Wow, M. Night Shyamalan doesn't recognize the potential irony of a title when he sees one. For the title of his third effort to date, Signs, says a lot more than he might wish -- as in signs of a once-hot director in decline.
Where The Sixth Sense was a remarkable debut ghost thriller, Unbreakable was a tedious tribute to comic-book heroes, though commendable in its intentions, and still packing a mild wallop in its "oh my God!!!" ending. Critics and audiences still showed much love for a director who at first seemed like a breath of fresh air in the art of scaring while making us think at the same time. This seemed like one smart dude, a craftsman with complexity and sophistication.
Signs is neither smart, complex nor sophisticated. Instead, this imagining of an alien invasion is bogged down by a half-hearted set-up, an uneven lead performance, crass manipulation, an incomprehensibly weak theme (faith is good) and an ending that elicits an "oh my God!!!" for all the wrong reasons -- not the least of which being you can see it coming a mile away. For all those weaknesses, Signs is at its best in Shyamalan's fondness for old-school scare tactics and tongue-in-cheek humor that would make Steven Spielberg proud. If you see a little bit of War of the Worlds and Night of the Living Dead here, it's by design.
Curiously, Mel Gibson replaces Bruce Willis as Shyamalan's protagonist. In the director's two previous efforts, Willis dazzled viewers by trading his smug grin for a portentous grimace, allowing his characters to be perplexed by exterior forces. Funny thing is, Willis would've probably done just as well here -- but instead we get a star upgrade in the form of Gibson.
Now, neither of these guys is considered a master thespian, but where Willis knows this, Gibson's a little more self-delusional. This makes his pathetic stabs at earnest emoting as a recently widowed (and therefore embittered) reverend defending his family against the Boogie Man that much more embarrassing. In one third-act dinner scene, with danger almost literally knocking on the door and Gibson's former Rev. Graham Hess still clinging to his non-faith, Gibson's emotional spasms are enough to make Lee Strasberg roll over in his grave. (Shyamalan isn't much better in a small but crucial role.)
No, Mel Gibson has always made his coin on his exquisite lantern jaw that anchors that million-dollar grin, as well as a comic timing that has served him well in action fare. And here he's no different as Shyamalan seeks to lighten his many dark moods by throwing the audience off-balance with a timely chuckle here and there.
In fact, the whole cast is at its best when it comes time for the broader moments, whether it's reacting to the occasional gasp-inducing shock image or finding humor in their predicament. Shyamalan surrounds Gibson with great supporting talent, from Joaquin Phoenix as his brother Merrill to Rory Culkin as son Morgan and little Abigail Breslin as daughter Bo. There's a scene where everyone is coming to grips with the fact that crop circles that have been flattened into the family farm's cornfield -- as well as around the world -- and little Morgan has snagged the small town's only decent book about aliens. Graham leans over as his son touts the author's name: "Dr. Bimbu." Graham furrows his brow: "Dr. Bim-bu?" Morgan stares through his father, who defends himself with an "I just said his name," to which his adolescent son admonishes, "You had a tone."
This is where Shymalan is at his best, answering one frightening sequence with a funny one as the tension builds toward a compressed showdown. Perhaps it's all done in the service of recalling those aforementioned movies, both of which were known in their day for playing on the hysteria of an America (and world) that has often felt invulnerable and impenetrable. (To drive home the point, Phoenix's Merrill, in one gape-mouthed moment, even utters, "It's like War of the Worlds.") And as the aliens slowly close in on and around the Hess' home, Shyamalan cranks up the fear factor more with what you can't see but more what you can hear: the clomping of foreign footsteps, the mumblings of twisted voices, the scratching and thumping against the walls. And Shymalan recognizes, like George A. Romero's Living Dead, the powerful imagery of a hand creeping around the edge of a door. It's all deliciously squeamish stuff.
Beyond that, there's not much more to Signs, which would be fine if Shyamalan weren't so torqued about his protagonist recapturing his faith. And it is the way the director builds up to this moment that is frightening only in its obviousness. That he should end a movie like this makes you wonder if M. Night Shyamalan is the one who simply can't read the signs.
- Head-turner: Rory Culkin shows Mel Gibson how to act in M. Night Shyamalan's latest thriller, Signs.