This one’s good, but it’s still a disappointment coming from the man who made The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Those films — especially Unbreakable — were horrific fantasies that used their genre to make a larger point. Unbreakable, apart from some pretty significant issues of faith, was a film about myth and the power of myth, and managed to become almost effortlessly mythical itself in the bargain. Signs would like to be that significant. Shayamalan clearly thinks that Signs is important and mythic. In reality, it’s a well-crafted — sometimes brilliantly crafted — very creepy movie with some appallingly simplistic religiosity grafted onto it. Its efforts at profundity never ring true. While watching it, I found myself constantly thinking about a scene in Animal Crackers where Chico keeps posing questions and answering them himself, causing Groucho to note, “It’s pretty hard to be wrong if you keep answering yourself all the time.” And that’s the flaw here: It’s pretty hard not to have the answers when you’re the one posing the stacked-deck questions. This is one of those movies that works pretty well while it’s onscreen, but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in the light of the lobby. Without giving away too much of the plot, I’ll just note a couple problems with the film’s aliens, such as these boys can apparently build space-ships and are supposedly smarter than us, but can’t break down a door and seem to have no weapons. As for their central weakness, I could cite four serious flaws in the concept, but not without giving away too much of a film that is — on the limited terms it doesn’t recognize — very worth seeing. Story-wise, it’s a peculiar mix of War of the Worlds (specifically, the Orson Welles radio play from 1938) and the tone of Night of the Living Dead, with aspects of the cheesy Roger Corman film The Beast with a Million Eyes and a dollop of The Wizard of Oz (you’ll see) thrown in. A case could be made that the movie has been influenced by The Children of the Corn, too, which is not as weird as it seems, since one of Shayamalan’s strengths lies in his ability to draw on popular culture myths for his own purposes. If you’ve seen the trailers — and if you’ve been to the movies more than twice in the past year, it’s a given — you already know that the set-up involves crop circles and an alien invasion of Mel Gibson’s farm. What the trailers don’t tell you is that Gibson’s character, Graham Hess, is a priest (presumably, Episcopalean), who has lost his faith and given up his calling following the accidental death of his wife. This is where the movie is supposed to get its emotional core — and if that isn’t enough, Shayamalan has added into the mix Joaquin Phoenix as Graham’s brother, Merrill, a failed minor-league ball-player. This is territory rife with potential for a good deal of angst and philosophical discourse, but it never quite clicks. The two actors are both good in their roles, but they always seem more like actors playing those roles than the characters they’re supposed to be. Maybe part of the problem lies in Shayamalan’s gift for clever — and frequently very funny — dialogue, which seems just too clever for its own good. It certainly doesn’t help that Shayamalan has given himself a fairly large supporting role in Signs. Though he’s had effective small roles in most of his films, he’s misjudged the idea this round. It’s not that he’s bad in his role, but his character is supposed to be mysterious at first. Knowing that he’s the writer-director of the film tends to make the question, “Who is that man?” risible, especially the way it’s played out. It’s hard not to expect a kind of Brechtian response, “Shh! That’s the man who’s telling us all what to do and say.” But as a thriller, it’s hard to fault Shayamalan’s cinematic mastery. He knows just how to play on our nerves and just when to make us jump, such as the classic big scene late in the film, which is staged in a cellar. I have to say that Shayamalan seems to have an ego in keeping with his talents — I have rarely seen anyone’s name as big or as prominent on a film’s credits as Shayamalan’s — but at least he does have the talent. It’s frustrating that Signs isn’t as good as it should have been and that its plotline ultimately doesn’t hold water, but it’s still a movie very worth having.
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