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If The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are any indication, director/writer M. Night Shyamalan loves to present explanations for completely baffling events. His films take the form of elaborate puzzles in which he scatters clues, and during the climaxes of these films, these clues all come together in amazing revelations that make us rethink everything we have just seen.

Shyamalan's newest film, Signs, fits into this filmmaking scheme, allowing the director to expound upon one of the great mysteries (or one of the great hoaxes) of the past century -- those vexing patterns that suddenly appear overnight in cultivated fields, otherwise known as crop circles.

However, in this case, Shyamalan deals out his solution relatively early, and the solution is fairly straightforward (a kind of flashback to '50s sci-fi). From early in the movie, we know what's causing the crop circles that mark the corn field of a Pennsylvania farmer played by Mel Gibson. We never actually see the crop circles being created. Shyamalan leaves this part of the mystery intact, but his storytelling leaves no room for an alternative explanation.

So while Shyamalan might be dealing with mysterious subject matter, as in The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, here he's content to reveal large parts of the mystery well before the movie reaches its climax. However, Shyamalan keeps us isolated on a farm, where a television and a radio become our only links to the outside world. By limiting our perspective and only allowing us to know what the Hess family knows, Shyamalan ratchets up the suspense level.

In this respect, the movie bears more than a passing resemblance to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Both movies largely take place in isolated farm houses that the inhabitants board up -- while an outside force attempts to break in. In some respects, Signs is so similar to Night of the Living Dead that it might qualify as a remake. (There are no zombies in Signs. Rather I'm referring to the structure of the stories.) However, while Romero's film only dropped a single hint as a possible explanation for the events, Shyamalan's film gives us a much more elaborate explanation. But to a large extent, this part of the story is a red herring.

Shyamalan's real interest is the faith of Graham Hess (Mel Gibson). Hess was a priest, but after his wife died an excruciating death in an automobile accident, he rejected God. Paradoxically, this personal drama is what Shyamalan decides to mine for the twist ending material that will bring the movie to its conclusion. Because the twist ending doesn't really need any of the science-fiction plot that comes before it, the revelations provided by the personal drama lean precariously toward the contrived and the mechanical. Shyamalan's films typically flirt with this discrepancy between the demands of the plot and the desire for twist endings. But nowhere has this relationship been so tenuous and brittle in Shyamalan's previous films.

At its best, Signs works like a rural version of War of the Worlds retrofitted with doses of Night of the Living Dead. But at its worst, Signs works as a simplistic religious parable that delights in elevating the role of coincidence and happenstance to near miraculous confluences.

Mel Gibson is miscast in the lead, although he makes a valiant effort to capture the quiet certitude of a man of God. But he's too dynamic an actor for such an inwardly drawn character. And his efforts at underplaying his scenes instead turn into hamming. Joaquin Phoenix is a strange choice to play the role of Merrill Hess, Graham's brother and a former minor league homerun slugger. Phoenix is a fine young actor, but he lacks the bulk to play this part. (Interestingly, Gibson has the bulk and Phoenix has the capacity for playing quiet, inwardly drawn characters. What would've happened if they had switched roles?)

Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin are fine as Graham's children, although Shyamalan forces them to act as if they're constantly sedated. This is how Shyamalan prefers to visualize childhood. We saw the same quiet, intense approach in The Sixth Sense. But here, instead of creating real, flesh-and-blood characters, Shyamalan lazily recycles his past successes.

Overall, Signs is a mixed bag. It contains some startling sci-fi that benefits from the restricted perspective from which Shyamalan tells his story. By closing off our avenue of information, Shyamalan manages to increase our uncertainty, and as a result, our fear of the unknown doubles. However, in terms of its characters and its drama, Signs is cumbersome and unconvincing. By forcing a twist ending on the plot, Shyamalan reveals his own lack of faith in his science-fiction yarn. Instead of reaching a startling revelation, as in The Sixth Sense and, to a lesser degree, Unbreakable, the final revelation of Signs becomes the gimmicky contrivance of a filmmaker repeating himself.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]

Movie Studio Web site: Touchstone Pictures (movies.com)
Movie Web site: Signs



Photo credits: © 2002 Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.