Signs (2002) Movie Review

M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie, “Signs,” is about an invasion of Earth by aliens. Or at least that’s what the movie’s ads would have you believe. It’s actually about a fallen holy man (Mel Gibson), his failed baseball player brother (Joaquin Phoenix), and his children — the precocious and paranoid Bo (Abigail Breslin) and Rory Culkin as the pre-teen son who has lost faith in his father. “Signs” is about the lost and eventual relocation of said lost faith. So in that respect, if you went into “Signs” looking for a good ol fashion Us Versus Aliens flick, you’ll be disappointed, as I was.

Like Shyamalan’s last movie “Unbreakable,” “Signs” is a slow-moving film that uses a genre device (re: an alien invasion) to delve into its real intentions. The whole aliens-are-invading-let’s-run angle is just not that important to writer/director Shyamalan, who uses the backdrop of the gradual alien invasion as nothing more than an excuse to talk about Mel Gibson’s fallen reverend, Graham Hess, and his eventual return to faith — a return to acceptance that will win over his family and brother, but only after he wins himself back first.

Okay, gotcha. Now what about the whole alien thing?

As mentioned, Shyamalan is either not all that interested in making a genre film about invading aliens ala “Independence Day” or he simply lost interest along the way. The film opens well enough, with Hess 6 months after the death of his wife and the lost of his faith (not to mention the surrendering of his position as the town reverend), discovering crop circles in his backyard. Soon, the whole world is experiencing the same phenomena. And not long after that, invisible UFOs are appearing over locations where crop circles have recently appeared.

Merrill, Graham’s brother, thinks the crop circles might be navigational symbols for the aliens to navigate by, a sort of code word you can see from space. Of course, no one tells ex-jock Merrill that if the aliens had invented intergalactic travel than they could probably communicate without having to resort to cutting patterns into some farmer’s fields! Then again, Shyamalan put so little thought into the whole alien invasion background that it’s not worth mentioning all the other gaping plot holes.

As a diehard sci-fi fan, I was disappointed with “Signs” and its crude (and dare I say it, simplistic) interpretations of the whole UFO and alien mythos. Did Shyamalan do what Rory Culkin’s character did and buy a book about aliens and decided this would make a groovy film? I suppose so, because there is so little heart put into the film’s alien plot that the film threatened, on more than one occasion, to wander into absurd territory. It doesn’t help that the aliens, when they’re finally revealed in their full glory, looks like something you could get out of a costume shop. In a word, they’re cheap.

Mind you, I wouldn’t keep harping on how badly the whole alien invasion angle is executed, except the film’s ads sold “Signs” to me as a sci-fi film. I was lied to, and I didn’t appreciate it. Worst, although the film’s questions about the pursuit of lost faith were interesting, it just didn’t seem all that proper in the context of the film’s alien plot. And did I mention how awful the TV and radio broadcasts in the film were done? Isn’t it just great how the TV anchors and radio disk jockeys always pause whenever the actors start speaking, only to talk again and deliver some other interesting news when the actors stop talking? How convenient.

By now it probably seems as if I didn’t appreciate the film. That would be false, because I did enjoy myself. There is a lot of humor in the film, mostly involving Morgan and Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix, “Gladiator”), and foiled hats. The acting is superb across the board, and the film uses very few characters, thus invoking a claustrophobic feel as the Hess family barricades themselves into their home against the impending invasion. Gibson has the man-who-has-lost-his-faith role down pat, but besides not packing a .45, Gibson’s Graham is just an older (and less suicidal) version of his Martin Riggs from “Lethal Weapon”.

“Signs” is not all that different from Shyamaln’s breakthrough film, “Sixth Sense.” Shyamalan writes and directs with the same style, it’s just that his last 3 films have different genre premise. There was the ghost thing, the superhero thing, and now the alien thing. Through it all, Shyamalan continues to write and direct children well, is able to turn his superstar leading men into common men, and he also turns the best slow-moving camera for a filmmaker not working in South Korea or Japan.

Other than that, you’ve been warned about “Signs.

M. Night Shyamalan (director) / M. Night Shyamalan (screenplay)
CAST: Mel Gibson …. Father Graham Hess
Joaquin Phoenix …. Merrill Hess
Rory Culkin …. Morgan Hess
Abigail Breslin …. Bo Hess

Buy Signs on DVD