‘Signs’: THR’s 2002 Review

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On August 2, 2002, Buena Vista unveiled M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi thriller Signs in theaters, where it would go on to gross $408 million as an end of summer hit. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:

Neither the home run he hit with The Sixth Sense nor the bunt single he laid down with Unbreakable, Signs will inspire an enthusiastic following but will probably disappoint the crowd that likes spooky alien space invasion movies to contain more hard-core action and less spirituality. Shyamalan’s name plus a cast headed by Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix ensures a solid opening for Disney followed by steady attendance into September.

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After three major studio films and four if you count his second feature, Wide Awake, which Miramax released, it’s clear that Shyamalan can deliver chills. But equally as clear is his insistence upon investing the supernatural with the metaphysical, which, after all, is the original impulse behind most scary stories. For what is a ghost story but a belief in life after death or an alien invasion movie but a struggle between good and evil?

This battle takes place on a farm in Bucks County, Pa. One morning, eerie crop circle formations appear in a corn field, signs indicating an alien presence and possibly an invasion. It is not just any corn field. This one belongs to Graham Hess (Gibson), a former minister who lost his faith in God when his wife was killed in an accident.

He shares the home with his brother Merrill (Phoenix), an ex-minor league baseball player, and two children, Morgan (Rory Culkin), 10, and Bo (Abigail Breslin), 5.

The television informs the family that what transpired in Bucks County is happening in areas the world over. An alien is even glimpsed in the background of a birthday party video in South America.

There are other things a mindful viewer should note: Morgan has asthma and Bo a curious habit of never finishing a glass of water because it becomes “comtaminated.”

Add to this Graham’s wife’s dying words, Morgan’s old baby monitor that somehow picks up the alien’s radio signals, a bookstore that just happens to have a book about alien mythology, Merrill’s old baseball bat, a soundtrack filled with creepy noises and James Newton Howard’s musical score that is ditto Bernard Herrman whenever he composed for Hitchcock, and you have “signs” that point to future developments.

If you think you’re being manipulated, you are. Big time. When a phone rings, the sound must startle. While the characters watch television news reports, the sound ceases altogether when a dialogue passage ensues. (What news caster would stop talking during an alien invasion of Earth?)

But Shyamalan, the writer director of the film, undercuts much of the heavy-handed ness with a nifty sense of humor, producing more laughs than all his other films combined.

Unlike Sixth Sense, you’re much too aware of the manipulation: the painstaking color palette, the religious iconography built into the production design and, most of all, the Hindu notion of “no coincidences” —everything that happens plotwise is a sign, and these signs will resonate in later scenes.

Audiences are used to the casual way Gibson treats many roles, but here he is really trying to achieve a heightened level of intensity with his character. The effect is both good and bad. The good is the honest emotion he puts into the role. The bad is you sense his struggle, the actor’s tricks to get there.

Phoenix never seems to get a handle on a role that until the climax requires little of him other than to act as sounding board to Gibson’s anxieties and anger. The kids are terrific, though. Clearly, Shyamalan is one of the best directors of youngsters ever.

Classy production values, especially Tak Fujimoto’s smooth cinematography, add to the tease and torment of a truly chilling movie. — Kirk Honeycutt, originally published on July 29, 2002.

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