SIGNS

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan

With Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin

***1/4
Since I was one of the few defenders of Shyamalan's UNBREAKABLE, an acquaintance has implied that I liked it mostly because it looked like an Asian art film. Well, I like SIGNS mostly because it has the sensibility of a Flaming Lips album.  Recently, the band has used pulp comic book and sci-fi imagery ("Waitin' For A Superman," "One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21," "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt. 1") to speak intelligently about death, aging and morality. In THE SIXTH SENSE (which I probably underrated  in 1999), UNBREAKABLE and SIGNS, Shyamalan does much the same, lending weight to similar tropes. At his worst, he pumps up the Important Themes ; at best, he can explore the potential for  intimacy and the drama of quiet desperation underpinning his sources. 

Graham Hess (Gibson) is a retired preacher who gave up the cloth 6 months ago, having lost his faith after his wife was killed in a car accident. Nevertheless, people still refer to him as "father" everywhere he goes: in a drugstore, a woman even tries to give him her confession. (She asks if "douchebag" is a curse.) He lives alone with his two children, Morgan (Culkin) and Bo (Breslin), his dogs and much younger brother Merrill (Phoenix). Graham and Merrill, a former baseball player, have now devoted themselves to their farm. However, crop circles begin appearing in the cornfield. At first, they seem like neighbors' pranks, but the weirdness around them - and in the outside world - escalates. Eventually, UFOs hover over almost every city on the planet, using crop circles as navigation guides.

This week's issue of NEWSWEEK praises Shyamalan as a "hot new storyteller," but I don't respond to him much on that level. He's better as a director of actors and a visual stylist. He's particularly good at getting vulnerable performances out of a macho actor like Bruce Willis.  However, Willis has more range than Gibson. The action hero patina  clings so closely to Gibson that he's not very believable as a former minister having a crisis of conscience. (When he  tells his nephew that he  can't curse or act angry, it 's basically an in-joke.) SIGNS mixes creepiness and comedy pretty well, though,  with much of its wit coming from the kids, especially Bo's phobia about tap water.

SIGNS chronicles the effects of an alien invasion - a possible apocalypse - on 4 people in a farmhouse, isolated away from the outside world. The cop played by Cherry Jones, who has the most screen time of any character outside the family, appears onscreen for about 2 and 1/2 minutes. All the action takes place in  rural Pennsylvania.  The family's world shrinks further and further as the film goes on. At first, Graham and Merrill are willing to go outside to search for pranksters behind the crop circles. Eventually, the media and a baby monitor (which mostly receives feedback and static but sometimes captures weird voices) become their only links to the outside world. Then the TV goes out. As a physical object, it even becomes a source of terror in one key scene. Among recent films, only the first hour of Stuart Gordon's DAGON and  final half hour of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's PULSE have matched this mood of eerie confusion. 

As usual, Shyamalan has a fine sense of dynamics and a knack for using offscreen space  to create tension. Just as THE SIXTH SENSE waited an hour before showing any gore, SIGNS avoids any explicit signs of alien presence as long as possible. He lets darkness create atmosphere: many scenes are designed to look as though they were lit only by a flashlight or holes punched in boards.  One of the most intense scenes shows little more than Graham watching feet trod back and forth behind a pantry door. There's no CGI here, although it might not have been a bad idea: the aliens look too obviously like men in  rubber suits.

Like Mark Pellington's  MOTHMAN PROPHECIES, SIGNS resonates mostly as a film about loss, in which  X-FILES hokum becomes an elaborate underpinning for grief. On a symbolic level, personal tragedy turns into a community disaster (or vice versa), and the hero can find his way back only by confronting the superhuman. Unfortunately, the film's dives into religion come close to sinking it. As a mood piece and a terrifying film, it's as good as anything Hollywood has produced this year. As a film about spirituality...well, it won't make anyone forget ORDET, DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST or BREAKING THE WAVES or even THE THIRD MIRACLE. It's not enough that Graham has crises of faith; he has to spell out their advantages and disadvantages to Merrill. Nor is it enough that he refuses to pray at the dinner table; he has to shout about it. In the final 5 minutes, God makes an appearance as one of Shyamalan's trademark final gimmicks. (The Flaming Lips used Superman to stand in for him, a touch he could have considered.) He continually overdoes the religious symbolism, particularly in the final scene. (Gosh, do you think anyone will notice that the lamp next to the door looks like a crucifix?) Whatever  the director's own religious beliefs, SIGNS makes faith look like a lazy screenwriter's device. Given the film's ability to map out a frightening microcosm of catastrophe, that's still a relatively minor lapse.