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Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2002

Seeing is disbelieving . . .


Rating: *
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Running time: 107 minutes
Language: English
Opens Sept. 21

The trailer for "Signs" is good, frighteningly good -- creepy and panicky enough to make you think this could be the next "Shining" or "Ring."

News photo
Mel Gibson in M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs" © BUENA VISTA PICTURES

But don't let it pull a fast one on you.

It's like this: You're in a bar and a voluptuous seductress comes on strong, plies you with liquor and sweet talk, lures you back to her apartment, and then, on the bed, proceeds to spend all night boring you with the details of the breakup with her last boyfriend. That, my friends, is "Signs": all come-on, no delivery.

There's a time and place for talk and restraint, but a panic thriller about an alien invasion is not such an occasion. Director M. Night Shyamalan has an intriguing tease for the first half of his film, but he completely squanders it by trying to get "deep" and by overmanipulating his plot to the point of idiocy. How can anyone make a film on crop circles, UFOs and alien invasion and not provide any cheap thrills? This must be a first, but Shyamalan has done it.

Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a widowed Pennsylvania farmer who's also a former reverend who's lost his faith in God. Joaquin Phoenix plays Graham's brother, Merrill, a failed baseball player who's helping Graham take care of his kids, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). This being a scary movie, the kids are pale and sickly looking and prone to sensing something wrong before the adults do.

Things get weird right off the bat with the discovery of giant crop circles on Graham's farm. Graham and the local cops suspect a prank, but then the dogs go crazy, shadowy figures start rustling around in the cornfields and similar crop circles start appearing all over the planet. As a TV newscaster puts it, "Either this is one of the most elaborate hoaxes ever created, or else it's for real."

Shyamalan handles the first act of the film well: A nighttime chase through rows of corn, in which Graham goes looking for pranksters and realizes it's something worse, is wonderfully frantic. Dropping his flashlight and flailing about with almost zero visibility, he panics, and we're right there with him.

Shyamalan is playing an old game here, knowing full well that what you can't see is scarier than what you can. He sticks to this rule for almost the entire film, but when he breaks it, his elaborate build-up sinks into a swamp of foolishness. Take the original "Alien," another film that largely kept its critter in the shadows; when they finally did reveal the thing, it was a stunner. When Shyamalan finally gets to his big-shriek-of-terror moment, when we finally see what's lurking out there, all we get is a guy in a rubber suit who looks like he wandered off the set of "Ultraman." It's amazingly underwhelming, and the only shock is that the filmmakers actually thought this would scare people.

Shyamalan, who also wrote the film's story, spends so much effort on establishing Graham's crisis of faith, and the inevitable moment when he again sees the light, that he forgets to scare us. He relies on cheap tricks such as punctuating a quiet scene with a dog bark or telephone ring that's pumped up to triple volume. And such tricks are all the film has to offer.

When the aliens finally come looking for dinner, the Hesses board up their house and retreat to the basement, watching TV broadcasts about what's happening across the planet. It's straight from "Night of the Living Dead," and coming hot on its heels are rips from "The Shining," "War of the Worlds" and even "The Wizard of Oz." But such lazy "quotes" only serve to remind you how much more frightening those older films were. In "Living Dead," the zombies get in and everything goes to hell; in Shyamalan's film, the aliens never get past a simple wooden door. As schmaltzy music plays on the soundtrack, Mel gets all weepy-eyed and tells his kids about their births. The aliens, presumably, stop for a smoke.

The film's biggest mistake of all is its constant use of flashbacks to the accident that took the life of Graham's wife -- the cause of his anti-God feelings. This is annoyingly elbowed in between scenes at first, but it becomes ludicrous when, at the film's do-or-die climax -- and stop reading here if you still plan on seeing this movie -- the tension is cut by yet another flashback and, lo and behold, his wife's last words are the key to defeating the evil godless aliens!

Please. When H.G. Wells came up with idea of Martians being defeated by the common cold, it was both surprising and plausible. Hollywood science fiction has since regressed into magic fiction, though, in much the same way that "creationism" is supplanting the theory of evolution in parts of the United States. The last time aliens invaded the Earth in cinema, in "Independence Day," they were defeated by us humans hacking into their software, as if the Pleiadians were running Windows, too. This time around, in "Signs," it takes no more than a Louisville Slugger . . . and a magical flashback to let the heroes discover that "Hey! Bash alien on head!" may be a good idea.

How clever! A baseball bat will defeat the alien, and Graham's brother just happens to be a baseball player. Why, this must be a miracle! Cue the halo hovering over Mel's head. Thing is, the only miracle I can see is that a film this leaden, this preposterous, this lame can actually make money. Call me a non-believer.

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