written and directed by
M. Night Shyamalan
with Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix
opens Aug. 2 at Cinerama, Neptune, Pacific Place, and others
"It's just like War of the Worlds," pronounces one character, as a fleet of marauding extraterrestrials hovers menacingly in the night sky. He's right in some respects, but the more apt comparison here is with a certain great white shark lurking ominously and invisibly in the water below.
Signs isn't really a sci-fi flick at all. Instead, it's something of a gambit—a studied exception to the age of the summer blockbuster. The success of Jaws may have ushered in this era in the first place, but its magic had less to do with special effects or an ingenious narrative than with basic psychological fears (the water, the dark, flesh-craving monsters, losing a child). So it's appropriate that M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense), like a young Spielberg, relies on a similarly limited set of resources.
The setting couldn't be any more elemental: a rural Pennsylvania family farm run by widowed patriarch Graham (Mel Gibson) that's surrounded by a daunting thicket of corn stalks. (Why is corn so scary at night, crop circles or no?) For Shyamalan, the unseen is what's supposed to frighten us; never mind the details. As a result, we never get to see anything more than a couple of headlights from the spaceships. Even when revealed in the end, the aliens—who in classic bad-guy tradition have no motivation beyond badness for the sake of badness—remain fuzzy and obscured.
Like Jaws, the whole flimsy affair is utterly predictable, providing a few solid frights, a curtain of claustrophobia, and a handful of decent laughs. Yet Signs wrong-headedly deviates from the Jaws template with a back story about the death of Graham's wife (oddly unrelated to the aliens), an event that occasioned his loss of faith and retirement as a small-town reverend. (Gibson as a man of the cloth is at least less of a stretch than GQ hunk Joaquin Phoenix as his country-bumpkin brother.)
Given the setup, some family drama is fine, even appropriate, but Signs' late-film treatise on spirituality feels like a lumpy dose of post-Sept. 11 existentialism for the masses. (Such viewers may be disappointed that Gibson doesn't need to defend the Earth against alien invasion, since the malevolent visitors are just passing through.) Though Signs has more to offer than some of the season's spectaculars, it's a shame that Shyamalan's—or the studio's—faith in this back-to-basics experiment isn't finally redeemed.
Maybe it's more like Jaws 2.