M. Night Shyamalan aims to scare up 'Sixth Sense'-like success with the thriller SIGNS.

It’s like a dream. Children and parents play in the failing sunshine, ducking in and out of undulating cornfields. Lights encased in huge helium balloons float above the grass like great incandescent pearl onions. Mel Gibson toes a plastic dog sprawled on the grass in front of a farmhouse.

M. Night Shyamalan smiles sadly. The writer-director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable gathers his family — his parents, Jaya and Nelliate; his wife, Bhavna; his 5- and 2-year-old daughters — and takes a moment of quiet before filming on his thriller begins for the night. The crew has jury-rigged the playback monitors to show local television and huddles around a news broadcast in the cool Pennsylvania country air. If you listen closely, you can hear someone crying.

It is Oct. 3 and New York is still burning. Shyamalan is working on the first Hollywood movie to start after the Sept. 11 attacks. The film, Signs, concerns a widower — a former minister, played by Gibson — who wakes up one day to find crop circles in his cornfields. The circles prefigure an alien invasion, which leads to potential global destruction and a dire threat to his family. And so, before rolling on his movie about the end of the world during what feels like the end of the world, the 31-year-old director shoots a concerned look at his crew and stops to hug his children goodbye. They smile at their dad. Goodnight Mel. Goodnight moon. Goodnight gigantic pearl-onion balloons.

Unbreakable kills night Shyamalan. It just kills him. His brown eyes go dull and droopy talking about the movie, the one that was supposed to cement his status as a great filmmaker hybrid — a talent with the boy-genius airs of Welles, the suspense instincts of Hitchcock, and the heart of Spielberg. Just listen to the director for five minutes and he’ll almost convince you what a disaster it was: Audiences didn’t get it. He was too early with the comic-book thing. He and Disney made the wrong marketing decisions. Even the title dripped hubris. What’s worse, he didn’t see it coming.

”We were completely blindsided,” he says, over shrimp at a sushi joint near his offices outside Philadelphia. ”It’s one thing if you have a problem movie. [But] it was picture-perfect, down to the scene. Everyone was doing the best work they had ever done, putting together this definitive movie on the mythology of comic books. But the mixed reaction…” He pauses.

”I take responsibility. My choices caused that. There was an uncomfortable spot that I kept you in and never let you out of, so it ultimately wasn’t uplifting or satisfying. The wife is burdened. The child is burdened. Bruce [Willis] is burdened. A movie that lives in a gray place and ends in a gray place will get you a gray response.”

To most, however, it looked more silver than gray. Sure, it wasn’t the highest-grossing thriller of all time and it didn’t get The Sixth Sense’s six Oscar nominations — but Unbreakable did rack up almost $100 million, win a devoted cult, and have its two stars, Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, clamoring for not one but two sequels. But where others see a nice follow-up, Shyamalan sees a dead career — which leads one to wonder, Who is this guy? The precocious budding genius? The press-friendly family man? The morose auteur?

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