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

Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

The community of film critics made a big fuss during the release of "Changing Lanes," mouths open with wonder that a commercial release would deal with ethical issues rather than simply dish out melodramatic flourishes. If you think that "Lanes" was a moral thought-provoker, wait till you see "Signs," which goes beyond the ethical into the realm of the metaphysical. M. Night Shyamalan, whose "The Sixth Sense" dealt at least superficially with the meaning of death and its effect on the living and embraced a knock-your-socks-off payoff, goes more deeply into character with "Signs." Nor does he deal only with the character of human beings (and aliens), but with the nature of the Supreme Being and His way of protecting us from harm.

Simply put, Shyamalan who both wrote and directed this slow-moving, creepy-crawley work and takes a small role as an accidental killer asks us in the audience which of these two options to believe: 1) We are not alone. What happens does so for a reason. We are not an aimless mass of faceless people floating around in an infinite universe of which our entire planet is a speck of dust. 2) What happens to us is nothing but a random series of events largely beyond our control, with only coincidences to justify unusual happenings....for example we pray for the life of a sick person, the person recovers that's merely a coincidence. Or as the Romans might say, there is no such thing as post hoc ergo propter hoc. (After that, therefore because of that.) While the production notes state that the recovery of faith in a man of the collar is the story's subtext, the change that comes over Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a corn farmer in Pennsylvania's Bucks County, is THE story. (Did I say farmer? He does indeed have corn that's a high as an elephant's eye, but there's nary a farm tool or a staff of hands around to harvest it.)

"Signs" doesn't really have a story in the sense of a trajectory of occurrences, one building on the other, but instead is a mood piece, an evocation of atmosphere made all the more sinister by James Newton Howard's appropriately atonal score. You could sum up the events herein simply as, family looks for aliens, family does not find aliens, aliens find family, but the human dimensions take a back seat to the rustling of trees, the sound of footsteps on the roof, the gaze of a flashlight into empty fields, a girl's refusal to drink water because it has a strange taste or, in one case, dust, the need of a boy for his anti-asthma inhaler. These are not chance elements. All will prove significant by the picture's conclusion.

Shyamalan focuses on the Hess family. The head of the group is Graham Hess, who lost his wife in a tragic auto accident six months earlier, leaving him to care for his son Morgan (Rory Calkin) and his daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin). Graham's brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) joins the group to help out and live with the threesome, although given the former reverend's absence of vocation we wonder why a baby sitter would be needed. One day, little Bo spots a large number of geometric figures carved into the family farm. The assumption is the pranksters are responsible: indeed a true event broadcast by CNN during the 1970's could reinforce that feeling. But when the signs turn up in a number of other cities as far away as Bangalore, we know that something's brewing. We would not be giving away anything secretive by saying that this is not the work of hucksters.

After a long series of potential meetings between Graham Hess and whatever is out there, the climax of the tale is enough to restore Graham's faith. There are no chance happenings. Everything that exists does so for a purpose, not excluding the glasses of water that Bo has refused to drink and which line the counters of the Hess kitchen, nor the bat that ex-minor leaguer Merrill leaves hanging on the wall. (Truth to tell, though if I were Graham I'd not be convinced that someone is watching over us, given what happened to his wife but that's another story.)

Shyamalan makes skillful use of silence, a slow pace, the notion of a thing unseen that horrified the audience for "The Blair Witch Project." While "Signs" is a more mature picture than "The Sixth Sense," a deeper one, it is not necessarily the more entertaining enterprise given the absence of any real secret that might have us in our seats saying, "Hey, I should have figured that out!"

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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