth sense for how to transport an audience, but there are moments when he could use an infusion of common sense.