Film Reviews

SIGNS

By • Aug 2nd, 2002 •

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In the August 2002 issue of Premiere magazine Mel Gibson is quoted as saying: “I still care about acting, but I realize there are more important things than prostituting your emotions for money.”

Mel, Mel, Mel. I used to envy you. I didn’t realize how psychically damaging and destructive to your soul being an internationally famous movie star was. I certainly do hope you take some time to enjoy the 20 million dollars (plus percentage of the gross) per movie you get for being an ‘Emotions Whore.’ Damn! So many of us thought there were major perks to this acting thing. And to think The Great Unwashed pay only $8.50 ($5.50 before 6PM, or, and don’t freak out – free admission at promotional screenings) to greedily feast on your emotions!

(Another, albeit confused, movie star once said: “I get paid to make faces.”)

Or maybe I just don’t understand hardship.

SIGNS is the latest film from director/writer (and co-star) M. Night Shyamalan. Mel, you should have read the script before trusting your emotions to the very hot Shyamalan. The flaw in the power of fame-perks may be that no one is brave enough to tell you “There’s no story here.”

Pennsylvania farmer Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) was a devout Episcopalian minister until a neighbor, Ray (M. Night Shyamalan), accidentally ran over and killed his wife Colleen. Hess is left with 10 year-old Morgan (Rory Culkin) and 5 year-old Bo (Abigail Breslin). Graham’s brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), who is now a gas station attendant after a spectacular failure as a rising minor league athlete, lives with them. A pall of profound sadness permeates their home. It’s been a mere six months and Graham is still, understandably, grieving.

While Graham is struggling with the loss of his wife and giving up on his faith in God, a strange phenomenon occurs in his crops. Not only in his fields but all over the world strange patterns are being made. Morgan reads a book explaining that evil aliens are using the crop patterns as an extraterrestrial road map. They are coming to conquer Earth.

In themselves, “crop circles” are not menacing. They are intricate shapes pressed into large fields that do not destroy the crops. Shyamalan starts off with this existing mystery, but he can’t solve it. So he is forced to move away from the “signs” and bring in the evil aliens. Who, what, where, and how are never answered. The family is required to use household goods to fend off the aliens. All over the globe nobody can figure out what to do. Suddenly, the aliens retreat. (Why these particular aliens would come to a planet whose surface is 97% water is a conundrum.)

The packed audience was ready for the Shyamalan surprise. We wanted to be thrilled. We wanted to see Shyamalan’s unique stylized vision elegantly unfold. Shyamalan is an American, but his Indian heritage stamps upon him an ideological framework that he has artistically exploited. I lived in India for a year – life is viewed very differently by other cultures. Over-population, poverty, and the oppressing caste system (outlawed but still practiced), has given a unique texture to society in India. People there perceive the world very differently . Shyamalan mines this sensibility by bringing a completely different interpretation to American life. The Hess’s are an ordinary American family. They are funny. They are steeped in popular American culture. Yet, they are gravely subdued. In fact, all of Shyamalan’s heroes are weighted down by gravitas. They are haunted figures.

The Hess family dynamic is interestingly presented in SIGNS. But we expect a supernatural thriller and wait. We also know the Shyamalan pace is slow. So we give it time to unfold. Unfortunately, there’s no payoff.

Shyamalan gives himself a short but pivotal role in SIGNS. Well, Shyamalan doesn’t exactly fit the typical demographic of an American farmer. A Hollywood casting agent would not have cast him. His decision to cast himself signifies a demonstrative intent to show us the man behind this film is indeed “different.”

Gibson delivers a strong, emotional performance in SIGNS. After what he said in Premiere, I felt guilty afterwards.

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