After the strong success of both the Oscar nominated The Sixth Sense and the cult following of Unbreakable, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan continues his quality output with Signs. It's another strong supernatural effort with deeper mystical undertones, and contains far more substance than most offerings from the science-fiction genre of today.
Father Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) lost his faith and gave up his profession when his wife was killed in a freak car accident. Now living with his two kids Morgan (Rory Culkin), Bo (Abigail Breslin) and his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), the family's life takes a bizarre turn when a mysterious crop-circle sign has been marked in one of their crop-fields. It soon transpires that many of these signs have been left on fields all over the world, which soon starts widespread panic that an alien race might be making contact. Graham remains unconvinced, even if his two children are much more willing to believe in an alien race making contact with Earth. As events turn, Graham realises that his faith in life itself will be ultimately linked to the mysterious signs that are left in his field.
Although the synopsis sounds like another Close Encounters Of The Third Kind rip-off, Signs is far removed from Spielberg's classic. As is the case with all of M. Night Shyamalan's films, what we see in the film is only the tip of the iceberg. Many elements are unresolved, and exist long after the film is finished. It's not so much what is said and shown in the film, but more what isn't said or shown. The ambiguity of the film reinforces its loose premise. Without ruining any of the plot, Signs essentially deals with the interlocked battle between fate and luck - do the events that happen in our lives carry with them a more mystical significance or are they just pre-determined by probability and coincidence.
M. Night Shyamalan is starting to resemble Spielberg in his finished product, but he always insists on taking his viewers through a darker and edgier journey. Signs is never uplifting in the Spielberg mould, and is often extremely painful and unsettling to watch. This is primarily because the film deliberately lacks spectacle. We are only given a hint as to what is contained in the film's core, in contrast to the many films that blind the viewer with CGI and action scenes to mask their lack of substance. Sound is one of the most splendid characteristics of the film, in that it atmospherically immerses the viewer into the surroundings of Signs without sonically assaulting their ears.
Performance wise, Mel Gibson as Father Graham is wooden and over-acts at the same time, and although he never ruins the film he is dreadfully miscast. It's horrible to claim, but Bruce Willis, who seems to be a frequent Shyamalan collaborator, would have been far better as Father Graham. Joaquin Phoenix however, demonstrates a decent level of cinematic charisma as Merrill, and has maybe earned enough screen time to finally branch into the lead actor mould. The two child actors Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin are very impressive, even if Rory Culkin looks too much like his brother Macauley Culkin for his own good.
Many filmgoers have criticised Signs ending, accusing M. Night Shyamalan of compromising a sinister atmosphere for Hollywood saccharine, but based on the underlying premise of luck versus fate, it's hard to see how the film could have been concluded in any other way.
Signs is an intelligent, entertaining and deeply eerie thriller from a director that continues to impress. As long as M. Night Shyamalan continues his obsession with external mystical forces, there is no reason why the director can't beat Spielberg at his own game.