Jul 16, 2010

[Movies] Signs (2002)

Signs (2002)It's somewhat ironic that as I continue my efforts to post reviews for all of M.Night Shyamalan's movies, I get to this one just as Mel Gibson is all over the news. Granted, he's not exactly a headline item because of his acting prowess or anything decent like that. But we can ignore the scandal of his highly offense tapes for now and look at his more somber performance here.

When one traces the path of M.Night's movies, the big question in many people's minds is what happened to this guy and when precisely did his movie start taking a turn for the worst? Let's all accept that his movies these days aren't quite as good as they used to be as when he started with The Sixth Sense so the question is really how he'd get from point A to point crap?

I don't necessarily think that this was that turning point in his career. If anything, I feel it was one of the last of his better movies before he started getting really weird with the creative liberties the studios had granted him. And I mean really weird. We'll get to them in time, but for now lets dive into the cornfield.

Signs was M.Night's exploration of popular stories about aliens. Well that and the magic of cornfields. Let's face it - cornfields are obvious sites of significant power in Hollywood. They can summon ghostly baseball players like in Field of Dreams. They can be the hunting grounds of fiendish monsters like in Jeepers Creepers. Or they can be a great backdrop for dramatic scenes like in 300 (okay, I admit that it was wheat, but close enough). See, what did I tell you? Cornfields are magic.

AlienigenaImage via Wikipedia
This time around, the movie centers around former pastor Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) and his family, son Morgan (Rory Culkin) and daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin). His brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a former minor league baseball player, also lives with them. The plot really starts to get going once it's discovered that a crop circle has been created in his cornfield - hence the magical power of such locations. New reports start to appear about more crop circles everywhere and an increased number of UFO sightings. This escalates to actual sightings of what appear to be grey-skinned alien beings around the world including an odd sighting on Graham's own roof.

Soon they family start to speculate that the mysterious sounds they've been picking up with a baby monitor may be aliens communicating with one another. And thus more and more evidences moves to support that aliens are in fact on Earth in significant numbers for purposes unknown. On a more personal note, this entire situation is used as a back-drop for exploring Graham's life and learning the truth behind the passing of his wife some time ago.

Like many M.Night movies, this one started out very strong. The long, drawn-out silences broken by a flurry of movement or the rustling of cornstalks is amazing effective as a tension builder and many time I found myself at wits end wondering what the heck was on the roof. He masterfully executed one of the more classic principles of horror movies - not revealing the "monster" right away, in a manner of speaking. Not seeing who you're up against as the movie's antagonist of sorts is a great way to force the viewer to let his imagination fill in the blanks, thus making the whole thing a lot more stressful and perhaps even more personal.

Gibson did a pretty good job as the troubled father carrying the burden of emotional trauma. Admittedly, there were moments when his acting did seem a tad hokey, but given the overall tone of the movie it sort of made sense. This was not your cutting edge science fiction thriller - this was a suspense film with strong elements of horror and a science fiction premise. In the end, it all felt a lot like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits instead of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Joaquin Phoenix annoyed me though. I know he plays dumb rather well, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. And I really didn't get the point of his character other than his ability to use a bat fairly well - but not amazingly so. Heck, the kids did a better job of acting out their roles than he did.

The movie is definitely of the slow burn variety and it takes a bit of patience to sit through the whole thing. Then again, almost all of M.Night's movies are like this and thus fans of his peculiar brand of storytelling should be used to this approach. The twist at the end is slightly rewarding but nothing too spectacular, which is probably one of the reasons why I wasn't totally amazed by this movie nor was I exactly disappointed by it either.

Signs is an interesting look at the old school manner of science fiction storytelling. It gets 3.5 glasses of water lying around the house out of a possible 5.
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