A family living on a farm finds mysterious crop circles in their fields which suggests something more frightening to come.
“Signs” is a 2002 science fiction thriller starring Mel Gibson (Get The Gringo), Joaquin Phoenix (Walk The Line), Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin. It was directed by M. Night Shyamalan who brought us The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. The eerie score was done by James Newton Howard who also scored M. Night’s other films including the exceptionally well layered score for Lady in the Water and Peter Jackson’s King Kong. I won’t go into a diatribe about how M. Night’s films have been taking a bit of a nose dive in quality since just about everyone has been on the guy’s back for putting out drek like “The Happening” and “The Last Airbender” What I will do is give him some props and accolades for constructing a decent science fiction story that even though it doesn’t maintain it’s vigor towards the 3rd act still has much to like about it. The movie sports a great set up, has a great cast powering the material and despite the previously mentioned resolution being a bit derivative, still packs a wallop in places. Signs is a polarizing film for many and it suffers a bit from an identity crisis but once M. Night decides to forgo some more of the headier elements of the story and gets back down to basics it is quite enjoyable.
Gibson stars as an ex- Episcopal Reverend named Graham Hess, who has lost his wife in a bad car crash. Subsequently he has lost his faith and is forced into taking care of his 2 young children, Morgan and Bo. As well as having his brother, Merrill (Phoenix) living with him to help out on the farm and watching his children. He is quite a broken and solemn man and he is very dedicated to his family but is most obviously estranged from his God and his faith. This is of course one of the headier and more thought provoking elements and we are decidedly curious as to how M. Night will mesh all this in with a sci fi back story. I say back story because like I said we aren’t quite sure what is the main story here is sometimes. Perhaps there is no need to mesh anything and the message can be quite unique for each and everyone who sees the film. Eventually Hess finds that he has Crop Circles appearing in his Corn fields. The kind that, say, appear all over England and such. They are elaborate and striking. One night his daughter, Bo, wakes him up to tell him that a monster is outside her window. As he tries to comfort her (she also admits to her water tasting strange) he looks outside and in a very creepy moment, just when Newton Howard’s awesome musical cue starts he sees a figure in silhouette just outside. He goes and wake Merrill to try to and catch whoever it is. They believe it may be some local pranksters but never get to the bottom of it.
Actress Cherry Jones (24, The Village and The Perfect Storm) plays Sheriff Paski and she and Hess investigate not only the intrusion but the strange crop circles. They both are stumped by how it got there. The kids show up and tell them that crop circles are appearing all over the world and that panic and paranoia is ensuing even in their small town in PA. Hess and Merrill plan a trip into town to distract the family and gather some info. Once there we gain a bit more insight into Merrill’s past as he visits a recruiting office and is recognized by the recruiter there as a failed baseball star. The dude is quite creepy and eccentric but provides a bit of color to the movie. As the dog barks to no end at the cornfield later that night, Hess goes out with a flashlight and starts to roam the corn. He attempts to “talk” to the persons or “entities” that are perpetrating the massive hoax. Or so he thinks. Back in the house, Merrill watches a video feed from CNN that shows a quick shot of the “aliens” in a pretty terrifying sequence. M. Night then begins to accelerate the material by adding in the character that was responsible for the demise of Graham’s wife. The guy known as Ray Reddy (played by director M. Night) who gives Graham a call and tells him to meet him at his office the next day. In an emotional moment that Gibson tears right into, he and Reddy have a short conversation outside his house (Reddy is taking off to a nearby lake since It’s believed that the aliens are staying away from water for some reason).
Reddy proceeds to tell Graham that he is sorry for taking his wife away from him and then confesses to trapping “one of them” in his pantry. Graham accepts his apology and goes into the house and confronts an alien that tries to reach for him from under the door. Hess then manages to cut some of it’s fingers off provoking the creature into howling frightfully. One very cool and creepy moment in the film. Things intensifies as Graham decides not to leave the farm but fortifying it against the alien intruders. Merrill keeps up on the news and says he thinks that the crop circles are a sort of alien “road map” or “navigation” points. They all sit down for a meal in a very nicely done scene that feels very natural and very real considering the happenings just outside the house. Then we get going as they aliens descend on the house and Graham realizes that the attic wasn’t secured and they all head into the basement for the film’s denouement. Here is when the film starts to go by the numbers provoking us to really feel and sympathize with the characters. It feels a bit forced to me like having Morgan suffer an almost fatal asthma attack. I don’t have a problem so much with how the actors play it all out but I feel that the melodrama bogs the film down a bit. Without specifically going into the finale I did like how Graham puts together how a strange final message from his dying wife pertains to Merrill and the immediate danger the family finds themselves in.
In conclusion though “Signs” while being really disliked by hardcore sci fi fanatics does get some things right but by the end it becomes replete with inconsistencies and some laughable moments. The films sort of devolves a bit and takes a few steps backwards and despite some A list dressings seems a bit B movie-ish and hokey. As I mentioned earlier the melodrama is a bit cringe-worthy especially during moments between Gibson and his family. Phoenix , here though, steals every scene he’s in. There is a brilliant moment when while Graham attempts to wake him and he appears very zoned out and is slow to respond. Pure awesomeness on Phoenix’s part. The supporting cast are all very capable and 2 strong points here are the music and the cinematography. James Newton Howard’s score is both cerebral and minimalistic. “The Hand of Fate” and “Brazilian Video” are 2 of the more mystical tracks of the score empowering the movie tenfold. The DP, Tak Fujimoto, who scored multiple awards for Silence of the Lambs, shoots the film with incredible detail and wonderful composition. One shot that is lovely to behold is the revelation of the crop circles and the overhead shot of the Hess family riding into town. Signs is not “2001” and it doesn’t try to be. It is flawed but retains some redeeming qualities like good mood and stylish suspense. There isn’t much science in this science fiction movie but I applaud M.Night for trying to provoke some thought and reality by exploring faith, loss and an ET invasion all at once. Something that is rarely attempted by modern film-makers. So kudos for a great try Mr. Shyamalan.