Signs

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Original screenplay: Shyamalan
Supporting actor: Joaquin Phoenix
Score: James Newton Howard
Sound: Larry Blake, Paul Ledford
Special Effects: Werner Hahnlein, Kevin Hannigan, Richard Hollander, Thomas J. Smith

Less is more in M. Night Shyamalan’s old-fashioned sci-fi thriller, a film that eschews heavy reliance on flashy visual effects for a carefully constructed story using solid performances and innovative sound design to make its audiences jump.

A previous Oscar nominee for directing and writing 1999’s smash “The Sixth Sense,” Shyamalan scored another huge B.O. hit with “Signs” after a critical sophomore slump on “Unbreakable.”

“Signs'” story of a grieving widower whose family faces an alien invasion on their isolated rural Pennsylvania farm is remarkable in its simplicity and careful structure, taking its time to build up suspense and then releasing it in surprisingly effective ways. Shyamalan understands that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see.

Though the pic lacks the huge shock of “The Sixth Sense’s” finale, its series of revelations, narrow escapes and surprises adds up to a satisfying experience not unlike the work of Shyamalan’s hero Steven Spielberg on films like “Jaws.” (And, of course, Spielberg’s 1977 alien suspenser “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” defied Oscar’s drama bias by garnering eight noms.)

Shyamalan could get notice for his taut original screenplay, among other kudos. The sound team, led by two-time Oscar nominee Tod A. Maitland, did outstanding work with barely audible scratches and clicks transmitted from an old baby monitor, making an essential contribution to the pic’s success. Also, ILM’s visual f/x are minimal but effective.

Composer James Newton Howard’s score taps both horror and sci-fi elements and, with five Oscar nominations, can’t be counted out. Mel Gibson turns in a fine perf as a former minister who lost his faith after his wife’s death, but his sole Oscar nomination and win to date are for helming 1996 best pic winner “Braveheart.” Joaquin Phoenix stands out as Gibson’s younger, simpler brother and has the best chance of an acting nom of the cast. Phoenix got a supporting actor nom for “Gladiator.”

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