There are two types of people in the world, the distinction resting on how we interpret the incredible. One type sees only luck or coincidence. The other sees a sign or a miracle.
That’s what Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) says in “Signs,” the latest thriller from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable”). It opens in theaters today.
Graham is pondering such a weighty matter because he’s just discovered crop circles in his corn field in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Graham’s son, Morgan, and daughter, Bo, try to make sense of the crop circles. “I think God did it,” Morgan decides.
But Graham doesn’t want to hear any God talk—not after losing his wife in a car accident six months ago. The loss, you see, drove Graham to quit the ministry. His collar is gone, and so is his desire to be called “father” by those who know him.
But TV reports start showing more crop circles in India and England. Then UFOs commandeer Mexico City’s airspace, and Armageddon seems near. Hundreds of thousands flock to churches, synagogues and mosques in search of comfort and answers.
Graham’s younger brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix)—who moved in with Graham to help raise the kids—wants answers too. That’s when Graham unloads about the two types of people.
Merrill says he believes in miracles. Not Graham.
So with the world hanging in the balance, Graham has a crisis of faith. Will he see signs, or just coincidences? Will he have hope, or just despair?
“Signs” is a double-edged sword of a movie: One side cuts with sci-fi and thrills, the other with spiritual questions and quandaries. The latter will surprise those expecting the former. The former will knot those digesting the latter.
“Signs” is part Hitchcock, part Spielberg, all Shyamalan. Shyamalan cites Hitchcock’s “The Birds” as an early cinematic influence, and Shyamalan’s storytelling economy duplicates that of the master of suspense. Even the “Signs” score by James Newton Howard echoes Bernard Herrmann, who composed the memorable strains for Hitchcock.
“Signs” evokes several films, not least of which is Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” In “Encounters,” Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) tries to make sense of the image of a mountain he keeps seeing, carving and making. In “Signs,” the hook is something else: water.
Why does Bo keep filling glasses with water, taking a sip, then leaving the mostly full glasses around the house? What does that have to do with the price of tea in China? Plenty, it turns out.
Water, as a thematic element, suits Shyamalan well. It’s simple, human and spiritual. The same goes for the signs themselves—crop circles. And then there’s Morgan, whose ailment (asthma) emphasizes another basic human function: breathing.
Shyamalan knows how to spook audiences by showing them just enough, but not too much. He knows we’re more frightened if we’re not quite sure what’s on the roof, under the door or behind the cornstalk.
Yet, Shyamalan—like Spielberg with “Jaws”—eventually shows what everyone fears. An hour into the movie, a TV newscaster sets up footage of an alleged alien by giving the requisite, “What you’re about to see may disturb you.”
It may, it may not. But Shyamalan successfully satisfies our need to know, to see, to experience while simultaneously giving us room to doubt the footage was real. It could be a hoax—like the crop circles. Unlikely, but the sliver of doubt is what keeps us—and Graham—off-balance.
“Signs” is also quite funny, so be prepared to laugh as well as jump. The kids, for example, break tension by wearing tin foil on their heads so aliens can’t read their minds. Joaquin Phoenix improves the film immensely with his earthy wit.
Some moviegoers will likely be disappointed by “Signs” because it explores faith as much as flying saucers. It isn’t an expansive film by any means, but neither were “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable.”
“Signs” merely drops a cast of a few in a foggy field of faith. It’s scary. It’s funny. It’s probably not what folks were expecting.
Then again, neither is life, and that’s the point. So when the unexpected happens, which type of person are you?
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some frightening moments
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Father Graham Hess: Mel Gibson; Merrill Hess: Joaquin Phoenix; Morgan Hess: Rory Culkin; Bo Hess: Abigail Breslin