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[whitespace] 'Signs'
Corn to Lose Mel Gibson stalks his stalks in 'Signs.'

Corn Rows

The 'Signs' are not good for Mel Gibson crop-circle epic

By Richard von Busack

LET'S NOT give away the ending of Signs, but the film proposes that only baseball and a faith in God can defeat creatures from another world. M. Night Shyamalan's badly uneven feature features some of the time-proven thrills of an alien movie. Let's commend the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable for trying to make Val (Cat People) Lewton movies in 2002, using the suggestion of terror rather than the sight of the terror itself. There are more ominous offscreen noises and clutching monster mitts creeping past the doorjambs here than in any movie since 1955. On the other hand, it's easy to laugh at the sketchy drama of a minister who's lost his faith. Shyamalan and star Mel Gibson are playing straight the stuff that Harvey Keitel was sending up in From Dusk Till Dawn.

Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a Protestant minister who turned his back on God after his wife died in a car accident. He lives with his two children and his brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), on the family farm in Pennsylvania. Merrill was a promising minor-league baseball player who never made it to the show. One night, the family discovers a huge crop circle in their cornfield. The Hesses research this phenomena, but their lives are interrupted by the sudden appearance of mystic lights in the sky over the cities of the Earth.

The drama of the minister's spiritual crisis isn't well communicated--at this point, Gibson has played bottled-up men so long that he's suffocating as an actor. Phoenix seems like an alien visitor himself in this film, and the two children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin) don't feel like a family when they're together, except in one awkward hug after a dinner table quarrel.

Moreover, though Shyamalan knows the area well enough to name the family "Hess" (a very common surname in southeastern Pennsylvania), he treats Bucks County as a place as lonely as Iowa instead of what it is: a heavily settled bedroom community for Philadelphians. Signs displays some smart moments. The aliens are first seen through TV footage--they're half-glimpsed, like the Blair witch. And it is chilling when the TV, this link to the outside world, is turned off by a cosmic force. It's then that the family nails themselves into their house, in honor of that other Pennsylvania supernatural catastrophe: the attack of the zombies in Night of the Living Dead.

Shyamalan is trying to let mood fill up the holes in his story, but there isn't enough to go around. He's in the position of many first-timers tackling a science fiction story, convinced that his ideas are fresh, merely because he hasn't seen them tested time and time again. Watching Signs, you're left with questions: When the whole world is yearning for a sight of the aliens, why does Hess completely forget about a live one locked in the closet? How can he be the only farmer in the country without a shotgun? If the aliens really hate water, why did they come to Pennsylvania in the summer, infamous for humidity and thunderstorms? And one last question: what was Shyamalan thinking?

Signs (PG-13; 106 min.), directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan, photographed by Tak Fujimoto and starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the August 1-7, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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