Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:21 pm 
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Religious theme overwhelms sci-fi thriller plot

In a way, 'Signs' is an improvement over M. Night Shyamalan's two previous movies in that it drops their hokey spirituality and mysticism in favor of a simple quest for faith. As part of getting down to basics, Shyamalan makes no great attempt to be original in his plot and style, and throughout the movie he borrows from a lot of directors and films including Spielberg, Hitchcock, 'The Night of the Living Dead,' 'Field of Dreams,' 'The Birds,' and a host of others. The debt to Hitchcock is signaled at the outset with the self-consciously Fifties-looking credits with accompanying 'Psycho' knockoff music by James Newton Howard. M. Night welds all these influences and sources together openly and shamelessly to create a kind of 'American Gothic' of a sci-fi alien movie with an overriding religious agenda.

The main theme of seeking faith is seen in terms of a series of titanic events, survival of hand-to-hand conflict with malevolent aliens, as a result of which Father Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) rediscovers his commitment as an Episcopal minister. For six months Hess has taken off the collar following his wife's terrible and seemingly meaningless death in a road accident. The events of the movie convince Hess that his remaining family has been saved by a guiding hand, and that there were signs of what was to come. This theme is powerfully developed (if too quickly concluded) and the acting of all the principals is strong.

Here we have everyman, living in everyhouse, with everybrother and everychild - two everychildren, actually, played with generic charm by Rory Culkin (as Morgan) and Abigail Breslin (as Bo). Shyamalan brought out Bruce Willis' tender, sensitive side: one could almost say he showed us a whole new Bruce Willis. He does something similar with Mel Gibson as Graham Hess, this man full of doubt and anguish. Gibson is a little grimmer and more humorless than one might wish, but what can you expect? The man has lost his wife in a horrible accident, he's lost his faith, and he thinks he's about to lose his remaining family to nasty creatures from outer space that cut huge patterns in his cornfield and appear poised to take over the earth for their own devious purposes -- to 'harvest' the human race, voices on TV and radio say. This is a lot to handle, even for Mel Gibson. He does a good job. Gibson is powerful and real.

Joaquin Phoenix seems an inspired choice as Merrill, Graham's neer-do-well baseball hero younger brother who has come to live with him since his wife's death. Phoenix, who can make a loser warm and sympathetic, brings a little ordinariness into the scene: Mel Gibson alone would be too iconic, and the kids too generic. We have to be grateful for Phoenix's presence here, and indeed for that of Shyamalan himself acting in a thankless cameo as the culprit who caused Graham's wife's death.

In the early scenes Shyamalan particularly strives for simplicity. Actors are constantly photographed head-on. This somehow makes the dialogue more effective, and it's often funny. The director doesn't take himself so dreadfully seriously this time - at least not all the time. The picture of the two kids and Joaquin Phoenix sitting on a couch with conical foil hats is charmingly silly. Shyamalan is having fun with the gimcracky tradition of Fifties sci-fi movies here. The veteran cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, who filmed 'Badlands' and some of Jonathan Demme's best movies, provides consistently striking and beautifully lit images.

Shyamalan's admirers will tell you that he can play the audience like a violin. His detractors say he's manipulative.

The trouble with the latter part of the movie is that manipulation does take over. The nature of the global alien threat is too hastily sketched in and how it comes down to the Hess family isn't made sufficiently clear. Why do Graham and Merrill board up all the windows? Who's told them that the aliens are headed for their house, or for Bucks County, Pennsylvania? When it was all over I felt cheated, remembering all the chills and thrills 'Night of the Living Dead' takes you through in the same kind of situation. Instead of all the creepy ghouls and the humans horribly turned into ghouls, all we get is a tall skinny guy in a wet suit squirting some gas in a boy's face. The difference is that Romero's ghouls are an engine that moves on its own and multiplies and regenerates itself, while Shyamalan's aliens aren't clearly established as anything.

In his concentration on what happens to the lapsed priest and his little family in the iconic Pennsylvania farm house, Shyamalan fails to establish a sense of true menace from outside. The menace also ends all too easily. 'They were turned back.' 'They went away.' What about the boy Morgan's information from a book that they'll come back, madder than ever? Shyamalan doesn't care, because his true agenda is to depict a restoration of faith. He's juggling too many different colored balls in the air, and some of them get dropped.

The 32-year-old Indian-American filmmaker is a wunderkind in a class with the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, et al., and more ambitious than any of the others. He has authority and chutzpah as a director, he can put together powerful and engrossing movies, and he's clearly wonderful with actors. What he may lack is either taste or a clear-cut sense of how to forge a style that entirely fits with his preoccupations. It may be time for him now to turn his talents in the direction of a straight drama.

If he's really interested in the nature of religious faith, he might do better to look at everyday events and give up playing with poltergeists and spooks from outer space. He needs to forge a style that more fully suits his own sensibility and stop borrowing so heavily from pop masters like Hitchcock and Spielberg.

August 10, 2002

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