So M. Night's back in the hizouse with another little crizeepfizest, but this time, we ain't talkin' 'bout no dead folk or no supa-hee-rows. We'z all up on da alien tip!
Sorry, let me put the crack pipe away. That odd bird M. Night Shyamalan, who made the big splash with his "would-have-been-Mercury-Rising-if-not-for-a-neat-twist" flick The Sixth Sense and followed it up with the underrated neat-o comic book reinvention Unbreakable, now focuses his attention on the mysTEEEEERious phenomenon of elaborate crop circles appearing overnight on people's property, most likely the result of nerd cabals in search of attention, but weird enough to still be thought provoking.
In this film, some circles show up in the backyard of Graham (Gibson), a priest who has been struggling with his faith and his family since his wife died. He lives with his two children and his brother Merrill (Phoenix) in Pennsylvania, and he's just trying to find his way in the world when crazy alien malarkey is foisted on him. Of course, he doesn't believe it right away, chalking it up to the aforementioned nerd cabals with the help of Merrill's input. But then it starts cranking up a notch when they actually turn on the TV and discover it's happening all over the place with alarming speed and numbers. This makes them realize that... (creepy pause)... "It's happening."
It boils down to an alien invasion story told from the perspective of one isolated family in a small rural town, which is a neat idea - none of this overarching Bill Pullman "TODAY IS OUR INDEPENDENCE DAY" Randy Quaid Upload-A-Mac-Virus-to-Aliens crap, but a simplified human story about dealing with the unfathomable. It works pretty well, too, but like prior M. Night efforts, it's not without its flaws.
On the positive side, I really liked the reaction the whole family had once they turned on the TV and discovered what was going on - it really has echoes of September 11, 2001, at least for me. I turned on the TV, saw the second tower go down, and basically camped out on the couch for the next twenty hours or so, staring at the screen. This is what Merrill does, and it really makes it seem more realistic. Phoenix's Merrill is kinda goofy-funny in general, too, and he's got a couple of fun moments as comic relief. Gibson's Graham is generally dour and brooding throughout, although what he does after Merrill coaches him on how to make a big angry show to scare away skulky-types outside is some of the funniest crap I've seen in a while.
The actual alien part of this is also pretty well handled - doling out the information in nerve-working tablespoon dosages rather than foisting an army of green men on us all at once, what with their laser beams and their "take me to your leader" schticks. You get your alien news just like you would if they really started invading - from home video footage submitted to news agencies while you stare at your television. It's also never fully explained what exactly the aliens are DOING, what they want with Earth or humanity or even really what exactly they can do, which just makes things more suspenseful, since there's nothing creepier than what imagination can fill in the blanks of the unknown with - like religion. (Cue 'snotty inflammatory tangent' stinger music.)
Speaking of that ironically divisive concept of human unity in the thrall of imaginary invisible men, "Signs" once again trods that territory of faith struggling in that annoying "I only question my faith when I get some shit luck" way. Wouldn't this be when the faithful cling to their beliefs with the most tenacity - in the face of unimaginable sorrow and grief? I thought this was the whole POINT to religion - to make people feel better about death by harping on the possibility of the 'afterlife,' appealing to the self-centered nature of humanity by promising us that our unique little souls will carry on in eternal happiness in cloudy, harp-filled Dreamlands of The Great Beyond and getting to hang out with Jimi Hendrix and William Henry Harrison. Apparently, in movies, faith only works when things are going well - much like the phenomenon of athletes praising God when they score touchdowns but never invoking him as the reason that they got their spine broken and became paralyzed for life. It just bothers me that people have to 'lose their faith' after having some awful crap happen to themselves, and they can't just look around and say "Wait a minute... why in the world am I following the word of a god whose grand plan for humanity includes child rape? Could it be that this is all bullshit? Let me read this Bible again... holy crap! This Old Testament makes God look like a bipolar nutjob, giving tactical advice in wars to whatever handful of humans he considers 'the chosen people' at any given time, making up ridiculous commandments and ordering the slaughter of children... and this New Testament details the birth of Catholicism as being the work of Paul completely bastardizing the actual substance of Jesus' selfless anarchic ideas into an oppressive organizational hierarchy based on ill-defined metaphysical doctrine1! This is unbelievable! What bigger sign do I need to discount this bunk than hundreds and hundreds of "Men of God" raping children?"
Objective conclusions about faith don't seem to happen in movies - it's always "Damn you, GOD! You allowed my wife and child to die in a freak accident! I AM ANGRY WITH YOU AND MAYBE JUST MAYBE I DON'T EVEN BELIEVE IN YOU HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES?!" To be fair, though, I don't doubt that a lot of the 'faithful' would question their beliefs as soon as THEY actually have to suffer, and it's not just a matter of offering platitudes of 'tough luck, sonny, but God's got a plan, so don't you worry' to other people in times of great pain and sorrow.
BUT ANYWAY... back to the film. Graham seems to have this latter questioning going on, and in the climax, seems to take note of some weird contrivances that reaffirm his belief, although everyone else who loses a loved one and listens to them saying seemingly nonsensical things just before they die may not be lucky enough to have an alien invasion to prompt them to read far too much into those final words. Not everybody's got words of wisdom to pass on, folks.
There's also the issue of why the hell Graham doesn't call somebody when he encounters the alien locked in M. Night Shyamalan's pantry. He's got plenty of time to ring up Sherriff Cherry Jones and say "Hey, you want to study one of these things, find out what kills it? Give it a shot." But no, he rushes home and has an uncomfortable Last Supper with his family, including a son who for some reason hates him because 'he let Mom die,' which doesn't happen at all, and there's no telling where the kid got the misconception.
The opening credits were annoying too, but they're forgettable once the film starts. Overall, if you take "Signs" on the level of a cool alien invasion movie from a unique perspective, it works pretty damn well, and it had the entire audience eating out of the palm of its hand, and that kind of vibe can be really contagious in a movie theater. Marginal comedies can seem hilarious, suspenseful movies can feel unbearably tense, but the people gasping during Serendipity didn't make that one seem any more romantic or less contrived. "Signs" is pretty cool, though, and it's good to see M. Night break that "must... have... twist... ending!" pattern he had going, so now you truly don't know what to expect in one of his films, other than lots of quiet, long shots and some eerie tension.
1 - Read "Ken's Guide To The Bible" by Ken Smith. It's occasionally too literal, but still a great read about how absurd the Bible is.