“Signs” is all smoke and mirrors. With his third straight excursion into the supernatural, M. Night Shyamalan has begun revealing the hand that works his spooky tricks so much that the lack of substance is plainly seen. A sort of rural “Panic Room” with faux spiritual frosting, this superficially creepy concoction provides enough little jolts to keep the popcorn public rapt, which indicates a robust late-summer B.O. harvest, even if many viewers will leave wondering: Is that all there is?
After the overwrought “Unbreakable” and now the meager “Signs,” it’s fair to speculate whether Shyamalan’s persistence in replicating the otherworldly formula of “The Sixth Sense” might not be a futile and self-defeating exercise. Even if Shyamalan possesses an instinctive feel for the sort of material that posits the presence of a tangible shadow world to everyday reality, the formats of his pictures and the techniques he employs to achieve his effects are growing familiar to the point of diminishing returns.
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As far as “Signs” is concerned, the setup is a virtually inescapable hook, but the follow-through pursues a surprisingly narrow and conventional path. In Bucks County, Pa., farmer Graham Hess (Mel Gibson); his two young kids, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin); and brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) one day discover five perfect but distinctively designed large circles “carved” into the family cornfield. Naturally, the inclination is to suspect some sort of hoax, but the patterns are too precise, the bends of the corn stalks too neat.
TV reports reveal similar apparitions in India and England, then all over the world; soon, hovering lights, as in UFOs, materialize over Mexico. Nope, this isn’t the work of pranksters, but rather the announcement of an alien invasion.
With these momentous events providing the backdrop, pic achieves its foreground texture with strange little events at the isolated Hess farm. Graham, a former pastor who lost his faith and abandoned the church six months back when his wife was accidentally killed by a driver who fell asleep at the wheel, notices a figure on his roof; little Bo suddenly won’t drink the water and leaves glasses of it all over the house; Graham, hearing weird rustling in the cornfield one night, chases through the tall green growths with a flashlight until he catches a glimpse of something startling, has an edgy encounter with the man (played by the director) who hit his wife and plays strenuous hide-and-seek with a mysterious figure hiding behind a door.
Shyamalan unquestionably knows how to stage, frame and edit these prominent sequences for maximum tension, and, given the “unknown” that lurks out there somewhere, “Signs” becomes the sort of film that makes people want to avert their eyes for fear of what might suddenly jump into view or be revealed in a shock cut. Pic delivers several kicks along these lines that produce gasps, followed by sighs of relief, and these alone will justify the ride for many viewers.
Unfortunately, tale degenerates into a standard-issue “let’s-hide-in-the-basement” thriller in which a small family unit with limited means of defense aside from ingenuity battles a relentless intruder. Sense of imperilment is even accentuated by a child’s health impediment, a la “Panic Room,” and evildoer’s Achilles’ heel, astonishingly, is exactly the same as that of a particularly wicked villain in a perennial Hollywood classic.
Spiritual overlay of Graham’s struggle to reclaim his faith has a sympathetic pull to it, but issue is treated simply and schematically, without meaningful probing. In the role, Gibson seems anxious to take his performance in directions other than standard save-the-family heroics, and, while potential alternate routes are suggested in scenes with locals who still call him “Father” and consider him a religious leader, the thin nature and narrow focus of the project stand in the way of an expansive characterization.
Playing a former baseball player who never made it to the bigs, Phoenix projects the required loser brother image until crucially putting his former expertise into play. The kids are very good, and Cherry Jones effectively layers her turn as a sympathetic local cop.
Craft contributions are first-rate, from Larry Fulton’s immaculate production design and Tak Fujimoto’s handsome lensing to Barbara Tulliver’s precision cutting, James Newton Howard’s supportive score and the fine visual effects.