By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Shyamalan pulled off a similar trick in his breakout film, The Sixth Sense, which turned ”seeing dead people“ away from the scarifying and into a way of opening up an alternate reality beyond the material. To a lesser extent, he did the same thing in Unbreakable, whose comic book alter egos -- unbreakable Bruce Willis and his glass-boned nemesis Samuel L. Jackson -- were driven by forces of destiny far grander than mere reason could hope to understand. Working with a gravity unusual in today’s Hollywood, Shyamalan told us that things beyond our ken are still worth knowing.
He thoroughly betrays that idea in Signs, which brings the same plodding, patriarchal pretentiousness to supernatural thrillers as Road to Perdition did to crime pictures. Enthralled by his own genius and desire to make another blockbuster, Shyamalan has taken a terrific B-movie idea -- spooky crop circles appearing on the family farm -- and inflated it into what he wants us to believe is a serious commentary on faith. In fact, it‘s preachy, reactionary guff that serves only to resurrect benighted ideas about religion and family. As I watched, I kept thinking how much smarter and scarier I’d found Mark Pellington‘s The Mothman Prophecies, which takes exactly the same elements -- a widower hero, a small-town setting, inexplicable messages, the possibility of space aliens, a dead wife who offers saving words, even a wise female cop -- but tells its story with pulpy, paranoiac panache.
Signs’ opening minutes provide a genuine Spielbergian thrill, for the audience is turned on by what the crop circles might portend. Of course, the problem with posing a huge enigma at the beginning of a blockbuster is that eventually you must resolve it, and as The X- Files proved, there are more enigmas ”out there“ than good explanations. The revelations are doubly disappointing in Signs, for Shyamalan doesn‘t fully exploit the teasing eerieness of the crop formations, but quickly scuttles it in favor of a slack tale about space invaders, combining the xenophobic hokum of War of the Worlds with a level of unwitting comedy worthy of Ed Wood: These aliens may have the know-how to fly halfway across the universe, but still can’t seem to figure out how to get themselves out of a locked pantry.
In fact, this hostile invasion, too, is only a pretext. For Signs ultimately isn‘t about crop circles or spacemen or the expansion of consciousness. No, it’s about how Mel Gibson‘s paterfamilias regains the religious belief (and clerical collar) he abandoned when his wife died in a car crash, a belief that will allow him to become once again a Proper Father.
About halfway through the movie, he tells his brother, played by Joaquin Phoenix, that life’s main question is simple: Do you believe that events happen at random, or do you believe that there‘s some force looking out for you? Even so crudely formulated, this is a real question about how one makes sense of life, and I kept wishing the movie actually explored it. But rather than make his hero regain his faith the old-fashioned way -- by making peace with his wife’s death and finding God‘s hand in the worldly signs that surround him -- Shyamalan manipulates the plot details so wantonly that the movie winds up feeling like a cheap fundamentalist sermonette. As Slate’s David Edelstein noted in his splendidly crushing review, ”Shyamalan is saying that when you reject God, you kill your kids.“
Taking care not to offend anyone but, possibly, us atheists -- Gibson‘s Christian minister belongs to no particular denomination -- Signs dishes up the ultimate in calculated, nonsectarian religiosity, one that suggests that merely believing in some sort of Supreme Being can save us from the world’s ills. It instructs us to put our faith in faith itself, as if the crucial thing weren‘t what we choose to put our faith in. Such deep-dish vapidity gets you thinking: If Shyamalan is this sententious in a thriller about crop circles, heaven help us when The Next Spielberg decides to make his Schindler’s List.