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Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Cherry Jones, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan
Produced by: M. Night Shyamalan, Frank Marshall, Sam Mercer
Distributor: Touchstone Pictures

US: 03/08/02 UK: 13/09/02

M. Night Shyamalan's new feature film, SIGNS is a thriller set in Bucks County, Pennsylvania focusing on the mysterious appearance of a five-hundred-foot design of circles and lines carved into a family's crops. Mel Gibson stars as Graham Hess, the family patriarch, who is tested in his journey to find the truth behind the unfolding mystery. Joaquin Phoenix is Merrill Hess, brother to Graham and a former minor league baseball star.

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Mel Gibson harvesting the corn in Signs

In the movie dictionary M.Night Shyamalan falls between Ridley Scott and Stephen Spielberg. Believe me, in twenty years time, he will be lucky to be a footnote if he carries on like this.

It all began when Mr. Shyamalan had a monster hit four years ago with The Sixth Sense. This sombre, rather tedious movie was redeemed in the last five minutes with a twist that caught the general viewer by surprise. Sixth Sense made billions and appears to have given Mr. Shyamalan a head bigger than the crop circles that form the centrepiece to this corncob-fisted example of movie-making.

It also seems to have given him the power to steamroller through anything he wants. Right up front in the opening credits we have the major problem here: Written, Directed and Produced by M.Night Shyamalan. No-one, it seems, can stop this thirtysomething who seems to think he's the next Spielberg. In your dreams mate. The man is an exemplar of the Emperor's new clothes. There's simply nothing worthwhile here - and as yet, few people have the guts to shout this from the rooftops.

If you thought Unbreakable was pretty unlikeable and unwatchable (as I did) then Signs drops below that pavement. It's so bad and boring on so many levels it's difficult to know where to begin.

Big star Mel Gibson seems as good a place as any. Mel plays melancholy... a vicar (if you can buy that!) who has lost his faith after losing his wife to a senseless auto accident the previous year. That makes the 'heart' of the movie Mel's incredibly tedious search for rebirth and a re-affirmation of his faith.

Well give us a break sir! The whole planet is apparently being ravaged by land grabbing aliens. But we never see this action as Mel and the audience only gets the breaking news via TV and Radio news reports. And these are so badly executed, one assumes Mr.
Shayamalan has never seen a cable news broadcast. Try watching Fox next time to see how it's done.

But back to Mel's search for faith. In the hands of a Spielberg or even a Scott, this is the subtext that drives the character. It would be hinted and alluded to. The audience would pick this up gradually because it would not be hammered out with the subtlety of a huge wart on your face.

Apparently Mr. Shayamalan eschews subtext as he has Mel spending two hours telling everyone who will listen, including his two young kids, the checkout girl, his brother, the cop, the vet, the dogs... possibly even the housefly... that he has lost his faith.

The child actors are, by the way, absolutely superb. It's just a pity they are exploited so shamelessly by the writer, producer, director. Lull in the plot? Put a kid in harm's way. Need a twist? Give one kid a recurring deadly ailment that will save him in the end. (That's the BIG twist by the way.) This movie must have more clichéd lengthy dialogue of any in recent history. I've been to Shakespeare plays with less yacking and more action.

This is because Mr. M.Night Shyamalan reckons he can get away with breaking a cardinal rule of movie making - show, don't tell. Boy, does he tell. And tell. And then, when you scream at the screen, for God's sake shut the hell up, he tells some more. His characters tell us what they're thinking. They tell us what they want. They tell us what's going on. They tell us what we should be thinking. On and on and on.

Okay... let's get serious and get to the money shots, this is why millions of us punters go see the blockbuster on a Friday night.

So... where are they one asks?
The scares are the type arty reviewers praise for being 'old-fashioned'. In other words, not very scary at all. A few doors rattling as the Aliens make feeble attempts to pry their way in. A clawed hand being poked out from under the door. A leg disappearing into the corn. I've seen more scary effects on Doctor Who - and with better scripts. Truly pathetic.

Alien is the template of how to scare the pants off an audience by showing fleeting glimpses of the monster. Signs is the template of how laughable a man in a monster suit can really look. One of the characters even says what the problem here is: the Aliens seem to have difficulty opening pantry doors. Ooo that's sooooo scary.

Oh... and big climactic ending, a tribe in Papua New Guinea 'discovers' that they are killed by water. Now maybe I'm missing something here, but you'd think any Alien capable of traversing millions of light years may have the nouse to know that our planet is seven-eigths water. And that despite global warming, it does actually... ahem, rain on a regular basis. And hey, you bug-eyed creeps... spacesuits, ever heard of them?

What's worse for me is that he rips off so many other movies - and not in a good way. Unlike Scream which cleverly references the movies it spoofed and still remained scary by upping the ante; Signs is demonstrably inferior compared to its back catalogue. In no particular order we get 'Close Encounters Of The Third Kind', 'Night Of The Living Dead', 'War Of The Worlds', and 'Alien'.

So if it's Friday night and you want to see a good movie, do yourself a really big favour and rent those far superior flicks instead. Or go see Eight legged Freaks.

This is Shyamalan's third Philadelphia-set genre buster; The Sixth Sense shook up ghost movie conventions, Unbreakable was a wholly original superhero adventure, this is an alien-invasion thriller unlike anything you've seen.

Since his wife's death, Father Graham (Gibson) has lost his faith and holed up on his farm with his two kids (Culkin and Breslin) and his brother (Phoenix). Now six months later strange things are happening, patterns in the cornfields, creepy noises on the radio, frightening news on TV. All of it points to the fact that aliens are about to invade the planet. But will they be friendly or not? And how will this shake Graham's already shaken world?

Without ever touching on a cliche (except to poke fun at it), Shyamalan skilfully builds the film on several layers--personal redemption, family drama, community-in-crisis, world on the brink. There are so many things going on in this film that it can't help but hook us completely, which makes the tension nearly unbearable when it finally arrives. This is gasp-for-breath, hold-onto-your-neighbour cinema, expertly written and directed, never relying on special effects where a more effective old-style jolt will do. In fact, the effects are so underplayed that you don't see them at all.

And Shyamalan wisely undercuts everything with humour and quirkiness, keeping the story anchored in reality. We laugh a lot, because it's funny ... and because we're just as terrified as the characters. This is clever, mind-bending stuff. But the film is just as effective when it examines the internal belief systems of this frightened, fractured family.

Both the script and the cast are well up to the task--we understand what they're feeling and thinking, and their journeys are powerfully moving. This is one of those rare thrillers that takes us intimately along for the ride. But don't expect a standard Hollywood blockbuster. Thankfully, Shyamalan seems incapable of playing by the rules.


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