Signs (2002)

D: M. Night Shyalaman
S: Mel Gibson, Jaoquin Phoenix

Ponderous and overextended sci-fi drama from M. Night Shyalaman in which the writer/director attempts to use his now characteristic solemnity to enliven another generically familiar plot. Following a brilliant revision of the ghost story in The Sixth Sense and an engrossing rethinking of the superhero movie in Unbreakable, Signs is a tale of alien invasion seen from the point of view of a humble farmer which is best thought of as a quiet counterpoint to the grand spectacles of the pre-millenium years (Independence Day, Mars Attacks!, even Men in Black). The film self-consciously desensationalises its subject matter by portraying action at the fringes of the conflict, then attempts to aggrandise it by inserting a religious subtext reminiscent of The War of the Worlds.

The themes of loss and redemption frequently central to the 'disaster' narrative are also recast in terms of patrimonial melodrama, a narrative which also encompasses a symbolic concern with the relationship between humanity and its creator. The story is centred on the spiritual uncertainties faced by retired minister Mel Gibson (The Patriot) and his motherless family as first the suspicion, then the knowledge of alien landings threaten their closed but not untroubled domestic space. Still grappling with personal and religious doubts following the death of his wife, Gibson's character must come to terms with his place in the universe as crop circles begin to appear on his land, raising questions as to whether or not non-human agencies are at work in the world of men. On a deeper level, the character's sense of self-determination is in question. After 'blaming God' for the loss of his wife (or at least questioning his faith because of it), his faith in both God and man is thrown into perspective by the prospect of the destruction of his family by a 'super-human' force.

The film is too obvious to stave off the inevitable feelings first of frustration then of boredom which come as this metaphorical drama plays itself out. Its thematic preoccupations are spelled out at every turn, its paths to redemption too transparent to generate\ suspense or expectation. The characters are drearily familiar and their story arcs are too generic. Gibson's patrimonial struggle with the eternal father is initially envisioned as an internal one, and there is some suggestion that the entire invasion scenario may be a paranoid fantasy representing his spiritual unease. There is relatively little ambiguity though, and the film abandons such psychological subtlety relatively quickly. It then concentrates on small details -- on suspense scenes and moments of family drama which build character relationships.

None of this is particularly surprising, and most of it is disappointingly pedestrian, retreading well-worn generic paths with a sincerity which becomes unbearable. Shyalaman seems to hope that long takes and languid camera movements will invest the action with greater resonance, but no amount of slow pans across the farmhouse space filled with half-full/half-empty glasses of water will disguise the fact that this is just padding. There just isn't enough meat on the cinematic bones, and the director has finally tipped his hand and shown that not every story is redeemable by style alone.

The weaknesses in the film's story are epitomised by the fate of the 'errant' brother-in-law played by Jaoquin Phoenix (Gladiator) whose own path to redemption having fallen from the great American destiny of being a big league baseball player provides the film with its painfully contrived climax. In what is meant to be a highpoint of irony and predestination which 'proves' the benevolence of God and restores Gibson's faith in all things, the film collapses into laughable cliché. Done as the wrap-up to a half-hour Twilight Zone episode in the early 1960s, it might have worked, but coming as the crowning scene in this overlong and self-serious meditation on contemporary human spirituality, it acts like a bullet in the head.

Academic befuddlement aside, Signs is just too slow and too predictable for most people to sit through in expectation of a pay-off which never really comes. Gibson's performance is as earnestly plain as the rest of it: good looking and insubstantial. There is nothing in this movie that you haven't seen before and counterpoint or no, it is still never as much fun as a plain old shoot-'em-up. "Close Encounters of the Spiritual Kind" it may be, but that really isn't enough to make it worth recommending.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.