Often heralded as the new Steven Spielberg, director M. Night Shyamalan weighs in with his extraterrestrial thriller “Signs.” Right now, no one is doling out more cinematic chills and thrills than Shyamalan, and “Signs,” even more than “The Sixth Sense,” asks viewers to check their spirituality at the door.

Paul Wong

Shyamalan is dubiously aware of how to scare America out of her collective pants; “The Sixth Sense” made me spill popcorn in the aisle and despite commercial breaks, scared me nearly as much when it was aired on network television earlier this year. More than a mere suspense director, Shyamalan’s frighteners find common ground, not only with Philadelphia (where all of his films take place, or in surrounding areas), but more importantly, with human nature.

For some reason the American public, myself included, let M. Night Shyamalan get away with the ridiculous. “The Sixth Sense” managed not only to convince us that ghosts were real, and that wunderkind Haley Joel Osment could see them and quasi-communicate with them, but Shyamalan twisted the plot before our very eyes, even turning Bruce Willis into a ghost.

Willis and Shyamalan teamed up again in the drastically underrated “Unbreakable,” and convinced us that Willis’ Philadelphia security guard was impossible to harm, with a vulnerability only to water. It was a superhero film completely misunderstood by both press and public, who expected another “Sixth Sense.” Instead they were treated to the first hour of “Spider-Man” (a man coping with the discovery of his own superheroism), lushly captured over a couple hours.

In both cases, Shyamalan drives the intensity of a film to its breaking point, (although granted, completely differently in “Unbreakable” as opposed to “Sixth Sense”) and then fizzled the films out in a moment of viewer-expected intrinsic thought. This forced interaction with his films, allowing Shyamalan to ask questions about spirituality, question our beliefs and expectations – “Signs” is no exception.

Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), his two children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin) and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) live in the middle of nowhere somewhere outside of Philadelphia. It is a world where life moves a little slower, the families always show up for church and the roads aren’t paved, but gravel. Hess, a former minister, abdicated his ministry in the Episcopalian church after the death of his wife.

When a mysterious crop circle pops up in Hess’ cornfields, the whodunit surfaces as hastily as the circles are formed. Graham, a disbeliever and cynic, passes the formations off as prank, but when crop circles begin to amass throughout the world and lights hover over cities, he is forced to confront his own spirituality. It is a spirituality that, in a decisive scene between he and Merrill, divides the world into two types of people, those who believe in coincidence and those who believe in signs.

Relatively quickly, perhaps too quickly, the film dispatches with the “who” is behind the crop circles, and moves on to praying the question, “will Graham rediscover his faith, learn to love again and live completely?” The answer, midway into the film, amidst a truly horrifying mass of thudding and screaming and shaking and trembling, becomes crystal clear.

It is in the almost clairvoyant obviousness of the film’s resolution where Shyamalan slips his work away from being a masterpiece, and relegating it to simply being a great film. Confounding his characters with spirituality, their own apprehensions perhaps an extension of the director’s own apprehensions, Shyamalan turns “Signs” into a what-could have been, rather than a what-is.

While he clouds the possible brilliance of his film with his puzzling spiritual inquiries, Shyamalan knows how to extract great performances from his actors. Mel Gibson is pitch-perfect as Graham Hess, a breath of fresh air from an actor who has been too caught up in remaking “Braveheart” for his own good.

Also refreshing is seeing Joaquin Phoenix in a role which we can actually like his character, rather than just admire his acting skills (think Emperor Commodus in “Gladiator” and the Abbe du Coulmier in “Quills”). Shyamalan gets the most out of his child actors, and there is certainly something to be said for harvesting performances from children (take that Mr. Lucas!) Morgan and Bo Hess only serve to augment the film. Rory Culkin’s childlike wonder at the prospect of invasion brings a handful of light moments in the film, which turns viciously dark when the lights go out. Bo Hess plays foil to Morgan, but reminds more of Drew Barrymore a la “E.T.” Her innocence is as refreshing as Culkin’s bright-eyed interest in extraterrestrials.

The film is frightening, flat-out tremble-scary for the first three-quarters. Everything is reduced to a glimpse of a couple fingers, and when Shyamalan forces our imagination into action, the chills run deep – deeper than when Hess and his family come face to face with the horror that kept a theater full of eyes cowering and squinting. It is anti-climatic to say the least. One is forced to wonder, if viewers had never confronted the Earth invaders, and they had came and left in the same horrifying turn of events, would that have made the film better? It would have forced Shyamalan to stretch his ending beyond the too-neat conclusion.

Despite its flaws, Shyamalan’s “Signs” is doubtlessly an accomplished piece of film. While not nearly as impressive as his masterwork “Unbreakable,” it is without a doubt scarier than “The Sixth Sense.” The characters are believable, and the ending, while it weighs in a bit heavy on the side of schmaltz, won’t cause any gags, in fact it will cause a few sighs, because after the terror-storm that Shyamalan flies through with “Signs,” maybe what the audience needs is to sigh, and take a breath, chances are Shyamalan has stolen it from their lungs, again.

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