- The Washington Times - Friday, August 2, 2002

"Signs," a threadbare bogeyman hoax from M. Night Shyamalan, the brooding ghost hunter of "The Sixth Sense," tries to concentrate terror in one isolated farmhouse, ostensibly secluded next to a vandalized cornfield in Bucks County, Pa.

The vandalization consists of mysterious carvings, reminiscent of far-flung rural pranks that were an occasional feature of the UFO craze. Curiously, they were brushed off by Steven Spielberg as an illustrative angle when he glorified the longings of UFO buffs in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." He even staged a virtuoso abduction from a farmhouse without resorting to carvings in the cornstalks or amber waves of grain as a sign of trouble.

However, "Close Encounters" weighs very heavily on "Signs," a cheapskate variation. Indeed, Mr. Shyamalan's afterthought sort of revamps "Close Encounters" as a vintage low-budget quickie, the kind of science-fiction tingler that can barely afford to simulate one monster in a rented costume, let alone a decisive showdown between humans and aliens.

Pundits have crowned M. Night Shyamalan as "the next Steven Spielberg." In their dreams. When "The Sixth Sense" caught on three summers ago, I could believe that Haley Joel Osment's precocious performance had made up for all the film's tedious defects. "Unbreakable," the second Shyamalan horror thriller, curbed the enthusiasm. "Signs" ought to drench it in cold water, but it's beginning to look as if fixes are in here and there.

"Signs" substitutes Mel Gibson for Bruce Willis, the previous Shyamalan intermediary with realms of the undead or eternal. The movie begins as if Mr. Gibson's character, a farmer and former clergyman named Graham Hess, is waking from a nightmare.

The ensuing episodes are meant to engulf the Hess residence also occupied by a younger brother named Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and little children named Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin) in apprehension at the approach of an alien raid. Eventually, the four of them hunker down and try to endure a night of menace in the basement.

The curious thing about this claustrophobic perspective is that the filmmaker underlines its shortcomings. We lose track of other townspeople, but there are occasional inserts of TV reportage that tell of concerted action and rousing battles in other parts of the country and the globe.

You feel as if the big picture is being botched. What makes this dinky domestic picture profoundly better or more diverting? Nothing I can see.

Mr. Shyamalan's secret may consist of sustaining such a somber mood and monotonous tempo that spectators overconditioned to noise and gratuitous action find the stillness humbling and impressive.

Mr. Shyamalan goes against the Hollywood grain by emphasizing contemplation. The catch is that nothing but banalities emerge from it. The besieged Hesses have little demons to conquer that clearly are more pervasive than the alien pathbreakers.

The mother of the family was lost in a grotesque auto accident months earlier. This loss supposedly cost Mr. Hess his faith. You never doubt that he'll retrieve it before the fade-out. Brother Merrill has a failed career as a slugging baseball prospect to regret. Little Morgan is asthmatic. Littler Bo obviously has more woe seeping into her consciousness than anyone would wish. At least Mr. Shyamalan refrains from announcing that she can see dead people.

It's all very kind of the filmmaker to observe the Hesses handling UFO stress and renewing familial bonds, but the fact remains that he has missed a lot of the ostensible action. I began to feel that a local bridge club or armory or bingo parlor would have yielded more in the way of human interplay and valorous defiance not to mention more in the way of movie stimulation.


*1/2

TITLE: "Signs"

RATING: PG-13 (Sustained ominous atmosphere; flashback episodes dealing with a traumatic family loss; subplot about a pastor's loss of faith; episodes in which young children are imperiled by extraterrestrial monsters)

CREDITS: Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

RUNNING TIME: Two hours

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