Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Signs

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

SIGNS

3/10

USA 2002 : M Night Shyamalan : 106 mins

A farmer in rural Pennsylvania, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is the doting father of two young children (Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin). A former preacher, he lost his faith after the death of his wife in a road-traffic accident caused by neighbour Ray Reddy (Shyamalan). Graham is helped out on his farm by younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a one-time baseball prodigy whose talent proved too erratic to sustain a professional career. One morning, the family discover vast, intricate crop circles have appeared in the fields around their home. Suspecting local troublemakers, Graham reports the incident to sympathetic local cop Officer Paski (Cherry Jones). As similar crop circles start popping up all over the world, the Hess family is soon glued to their TV set watching developments unfold: flying saucers hover menacingly over Mexico City, and at a Brazilian birthday party a shadowy green figure is briefly caught on camera. It isn ’t long before the Hesses come under direct threat themselves, in their own home …

Signs boasts a strong, original premise, and several moments of genuine tension  – the scene where Graham has a close encounter with an unseen figure trapped behind the door of Reddy ’s kitchen is a textbook exercise in nail-biting suspense. But it ’s no coincidence that this sequence is almost entirely wordless: Signs is, for much of its running time, a compendium of some of the most staggeringly awful dialogue heard in a mainstream Hollywood movie for years  – it ’s hard not to feel very sorry for Jones and Phoenix as they struggle valiantly to make sense of Shyamalan ’s lame lines. The least said about the director ’s bizarre self-casting in the small but crucial role of Ray Reddy, meanwhile, the better.

This hasn ’t stopped Signs from cleaning up at the US box office, however, marking a return to the moneyspinning form of Shyamalan ’s breakthrough third feature The Sixth Sense after the relative financial disappointment of Unbreakable, a wildly underrated gem which now sadly seems, in creative terms, something of a freakish blip. Shyamalan has even been hailed as  ‘the new Spielberg ’, with many critics pointing out the similarities between Signs and Spielberg ’s Close Encounters and E T. There are some parallels with those pictures, but the Spielberg title which Signs most resembles is the relatively little-seen TV movie Something Evil (1972) in which a family on a remote farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania is plagued by mysterious supernatural events.

Older viewers will also be reminded of another the classic Twilight Zone episode  ‘The Invaders ’, where Agnes Moorehead ’s resourceful old farm-wife battled an unwelcome alien visitation. But there ’s no way Twilight Zone maestro Rod Serling would have given house room to this baloney-strewn dog ’s breakfast of a screenplay.

Shyamalan is, quite clearly, a talented director (the opening camera-pan alone proves as much) but as a scriptwriter he ’s embarrassingly inept  – implausibility and ridiculousness set in very early, and by the time the showstoppingly cheesy Brazilian home-video comes around you may start to suspect that the whole thing is a deliberately shoddy spoof. Indeed, much of Signs is given over to a nervy-goofy kind of comedy  – with some delightful touches, such as Ted Sutton ’s pitch-perfect bit part as an amusingly robotic Army recruitment officer.

The repugnant solemnity of the final shot, however – coming after a desperately sloppy  “action ” climax – suggests Shyamalan has a genuinely serious intent beneath all the japes and old-school  ‘boo ’ scares. It ’s probably best not to examine these  ‘themes ’ too closely  – during the numerous turgid  ‘spiritual ’ interludes many viewers will be looking at their watch and waiting impatiently for the next  ‘scary bit ’. Because what Shyamalan does well, he does very well undeed – but he shares Merrill ’s unfortunate tendency to oscillate between startling brilliance and shattering incompetence. And that, as Merrill finds to his cost, is no route to the major leagues.

18th September, 2002
(seen 13th September, UGC Boldon)

by Neil Young