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Signs (2002) starstar

Reviewed 2002-08-04
: When I learned that M. Night Shyamalan had a new film in the works, I was excited. When I learned that the story was about a farmer/preacher (Mel Gibson) who has his faith restored after crop circles appeared in his cornfield (and elsewhere on Earth), my excitement turned to disappointment. Here we go again, I said to myself and anyone who would listen. These geometric designs started showing up on English farms in the 1980s, until Doug Bower and David Chorley admitted to hoaxing approximately 250 of them over the years. Just for the record, crop circles are hoaxes by humans, not aliens; they are pranks, not signs and wonders.

But, of course, I had to see the movie. Writer-director Shyamalan is in top form in Signs, weaving a spare narrative with really creepy scenes, yet (as in The Sixth Sense, 1999) not relying on a lot of "jump scenes" for scariness; instead, he works in the other direction, creeping you out with quiet. The story is almost disposable: Graham Hess (Gibson) tossed the cloth after a personal tragedy and takes care of his children, Morgan and Bo (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin, respectively), with the help of ex-baseball hero, and Graham's brother, Merrill (Joaquin Seeing SignsPhoenix). When the "signs" start showing up, an old baby monitor starts intercepting alien signals, Bo starts leaving barely sipped glasses of water around the house, and even Graham starts half-seeing strange things, we know we're in the hands of a master at environmental evocation. Like Hitchcock, Shyamalan even shows up as a Bucks County, PA, veterinarian.

The film is bound to be popular, but I am troubled by a few things. I've already mentioned the crop circles: they should by now have joined the ranks of Piltdown Man and the Cardiff Giant. That aliens might use these markings for terrestrial navigation is laughable: how did they cross millions of miles of space without them? The creatures themselves, quite conveniently, have built-in gas hoses with which to subdue their victims: how on, er, earth, did they evolve this attribute to attack a species they never met? Finally, I find the operational philosophy of the film suspect: as articulated by the Merrill Hess character, it equates unbelief with child abuse. But... at the risk of sounding hypocritical, I thought Signs was worth watching.

Human beings are naturals at pattern-recognition, even when there is no pattern. And the world is pretty exciting, even scary, without abrogating natural laws. And, yes, there are coincidences: for the universe to behave otherwise would violate the laws of probability.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.