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*Also starring: Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin, Rory Culkin, Cherry Jones, M. Night Shyamalan

Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

In SIGNS, Mel Gibson plays an ex-priest who gets in touch again with his spirituality through something akin to a WAR OF THE WORLDS encounter. It's an intense and intelligent horror picture by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan (THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE). If you have trouble sleeping later, don't say that I didn't warn you. It certainly affected my teenage son, who, nevertheless, really liked the film.

The story is set in the corn fields of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where Graham Hess (Gibson) lives with his two young kids, Morgan and Bo (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin). Since his wife died six months ago, Graham has given up on religion. Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix, GLADIATOR), his younger brother, has been staying with them in their remote farmhouse.

Graham is a strong disbeliever. "I'm not wasting one more minute of my life on prayer," he proclaims at a time when he most needs help. Merrill is an ex too, an ex-ballplayer. After setting records in the minor leagues, including five for home runs and some for strike outs, he has taken to making a living at the local gas station.

As the movie starts, the kids have gotten lost in the cornfields, where they discover a large sign made by someone or something. Although Merrill tries to convince them that the signs were made by a bunch of nerds in some sort of scam, his explanation becomes harder to believe when similar signs are found to have been made simultaneously in fields around the world. Meanwhile, the animals are going crazy as if they are attacking some unseen predators.

The movie too often falls back on old tricks. When it is obvious that something is out there, Graham, nevertheless, ventures into the field one dark night, armed only with a flashlight. As the audience whispers to themselves, "Don't go there!" Graham goes deeper and deeper into the abyss. Think he'll drop the flashlight? Of course. We've seen this scene a thousand times before, but Gibson does a fine job of trying, without much luck, to make it feel fresh.

After answering a simple, "Yes," to whether this could be the end of the world, Graham makes the key observation of the story. "Is it possible that there are no coincidences?" he asks Merrill rhetorically. And it is no coincidence that a picture by Shyamalan will produce the same reaction on the audience that these paranormal events produce on Morgan. An asthmatic, Morgan finds himself frequently having trouble breathing. Bring your inhaler.

SIGNS runs 1:46. It is rated PG-13 for "some frightening moments" and would be acceptable for teenagers.

My son Jeffrey, age 13, gave it *** 1/2. He thought that it was really well-written and thought through. He found it both freaky and realistic. Although he loved it, he said that he never wanted to see it again.

Copyright 2002 Steve Rhodes

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