Going in Circles

In his aliens-in the-back-yard 'Signs,' M. Night Shyamalan plows the same old ground of juiced-up surprised endings.

August 02, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

SUN SCORE

*1/2 STAR

Director M. Night Shyamalan sucked millions of people into The Sixth Sense with a trick ending that some of us saw coming when we noticed that Bruce Willis never made eye contact with anyone except Haley Joel Osment. Shyamalan followed it up with Unbreakable, a movie that relied on a trick ending that satisfied nothing except the director's desire to have another trick ending; it was as if he'd painted himself into a corner and just stood there.

Now Signs applies his most stilted techniques yet to the tale of a Bucks County, Pa., father (Mel Gibson) who is also a reluctant Father - an Episcopal priest who has given up his ministry after the agonizing death of his wife. With the help of his younger brother (Joaquin Phoenix), a minor-league home-run champ, he must now protect his young son (Rory Culkin) and younger daughter (Abigail Breslin) from whatever is creating crop circles in his cornfields.

If anything, the movie is even more self-conscious than the writer-director's previous exercises in terror - with the emphasis on exercise rather than terror. Shyamalan and his story-boarders and his cinematographer Tak Fujimoto have given it a look that's less Pennsylvania Impressionist than American Gothic.

He's such a stiff and essentially self-serious moviemaker that his attempts at goofiness are more discomfiting than his jolts of suspense. For example, when Cherry Jones, as the local cop, comes to investigate a prowling complaint at Gibson's place before the alien threat becomes obvious, she goes into a down-home feminist riff about how today's women are as strong and fast as men. In context, it's both trite and befuddling. You're left wondering what planet she's from.

Culkin, who starts reading up on aliens at the first whiff of their arrival, convinces everyone except Gibson to wear aluminum-foil caps that make their heads look like Hershey's Kisses. The caps, he says, will prevent aliens from reading their minds. The sight is mildly funny once, but ludicrous by the time Uncle Joaquin joins in - the cap might as well be a surgical cap holding in his brains after a lobotomy.

Gibson has more range and skill (and possibly depth) than anyone else in his male-superstar class, yet in this film I enjoyed him in just one sequence: when he endures a drugstore counter-girl's impromptu confession, which includes her asking whether "douche bag" is a swear word.

If only we could wear caps that would prevent Shyamalan from predicting our responses. The movie tries to sandwich the grave and the lighthearted but in fact is unrelentingly manipulative. Shyamalan leaves no sucker punch unthrown. From making Culkin asthmatic (he's the second heavy-breather in jeopardy this year, after Jodie Foster's daughter in Panic Room) to sacrificing the family dogs, Shyamalan pushes buttons with his fists.

At the same time, Shyamalan cautiously creates a pattern of motifs, like a prison inmate constructing a monument with matchsticks. The movie is designed so that in retrospect, you can see how the slightest detail fits together, down to the daughter's tendency to leave water glasses around the house. This is supposed to jibe with Gibson's need to learn that everything, including the death of loved ones, happens for a reason.

But Shyamalan is no cinematic deity: He fails to conjure an impression of unlikely coincidences coming together out of a fateful necessity. He always raises more questions than he answers - including crucial ones about the relative strengths and vulnerabilities of the aliens.

The only aura this movie has is one of aspiration, and that can't elevate or disguise a bunch of rudimentary scare routines interspersed with father-doesn't-know-best humor, and topped by a total fiasco of a sci-fi confrontation.

Of course, at its highest level, this movie aims to explore our common nightmares about violence and evil rending the fabric of everyday life. (Conceived before Sept. 11, it began shooting Sept. 13, and arrives right on schedule to meet the demands of the pop Zeitgeist.) But Shyamalan takes a wrong-end-of-the-telescope approach.

In his under-30-minute Twilight Zone episode "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," Rod Serling managed to fashion a paranoid parable about a close encounter that spoke to middle-class audiences everywhere, and never felt the need to assuage our fears.

Signs is so faith-obsessed and overly specific, it will speak mostly to families of lapsed Episcopalian ministers that contain at least one tragically dead clan member, a standout baseball player and a kid with asthma.

Signs

Starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Rated PG-13

Time 107 minutes

Released by Touchstone Pictures

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